Goethe: Guns, Germs and Steel and the Croods

Johann Goethe argued that societal laws could not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create well-ordered societies and good laws (John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and others).

“Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1998.  Dr. Jared Diamond, also a polyglot (12 languages) and polymath, graduated with his bachelors in  anthropology and history in 1958 from Harvard University.  He earned a PhD in biophysics and physiology from Cambridge in 1961.  He went on to study fields of ornithology, ecology, environmental history, geography, and others.  He was rewarded The National Medal of Science in 1999, and is currently a professor of Geography at UCLA.

Diamonds book, was spawned by a question asked of him by a New Guinean man who helping him unload his Sea Plane during of one his many trips to study the culture and locals.  He asked Diamond, “Why do you people have so much Cargo?”  The people of New Guinea, are untouched by the wealth and technology that many of us have become so accustomed.  The man wanted to know why so much wealth.

Diamond set about applying his unique knowledge base and fascination with people, cultures, geography, history and his scientific prowess to answer that question.  The Title, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, outlines the central theme of his writing.  Technology (weapons), transmissible disease to before unknown pathogens (Small pox) and armor, and the like provided today’s wealthier countries with an enormous advantage over the poorer ones.  

In the book he outlines crucial differences in geography, that provided populations the opportunity for increasing wealth.  On smaller islands, in the South Pacific Polynesian culture for example, if the terrain allowed for agriculture, then the culture tended to be an economically stratified one.  Where resources could be stored up, wealth ensued.  If the land did not possess the potential for the growth of plantable harvests, then societies tended to be more egalitarian and passive.

In Hawaii, for example, where there was an abundance of flat and fertile land, wealth was stored from agriculture, Kings were crowned, a learned class of professionals developed to support the King and his ambitions and populations grew with the abundance.  The Fertile Crescent, in Mesopotamia, where agrarian societies flourished 5000 years ago, was the spark that began the worlds population explosion.  

Infectious diseases, like the Bubonic Plague in Europe and following the Silk Road to the East, were set backs as they leveled some areas with 50% reductions in population.  However, the survivors found themselves with more land and quickly more wealth with less competition and more real estate to go around.  

With the Gutenberg Printing Press, populations became literate and technologies soon followed.   The mini-Ice Age in the 18th century, caused the aristocracies from many European powers to fund conquistadors and explorers to seek out new lands and riches.  The microbes they brought with them decimated populations in all of the Americas.  Their superior fire power, armor and armored horses, and consistent written language allowed a hundred men, in some cases like the Inca of Peru, to easily defeat cities of 80,000 inhabitants and warriors. 

A more recent example of what has allowed for and supported our continuing population growth.  Fritz Haber was awarded the 1918 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for developing the Haber process.  It was the first commercially available process for synthesizing Ammonia, Nitrogen and Hydrogen gasses.  Used in both explosives, for which his Nazi party had much interest in, it also supplies the Nitrogen needed in fertilizers for food production that half of the worlds 7 billion inhabitants depend on.

Goethe 200 years ago, and his uncanny ability to see to the depths of so many things, intuited that geography and history has a large influence on populations, wealth and customs.  Diamond, like Darwin, Freud, Jung, Einstein and many many others, were either inspired directly or indirectly by the ideas and insights that this, today obscure intellectual, channeled into the world.

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