Monday, October 25, 2010


A review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, original) (2003, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning work dares to tackle one of the oldest, most difficult, and at times uncomfortable questions about development of human civilization. Why was it that the civilizations of the continent of Eurasia* achieve the most technological advancement, written language, productive farming techniques, and military power? Why were the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia technologically 'backward' by comparison?

For centuries the answers to these questions was racial and cultural supremacy, such as that the west was simply better than the other 'lesser' peoples. We now quickly and correctly identify such thoughts as hateful, racist, and counter-productive, but questions still remain and often we do not know how to begin to ask them. In recent times the trend for historical revisionists is to try to focus on the strengths of the conquered cultures and explaining that their down fall was due to disease or dishonorable trickery. Nevertheless, more questions remain, if disease was such a factor why was it only one way, and why were the Europeans able to fool their opponents at times easily? Diamond dares to try to tackle these questions head on.

“The time is now ripe for a fresh look at these questions, because of new information from scientific disciplines seemingly remote from human history. Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing and political organization.”p.26

Diamond rejects all of the racist and revisionist arguments pointing out that no race or group of people is stronger, smarter, more capable, creative, or more cruel and ruthless. All humans are the same—that is not to say that all individuals are the same and equally as capable, but any large group of humans is just as good as any other. There is no 'master race,' no group of human beings proven superior to every other group of human beings. Diamond successful argues that since people adapt to their environment, often environmental factors determine how a civilization will develop. A good example would be a person from Florida who would find Maine winters intolerable and while someone from Maine would like wise find Floridian summers unbearable. Humans are creatures of their environment and the societies they build are products of the environment as well.

Various environmental factors such as how fertile the land is, what types of crops grow, the abundance of large animals that can domesticated, and geographic features. Australia, with rare exception, has terrible land for farming which is why its native population was still in the Stone Age in the 1800s, the Americas have no great animals capable of domestication that put them in at a great military and physical disadvantage. Without great beasts to domesticate they would miss out on a good source of food and would have no Calvary. Animals were also the source of diseases that the Europeans were able to build immunities that peoples native to the Americas were not.

Diamond's narrative is a bit difficult and technical even for an advanced reader. Although when he discusses his personnel adventures his narrative becomes more clear, the center chapters that focus and agriculture and farm animals are very tough to plow through. I highly recommend this book, but it is something to be tackled more at the graduate level.

*One thing that I strongly agree with Diamond on, is that Europe and Asia are not two continents but one big continent.

{Video is part of the National Geographic series on Diamond's book}

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A review of Bill Bryson's *A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

(5 of 5)

Bill Bryson is full of wit and humor in his little book about everything we know and how we know it. Bryson's book tackles how the universe, the sun, and the world formed. It also explores the atoms, human evolution, the nature of water and anything else you could ever want to know. In addition to answering the greater questions he also explains how we know things and the people who helped us figure it all out.

Bryson makes it very clear why he is doing this, science, although something he was always interested in, was presented in the most boring and dull manner possible. As a history buff I must concur. I to have experienced this, not only with science, but also but history and literature. A great deal of professional academics seem to devote their time in making the most fascinating very dull.

“My own starting point, for what it's worth, was an illustrated science book that I had as a classroom text when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook—battered, unloved, grimly hefty—but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cut-away diagram showing the Earth's interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before dinner—an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was alright—and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here's the thing. It wasn't exciting at all. It wasn't actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it did not answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal inquiring mind: How did we end with a Sun in the middle of our planet? And if it is burning away down there, why isn't the rest of the interior melting—or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sink hole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure out?”(p.4-5)

One the most enjoyable aspects of the book is not only the discoveries made, but also the work that went into discovering them and the politics and personnel quirks of the scientists. The science community is also featured in this work with all its bias and foibles. If someone, like myself, saw scientists as being purely logical devoid of silly biases normally associated with religious fanatics and political groups, then reading this book will be an enormous shock. Scientists, it appears, can often have huge egos that become a disservice to the general public.

“With his pipe, genially self-effacing manner and electrified hair, Einstein was too splendid a figure to remain permanently obscure, and in 1919, the war was over, the world suddenly discovered him. Almost at once his theories of relativity developed a reputation for being impossible for an ordinary person to grasp. Matters were not helped, as David Badanis points out in his suburb book E=mc2,when the New York Times decided to do a story and—for reasons that can never fail to excite wonder—sent the paper's golfing correspondent, one Henry Crouch, to conduct the interview.

Crouch was hopelessly out of his depth, and nearly got everything wrong. Among the more lasting errors in his report was the assertion that Einstein had found a publisher daring enough to publish a book that only twelve men 'in all the world could comprehend.' There was no such book no such publisher, and no such circle of learned men, but the notion stuck anyway. Soon the number of people who could grasp relativity had been reduced even further in the popular imagination—and the scientific establishment, it must be said, did little to disturb the myth.

When a journalist asked the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington if it was true he was one of only three people in the world who could understand Einstein's relativity theories, Eddington considered deeply for a moment and replied: 'I am trying to think who the third person is.' In fact, the problem with relativity wasn't that it involved a lot of differential equations, Lorentz transformations, and other complicated mathematics (though it did—even Einstein needed help with some of it), but that it was just so thoroughly nonintuitive.” p.124


I highly recommend this fun, entertaining and enlightening book to anyone. It will show why Pluto was not a planet— and the fact that we thought it was is rather ridiculous— why leaded gas was so horrible, and why water is so weird. In this book you will find that great scientific minds not only come from universities but also from the janitor's closet and a patent office.

{Video was posted on Youtube by Sonnett7}