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Guns, Germs, Steel: Implications of evolutionary biology for politics?

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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-19-04 04:42 PM
Original message
Guns, Germs, Steel: Implications of evolutionary biology for politics?
I'm reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and I've just gotten to the meat of his argument, namely, that the world is as it is, with Europeans and Americans dominating everyone else, because of multiple variables having more to do with climate and global distribution of domesticable plants and animals than with the superiority of one culture over the other. It's a compelling, carefully laid out argument that completely devastates racist explanations for Western dominance.

It struck me as I was reading about the evolution of human organization from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states that Libertarians--especially the most extreme kinds, like the so-called anarcho-capitalists--have got it all wrong. (Of course, I came to this conclusion from another angle years ago, but that's another thread.) Libertarians argue that the free market is the apotheosis of human economic development, that government interference with it is an evil that would best be eradicated by ultimately eliminating government entirely. Of course this position is not based on evidence or historical example but on plain old wishful thinking, apparently based on "nostalgia" for a pre-state society that never actually existed.

It's as though Libertarians believe a capitalist economics can be superimposed on a tribal society. Capitalism, however, is fundamentally anti-egalitarian: you need classes of owners and laborers, producers and consumers, in order for it to work. But that's not how tribes work. Tribes, as Diamond points out, are fundamentally egalitarian--fundamentally communist, in fact. Once a society reaches a certain level of complexity, in which people are as likely to be strangers as they are acquaintances, government becomes essential to regulate the inequalities.

This analysis might explain why communism and anarchism may ultimately fail, as well: human society is on an evolutionary track that is simply too complex for utopia of any kind. We require government to keep ourselves from killing each other over inequities; paradoxically, government is inherently anti-egalitarian (in that government itself, and anyone who embodies it, represents concentrated power).

I'd be interested to see how this book has influenced the thought of others who have read it.
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RoadRunner Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-19-04 04:58 PM
Response to Original message
1. It's a brilliant book.
Diamond totally debunks the "racist" views of history that say we're here and have the stuff we have because Europeans are somehow superior to native peoples.

I have heard that he is working on another book that looks at the evolution of economic systems and I eagerly await it. He is one brilliant writer.
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 01:04 AM
Response to Reply #1
4. Apparently he just finished one about sex.
It's called something like "Why Is Sex So Fun?"
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muriel_volestrangler Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jul-19-04 05:11 PM
Response to Original message
2. I liked it a lot
though I wouldn't say it's 'evolutionary biology' it talks about - the biology is pretty much limited to the domesticability of animals, the possible spread of domesticated animals and plants, and resistance to disease (I suppose the last is a sort of evolutionary biology).

I agree it does a lot to knock down libertarian arguments, by saying that the more complex a society, the more it needs precise laws to keep it running, because we are strangers, so can't use personal knowledge to make judgements on people.

I was also interested in the idea of religion as being invented to reinforce the rule of monarchs or other autocrats - that, to persuade people that a few have the right to enforce rules and make judgements, they claim higher powers of which they are the agent - and the larger and more centralised the society, the larger and more centralised the religion. The implication of this is that in a democracy where legitimate power is openly seen to come from the people, there's no longer the need to pretend a higher power exists, at least as a single being.
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 01:03 AM
Response to Reply #2
3. Evolutionary sociology is probably more apt.
I was thinking about that too long after I posted to edit the title of the thread, alas.

About religion's role in undergirding the monopoly of force: I thought that was a very interesting point as well. If books had as much direct influence on popular culture as they did 100 years ago, GG&S would probably be lighting many a bonfire now.

Interesting that he comes right out and calls taxation/tribute "kleptocracy." Now that's something that would appeal to Libertarians!
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bossfish Donating Member (789 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 01:31 AM
Response to Original message
5. BEST BOOK I'VE READ IN THE LAST TEN YEARS..
will comment later
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 02:39 PM
Response to Original message
6. kick
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giant_robot Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 02:46 PM
Response to Original message
7. A great book
I read it a few years ago, and this discussion makes me want to read it again. Unfortunately, like most books I get enthusiastic over, I lent it out and never got it back.
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 02:54 PM
Response to Reply #7
8. Welcome to DU!
:toast:

Sorry you lost that book, of all books to lose. It's enough to make one swear of book lending forever, I bet.
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giant_robot Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 04:34 PM
Response to Reply #7
13. Actually...
I've lost my copy of A Clockwork Orange since then. It was republished with the "lost" 21st chapter. Also a very good read, and rather short.

I just remembered that I have 2-3 Border's gift certificates left over from x-mas. I just might use them to replace my losses to delinquent borrowers. :)
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Blue Wally Donating Member (974 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 08:40 PM
Response to Reply #7
17. me2
I have bought at least a dozen copies over the years. I keep givung them away
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Salluc Donating Member (46 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 03:30 PM
Response to Original message
9. And it's not just race or supremacy
I loved this book and I thought it was interesting that there are multiple ways to extrapolate from Diamond's observations. For instance, here's Bill Gates' take-away:

"Guns, Germs and Steel lays a foundation for understanding human history, which makes it fascinating in its own right. Because it brilliantly describes how chance advantages can lead to early success in a highly competitive environment, it also offers useful lessons for the business world and for people interested in why technologies succeed."
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 03:58 PM
Response to Reply #9
11. Is that really what Bill Gates got out of it?!
Edited on Tue Jul-20-04 04:30 PM by BurtWorm
Welcome to DU, by the way. :toast:
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Salluc Donating Member (46 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 04:21 PM
Response to Reply #11
12. Thanks Burt!
It's nice to have found a home :)
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Lydia Leftcoast Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 03:32 PM
Response to Original message
10. One of my favorite reads of the past few years
Diamond outlines the natural advantages that the "cradle of civilization" in the Middle East had in terms of two different cereal grains (wheat and barley) and easily domesticated animals (cows, donkeys, sheep, goats), as well as the way disease has influenced history (African slaves replacing Native American slaves on Caribbean plantations because they had resistance to Old World diseases) to fascinating case studies of isolated ethnic groups actually losing technologies or skills over the years.

You find out why the Australian Aborigines remained hunter gatherers for 50,000 years (hint: It wasn't because of any "inferiority") and why the settled civilizations in the New World were concentrated in what is now Latin America.

In the introduction, Diamond says that he began writing the book after doing wildlife research in Papua-New Guinea. One of the local people who worked with him asked why the West was so advanced and his country was not. From working with the locals, Diamond knew that it was NOT because they were stupid, so he began looking for th answers.

You still encounter people who think that Africans or other dark-skinned people are "inferior" because their technology lagged behind that of the West. This book says, "Wait a minute. Here's another explanation."
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SavageWombat Donating Member (187 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 04:43 PM
Response to Original message
14. I think there's an additional point missing
In order to progress from the "communist" tribal nature to a "capitalist" system, you need to have people who have more money than they could produce with their own labor.

In the annals of human history, this has meant one thing - conquer another tribe and enslave the survivors. Thus, you and your buds get out of working for a living.

Go far enough back in any "elite" bloodline, whether noble or wealthy, and you'll find warlords. A government has its basis in a bunch of guys with swords who sat down and said - "You guys give us food, and we'll protect you from the other guys with swords who want your food."

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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 07:57 PM
Response to Original message
15. Good explanation of the rise of state society and imperialism
I listed Diamond's factors pushing in favor of it as one of the difficulties we will have in getting rid of it. Factors for and against below.

http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.ph...
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ImThatOneGuy Donating Member (49 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 08:23 PM
Response to Original message
16. Rebuttal of Diamond's Assertions
I've read Guns, Germs, and Steel and I must disagree with his
assessment that variables such as favorable climate and
geographical distribution has influenced the rise of West.  

The perfect rebuttal to Diamond's assertions is provided by
Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture, which states
convincingly that it is the traditions of freedom,
individualism, citizen soldiers, and civilian audit that has
facilitated Western dominance.  

Civilizations such as the Aztecs and the imperial Chinese
also were endowed with favorable climates, rich fertile
farmland, and sat upon a treasure trove of natural resources.
 Yet their empires collapsed under European intrusion because
they lacked the freedom and individualism that allowed for
adaptation in battle and in developing technology that could
rival the Europeans.  

In the end, freedom (which is relative compared to our times)
both in government and in personal individuals creates the
catalyst for the formation of a durable and adaptable body of
citizen soldiers, which provides the most flexible and
therefore most effective fighting force.    
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Blue Wally Donating Member (974 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 08:44 PM
Response to Reply #16
18. Diamond explains
Why the Aztec and other Amerind civilizations were so fragile. The weakness in Diamond's book comes at the end where, after he has explained why Eurasia is superior, he tries to say why Europe (and the European derived colonial populations)are superior to the middle east and asia populations. His arguments there are not as convincing as his arguments for naturalcauses leading to the superiority of Eurasia civilizations over those of other continents.
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enki23 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 09:21 PM
Response to Reply #16
21. now *there* is a load o' silliness
Edited on Tue Jul-20-04 09:22 PM by enki23
"concepts of freedom" my ass.
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enki23 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 08:53 PM
Response to Original message
19. the most important lesson to be taken from that book,
Edited on Tue Jul-20-04 09:23 PM by enki23
and one of the most important things to realize about evolution in general, is that no species is on an "evolutionary track." not ours, not any of them. "track" implies directed proceeding toward a destination. evolution doesn't do that. nothing, in fact, does that.

the second most important lesson is that natural selection has had a very small effect on human evolution since well before the dawn of what we call civilization. not only is this true of actual evolution of the species, but it's true of the evolution of our social order, or knowledge, our civilization. the course of human civilization in every part of the earth has been almost solely governed by random events, environmental constraints, and all other kinds of small and large scale contingencies. our genes have mattered little, if at all, in the differential expansion and development of human civilizations.

as for communism and anarchism and facism and capitalism and democracy and monarchy and oligarchy and every other combination of cultural structure and authority... evolution doesn't teach us anything about them whatsoever. i'd say there are no lessons to be learned exclusively from evolutionary mechanisms and history that we can apply to our society. not one. our social order is what we make it.

imho
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GAspnes Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jul-20-04 08:54 PM
Response to Original message
20. a thought-provoking book
and a credible hypothesis. Like you, I didn't need Diamond's book to refute the concept of unregulated 'pure' capitalism as a possible successful societal organizing principle. I think your thesis is correct -- rules arise to manage the complexity of large social organizations, and are inevitable.
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