This book is inspired by just such a cross-cultural encounter as that between Kamal the border raider and the Colonel’s son of the Guides. In the first chapter the author recounts a conversation that he, a biologist studying bird evolution, had in New Guinea in 1972 with Yali, a local politician preparing his people for self-government, which culminated in the searching question ‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own’ [p. 14]. ‘Yali’s question’ plays a central role in Professor Diamond’s enquiry into ‘a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’, leading him into a wide-ranging discussion of the history of human evolution and diversity through a study of migration, socio-economic and cultural adaptation to environmental conditions, and technological diffusion. The result is an exciting and absorbing account of human history since the Pleistocene age, which culminates in a sketch of a future scientific basis for studying the history of humans that will command the same intellectual respect as current scientific studies of the history of other natural phenomena such as dinosaurs, nebulas and glaciers.
This is an ambitious project, and no reviewer can comment on all of it with equal authority. My own background as an historian of European expansion and Asian response over the last two hundred years requires me to take most of the account of prehistory on trust - which is a drawback since Diamond asserts that most of the really important influences on modern history had already occurred before the birth of Christ. To a non-specialist, the account of human prehistory presented here seems plausible and well-founded - the argument is that, as homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated to colonise first Asia, then Europe, then Australia, and finally the Americas, so a technical progression from hunting to settled agriculture, and a societal progression from warring bands to complex sedentary civilisations took place largely determined by the environmental conditions in which different branches of the same species found themselves. Where plants and animals could easily be domesticated, as in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, settled agriculture emerged first, and was then diffused to other suitable areas.
The development of surplus food-producing societies with high population densities provided humans with resistance to the diseases carried by their domesticated flocks, and facilitated other technological changes - especially the development of systems of specialised knowledge that led to advances in metallurgy, literacy and socio-economic organisation - primarily within the Eurasian supercontinent, and its outlying regions in the western Pacific and northern Africa, where the environment, and the geographical networks of migration, trade and communication, most favoured their spread. Diffusion is the key concept here - some continents and regions were more favourable than others, because of internal or external connections. As a result, when the scattered branches of the human species were reunited by trans-oceanic voyages and mercantile capitalism after 1500, Old World invaders had a decisive advantage over their New World cousins - the development of guns, germs and steel ensured that Europeans settled the Americas, Oceania and Southern Africa, eliminating or subduing local populations unable to resist them.
Professor Diamond’s main concern is to reject any simple racial explanation of the apparent differences in material culture between different regions of the planet. In particular, he argues that there is no essential difference in intelligence between races; indeed, those who are able to survive in harsh and dangerous environments, such as New Guinea, are likely to be more intelligent than those living a sheltered and sedentary existence in the United States, since mere survival requires much...