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.

 

The Economic Laws of Scientific Research by Terence Kealey: A Short(ish) Review (Part 1)

Now, during the week I toil on the engineering plantation so when I’m released from bondage every Friday the last thing I want to do is think (or read) about scientific research or the economic laws that govern it.  I want to read about galactic overlords or underlords or possibly space princesses in space bikinis.  When I’m feeling particularly engaged with reality I like to read about the local Galactic Overlord Trump skewering interplanetary morons from the failed newspaper The New York Times.  But someone I’ve known forever and who is extremely smart sent me this book and told me to read it.

Well, with all the good grace of a man walking to the gallows I acquiesced and read the damn thing.  So, I am shocked that I not only read this book but that I’m glad I did.

I do not recommend reading this book unless you’re interested in the financing of research and development.  Instead, let me tell you what this book says and why it’s interesting and important.  Then if it seems like something you want to delve into, have at it.

This first post will deal with the preliminaries.  The first substantial chapter is called Francis Bacon and Adam Smith.  Basically, he states that there is a dichotomy of opinion in the scientific world about how knowledge, technological innovation and economic growth are related.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) who was revered by the intelligentsia of his and following generations proposed the following model:

Government Funded Academic Research → Pure Science → Applied Science (or Technology) → Economic Growth

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) who wrote “The Wealth of Nations” is still revered today for his views on capitalism.  He disagreed with Bacon’s model (based on the evidence of innovation in his own time) and his model can be outlined as:

 

That Adam Smith is right and Francis Bacon is wrong is the premise of this book.  Kealey also gives some details about Bacon’s life that pretty conclusively prove that Bacon was the biggest tool of the Elizabethan era.  As Attorney General under Elizabeth I he apparently personally supervised the torture of defendants to elicit confessions.  He also back-stabbed his own patron Robert Earl of Essex when it was convenient.  Now your knowledge of classic Hollywood films of the thirties will remind you that Bette Davis and Errol Flynn were the eponymous stars of “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.”  Donald Crisp played Francis Bacon in this epic and history has obviously pronounced its verdict against Bacon with this casting.  So, I will say no more.

The last topic for this first post is the Chapter entitled, “Research and Development in Antiquity.”  I am sort of an antiquities fan.  All things roman and greek are of interest to me.  So I was surprised to find that this chapter opened my eyes to a way of looking at the difference between ancient and modern life.  I had often wondered that such intelligent and inquisitive peoples as the Greeks and Romans never moved past primitive muscle powered methods of life into something more dynamic like steam power.  After all, Alexandrian science of Ptolemaic Egypt had used steam power to propel toys for the king’s court.  Why had they never made the leap to using it to power more useful engines for industry or commerce?  I found the answer here.  They didn’t apply it because nobody wanted the application.  The Macedonian kings of Egypt and the Roman emperors after them employed these geniuses like Archimedes to build toys (or at best design war engines).  These royal patrons assembled the brightest minds of the age and lavishly funded their researches into everything from pure mathematical study to astronomy, physics and medicine.  They sponsored this research out of love of knowledge and vanity to out-compete their rival kingdoms.  But practical commercial applications were not desired.  Designing manufacturing improvements would merely displace slaves who tilled the fields and rowed the galleys and dug in the mines.  The king and emperor had more than enough slaves to make him as rich as anyone (even a god/emperor) could want to be.

This chapter demonstrated that technological innovation only occurred away from empires.  So, the earlier small city states of Phoenicia and old Greece were a hot bed of innovation.  Here were found merchant cities that traded with all the corners of the Mediterranean and invented the convenient alphabet rather than the sacred hieroglyphics and coined gold and silver as a way of spurring trade.  Ship building and navigation were important technologies and other innovations were learned from all corners of the sea.  The use of iron, improvements in the plow were learned during their trading activities.  And they were capitalistic states.  They were in the poorest of farming lands and they survived (and greatly prospered) by trade.  But as soon as Greece discovered its strength and consolidated into larger states and expanded into the larger world, slave labor became the answer to all its problems.  And once Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, the template for how an empire would be run was established.  From that point it was basically the same system as all the Fertile Crescent empires that had come before and innovation was a problem not a solution.  Plow your field, give a third to the temple, a third to the King and hope the new barbarians don’t burn the town down when they come through.   The Romans followed the same pattern.  Early independence and innovation (although much less ambitious than the Greeks) followed by imperial control of all facets of life with precious little need for innovation because of the realities of a slave labor economy.

I will quote from the last two paragraphs of the chapter to summarize.

“The empire collapsed not for a lack of Hellenistic science – there was plenty of that – but because it abandoned capitalism.  It was a plunder empire not a market empire.”

“The fall of the Graeco-Roman hegemony teaches that the government funding of academic science will not generate useful technology in the absence of an appropriate capitalist economy.”

This guy Kealey is pretty smart.  He answered something that’s puzzled me for many years.  Why those intelligent folks never invented the steam engine.  It also shows the fallacy of that Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses.”  The Romans would never have had automobiles.  But they would have had TV eventually.  It would keep the slaves happy.