The 10,000 Year Explosion – A Book Review

I just finished reading Gregory Cochran’s and Henry Harpending’s 2010 book “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.”  In some senses this book seems to be a rebuttal of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies.”  Diamond’s thesis was that geography was the basis for all the differences between the levels of human technological progress across the world.  The underlying message of Diamond’s book is that all humans are exactly the same biologically.  An Australian Aborigone and Albert Einstein are equally likely to discover general relativity as long as they were both living in Eurasia at the right time in the right place.  In my review of Diamond’s book I stated that the results of geographic isolation clearly had great impact on the ability of neighboring peoples to benefit from the latest technological technology discoveries.  But I also doubted that this provided any proof that there were no meaningful differences between different human population groups.

“The Ten Thousand Year Explosion” is the answer to Diamond’s assertion on equivalence of human populations.  Cochran and Harpending provide a thesis on why human populations would differ and then a litany of examples of where they do.  The book is a fascinating story of how modern humans expanded out of Africa at the end of the last Ice Age and interacted and replaced the archaic humans who preceded them in colonizing Eurasia.  It is truly amazing that in a few short years Neanderthals and other archaic humans have gone from a few bones sitting in a museum display to creatures whose DNA can be compared gene by gene with our own.  Cochran and Harpending examine the genetic evidence and put forth the case that hybridization of modern humans with Neanderthals in Europe is the most likely explanation for the explosion of genetic and cultural changes that occurred when these two human populations interacted.  Their thesis is that the introduction of new alleles (genetic options) gave these humans added flexibility to adapt to their new environment and this led to selection for physical and mental characteristics that in turn gave rise to advances in agriculture, technology, culture and language.

Another message that Cochran and Harpending stress is that human evolution has not slowed even now.  A final example to reinforce this idea is the case of the Ashkenazi Jews.  Cochran and Harpending analyze the history of the Ashkenazi people and the genetic linkage between their higher average intelligence as a group and a number of genetic diseases that are linked to brain function.  He points out that these changes occurred in a period of less than a thousand years and are the result of natural selection reinforced by reproductive isolation and selective advantage based on occupation.

The 10,000 Year Explosion is a fascinating book.  You’ll learn that there literally was a tribe that gave rise to all the Indo-European speaking tribes (Celts and Greeks and Romans and Slavs and Germans and Aryans) and that this pastoral tribe went on to conquer and mix with people over half of Eurasia because they could digest lactose in milk.  And they were epic poets in Ireland, Greece and India.  The book is full of interesting facts and thought provoking ideas.  And I think it will convince most people that Jared Diamond is only looking at half the story by neglecting the genetic and other physical evidence about human history that is now available to scientists.  It turns out nature and nurture are inextricably linked and progress breeds change and vice versa.  We continue to change and to deny this is silly and counterproductive.

Guns, Germs and Steel – A Book Review

“Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond is an extremely interesting book about what factors might be responsible for the varied trajectories that technological progress has taken in different times and places and by different peoples around the world.

Diamond reviews the history of the two most advanced civilizations found on Eurasia, namely the Far Eastern Kingdom of China and the Euro-Middle Eastern complex of cultures that succeeded from the Sumerians.  He catalogs the series innovations that occurred since the end of the Last Ice Age that catapulted humanity from the Stone Age to the Space Age in the space of 13,000 years.  Now this sounds like a long time but compare it to the hundreds of thousands of years in which the only progress was advances in stone spearhead technology.

Next, we are walked through the other civilizations that existed around the world.  We meet the new world cultures in mesoamerica and the andes.  We follow the Austronesians as they go from Taiwan to every island between Madagascar and Easter Island.  We meet the various peoples inhabiting sub-Saharan.  And we meet the Australian aborigines and the inhabitants of the New Guinea highlands.  And we watch as these primitive cultures collide with the modern Europeans.  And we see how the Guns, Germs and Steel of the title decimate these primitive cultures.

And finally, Diamond explains how the vicissitudes of geography are completely responsible for the difference between Albert Einstein and Yali the genius of the New Guinea highlands.  Apparently we are all exactly the same.  I know this because Mr. Diamond repeats it liberally throughout the text just in case you aren’t paying close attention.

And I will admit that many of the points are very persuasive.  It is quite interesting how the Austronesian people developed along entirely different technological trajectories depending on what were the resources of the various islands they ended up on.  So, those that ended up on New Zealand or Hawaii were able to progress to agricultural societies while those on wretched dots of land like the Chatham Islands barely clung to life as hunter gatherers.  And the great advantages of inhabitants of Eurasia are fairly convincing.  Being able to borrow from civilizations in all directions around you surely helped the people of Europe to advance rapidly.  But when at the end of the book he hunts for a reason as to why European culture was able to outperform the Chinese and other Asian cultures in the colonial period he rather weakly claims that the comparative isolation of Europe due to the fragmentation into peninsulas and islands was the reason.  To me this seems to be a case of blowing hot and cold.  Or possibly the Doctrine of the Three Bears.  This place is too isolated, this place is not isolated enough but this place is isolated just right!  Seems a bit weak.

Well anyway, I learned a good bit about early human civilization.  I also found out that the modern Japanese came from the Korean people.  But I’m not sure I really believe that the Australian Aborigines are really that close to their own space program.  But Mr Diamond thinks they are.  Good luck with that.

It’s a good book and highly interesting.  I recommend it if you can ignore the virtue signaling.