Guns, Germs, and Steel- a reader’s exercise

At the moment I am about 2/3 of the way through Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Basically it’s a history of human civilization written by a scientist, trying to uncover root the root causes for the success and failure of civilizations around the world while attempting to destroy the racist and culturalist theories behind the common ‘rise of the west’ narrative. With this rolling around in my head, here is my off the cuff (and in true blog style, completely unedited) attempt at a response to a post over on the blog, in which Chirol argues that Arab cultural values are responsible for their current material backwardness. I don’t normally post this sort of thing here, but it may lead to some interesting comments.

It seems to me that the failure of the Arab world is not at heart a result of their culture, but their lack of significant exploitable natural resources aside from oil. Yes, oil makes a lot of money for them, but it requires only a very, very small percentage of the population to actually exploit it to its maximum potential, creating no incentive for the rest of the population to work. One could argue that in effect, the culture is backwards because there are few good ways for them to modernize in a material fashion.

Why is the West advanced and the Arab world behind? Due to the allocation of natural resources, the industrial revolution could only have happened in Western Europe (or possibly China), and the Middle East was too far away from deposits of iron and coal necessary for industrialization to make such innovations realistic. Only in the later stages of industrialization, when we began using engines that ran on liquid fuel instead of coal did the region have anything of material worth to offer the modern world, and it is only a single raw resource destined for export, not raw materials that could become the bases of a production oriented economy.

Oil is basically the only source of wealth in the Middle East, and it is for the most part controlled and profited from exclusively by the elites. Look at the Saudi family, and the former Saddam Hussein regime. The only places where most of the population is actually well off are those such as Dubai, where oil money is redistributed through a socialist benefits system that works because there’s so damn much money they don’t even have to worry about managing the economy. It’s not even ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ everyone just gets free money without having to work at all. Sure, everyone gets a free education, even fully-subsidized study abroad if they want, but to what end? How many of the people you have met in your life would in fact work hard under such conditions, when failure presents no threat of want?

Regardless of whatever ‘cultural values’ people in the Middle East possess, I don’t see how their economies and societies can realistically modernize under the dual strangle hold of oil and autocratic government. If democracy genuinely takes hold in Iraq than we may have the opportunity to make an interesting experimental comparison, but it still remains to be seen how much the free oil money may retard genuine development there as well. Perhaps if they follow Norway’s example, and put the bulk of the money in a kind of trust fund and use some to fund contemporary development of other industries they will actually be able to succeed.

You cite above “Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure” as a trait of “failing cultures.” It seems to me that in fact success and failure are to a large degree determined by ones environment, and the current environment of the Middle East, awash in oil but no other opportunities, is one which offers precious little hope for more than a small minority to improve their personal circumstances significantly. The other conservative social and religious values on your list make more sense when you realize that religion is primarily the refuge of the weak, there is nothing like the promise of Heaven to justify one’s sorry lot on Earth, and nothing like calling those who are more successful than you infidels or heretics to sooth one’s self esteem.

13 thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel- a reader’s exercise”

  1. It seems to be almost more the presence of oil rather than the lack of other natural resources that causes the problem. It’s not like Singapore or Hong Kong have much in the way of natural resources. Sure, they’re pretty good trading ports, but it’s not like places in the Middle East couldn’t do that.

  2. Similarly, there are plenty of South American countries that had per capita wealth similar to (and in some cases exceeding) the US in the 19th and early 20th century along with impressive natural resources, including navigable rivers.

    Natural resources are clearly important, but properly making use of them doesn’t happen automatically. And even nations without much in the way of them can do well, as mentioned.

  3. Singapore and Hong Kong succeeded because, and only because, they were effective trading ports. Hong Kong was for decades the sole significant trading gateway between Communist China and the West/Japan, and trade (whether in physical goods of financial services) still is and probably always will be the primary money maker in the territory.

    Singapore was likewise a trade gateway to SE Asia, particular neighboring Malaysia, of which is was even a part of for a short time.

    Dubai’s success is attributable to similar cirumstances to that of Hong Kong, but the fully subsidized lifestyle of both Dubai and Qatar (the other ultra rich Gulf mini-state) does not seem to encourage real innovation. Regardless, trading ports are of less benefit in the region than they were in SE and E Asian. In contrast to China or Malaysia or Thailand, there seems to be very little chance of any Middle Eastern states turning into the sort of manufacturing center that would actually lead to more inland development.

    As for those formerly well-off South American states you mentioned, in many areas illegal drugs have had a similar destabalizing effect to that of oil in the Middle East. Perhaps any single natural (or in the case of narcotics, easily farmeable) resource of overwhelming value leads to corruption and overall retarded economic and social development.

  4. Natural resources aren’t as important as they’re cracked up to be. The most developed countries in the Middle East have NO resources at all. Israel and Jordan, Tunesia even. The ones that do are going nowhere fast. Yet, some countries with tme do very well like the US and Canada. Thus, its not the natural resources themselves that makes the big difference anymore but rather the people there and how they use them.

  5. Israel is so highly developed because it is a highly unusual case of a country populated almost entirely by well educated and often wealthy immigrants. Natural resources are not necessarily as important to a post-industrial economy such as Israel (which is strong in high tech and IT), but for a barely undustrialized economy such as most of the remainder of the Middle East, they do need something to support the majority of the population during the intermediary stages on the path to a post-industrial economy. Israel may not have natural resources, but it has human resources that other countries in the area lack, because Israel is not a country that developed on its own, but something more akin to a colony of transplanted elites from other more highly developed countries.

    And not that I didn’t just say that the problem was a lack of natural resources, but a lack of all natural resources EXCEPT for oil. The fact that oil requires little more than exploitation by the elite class for them to receive benefit puts in in a different class of natural resource from those that require a large industrial complex to fully exploit. Diamonds could be another similar example, or perhaps narcotics.

  6. “As for those formerly well-off South American states you mentioned, in many areas illegal drugs have had a similar destabalizing effect to that of oil in the Middle East.”

    That hardly explains the decline of Uruguay, “the Switzerland of the Americas,” in the early 20th century. Brazil’s relative decline far preceded the advent of illegal drugs, despite being endowed with navigable rivers, ports, and massive natural resources. It’s relative high point was much earlier (due indeed in part to lacking the benefical governments of Uruguay and Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Argentina was incredibly wealthy in the early 20th century, thanks to many natural and human benefits, including its excellent constitution and following the beliefs of the great economist Juan Bautista Alberdi. Its per capita income exceeded Spain and was equal to Germany and the Benelux nations at the outbreak of World War I. Its foreign trade exceeded Canada’s and was a quarter of the US’s. Buenos Aires was the second largest city on the Atlantic, with massive trade and investment. It’s not illegal drugs that harmed Argentina either. Political troubles, culminating in the 1943 coup, and subsequent rule by Peron (and bad economics) did most of the damage.

    Did geography make the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance inevitable in 19th century South America? I don’t think so. Paraguay in particular was utterly devastated. Fanaticism that made Paraguay fight on until two-thirds of its adult males died was more important than geography.

    Geography is certainly important, but Dr. Diamond overstates it, like anyone with a theory. The counterexamples are too numerous to mention. Successful societies do successfully exploit their natural resources, but they also create resources where none existed before. As they say, sand is not a resource until you invent integrated circuits and have a use for silicon. So was oil until technology found a use for it. While natural resources help, in the family of nations there are too few nations which have even managed to successfully use what they do have that it makes little sense to focus on geography so much. Hong Kong and Singapore are hardly the only locations favorable to be trading ports. Reducing everything to geography and resources is as silly as reducing everything to culture or historical events.

    It does seem like oil is almost a curse, though. Countries with oil rarely handle it well at all.

  7. I think Diamond’s theories are, perhaps, less applicable today than they were in the past. Or maybe they only really apply on a time scale large enough so that everything we are discussing here seems like a blip. Either way, you are right to say that the explanatory power of his theory, as good as it is, is not in fact complete.

    I’m afaid that I don’t really know enough about South America and don’t have time to do the research that I would need to adequately continue this line of discussion, but I will add this. There are actually several countries with oil where it is not an overwhelmingly corrupting factor, but these are all countries which also have a lot of other things going for them. Canada, USA, Norway, Russia, and some others all have decent amounts of oil, but also have other resources and industries, as well as populations of qualified experts necessary for the functioning of a modern state.

    If you look at the title of this blog post, you’ll notice that I called it “a reader’s exercise.” I’m not necessarily a believer that Diamond’s theories of geography can explain everything about human societal development, but I just read the book this week and I’m trying out his arguments on a different example. Think of it like an interactive book review. By playing around with his theory instead of just reading and forgetting I can think about it deeply enough to decide what I really think about its validity, and discussion helps.

    By the way, interesting that you should mention silicon and sand. Did you know that there is a silicon shortage? Of course there’s plenty of sand, but the facilities needed to refine high quality pure silicon crystals are very expensive, and the combined growth of the microelectronics and solar power industries may required hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment in new silicon processing plants.

  8. There are actually several countries with oil where it is not an overwhelmingly corrupting factor, but these are all countries which also have a lot of other things going for them.

    Yeah. It’s a tough question, certainly. Geography and natural resources can help a nation flourish and develop good institutions. On the other hand, good institutions can help one develop natural resources. There are many theories of history out there, all of them pointing to some hugely significant factor that shapes history. (Great Man theories, theories of luck, theories of culture and work ethic, everything else.) Reality is probably a mix of a lot of them.

    Diamond’s book claims that Europeans did so well because the horse was such an excellent candidate for being domesticated, unlike the native animals on other continents. Yet at the same time he shows how corn was domesticated over thousands of years from a wild plant whose cobs were incredibly tiny to one whose cobs were about the size of a thumb, and then to the modern size we have today. If it took so long to domesticate corn from a starting point so far away but it happened, perhaps those other native animals weren’t all that impossible to domesticate. Maybe it just worked out better or someone had more patience. It’s very hard to know.

    Sometimes the book smacks of hindsight bias. Something happened, so it had to happen that way. What was domesticated was the easiest to domesticate. Hard to say. Good governments and natural resources go together. However, good governments often develop new types of natural resources and ways to productively use their people and their people’s ingenuity. It’s hard to blame him too much for the overselling that pretty much anyone does with their pet theory, though.

    On the subject of useful, though, I do often think that it’s better to focus on what can be changed, like culture and government, than what cannot, like luck and geography, even though all may play a role. (And of course not to focus on pernicious things like race.) Even if geography plays a large role, culture and government can still affect things a lot. Argentina is one piece of evidence for that. So is Botswana, in Africa. Botswana is fairly wealthy, by African standards. It also has a good supply of diamonds and a long-lived stable multiparty democracy. Which came first? Which caused the other? How do they all interlink? Tough questions. But most African states would do better not to moan about their lack of diamonds but to concentrate on the stable democracy and rule of law.

  9. Consider the history of Japan. Japan became massively more wealthy and powerful after the Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration. The underlying geography didn’t change all that much.

    The oil point, I think is very true. Many have noted that nations with oil alone tend to be really screwed up. Consider this article on the “Dutch disease or the “Devil’s Excrement,” talking about the probems of oil wealth.

  10. More examples of hindsight bias by Diamond:

    He argues that it was worth no-one’s while to domesticate a non-standard wild barley, because of the existence of the already domesticated variety in Eurasia. But he doesn’t apply the same argument to zebra, arguing that they are just bad candidates for being domesticated– even though horses had already been spread there by that time.

    The title itself is misleading– the Spaniards didn’t beat the Aztecs through “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Their numbers were far too small for Guns and Steel, and they did win militarily faster than Germs take. They won in large part because they allied with the Tlaxcaltecasthat were subjugated to the Aztecs and had to pay tribute, and got them to besiege the Aztecs, providing thousands of men to the Aztec’s hundreds. Tactics certainly played a role as well– the Aztec conception of war had to do more with individual one on one warfare rather than coordinated group attacks.

    Even at the end he has to resort to luck or the decisions of the elite to try to explain why the Chinese weren’t more successful– the famous edict banning the naval explorations of the time.

  11. As far as I can tell, the weakest part of Diamond’s book is his attempted explanation as to why Europe succeeded in the end, and not China.

    Interestingly, his newer book “Collapse” is about how societies must be responsible for their own survival by maintaining their environment, so it seems like he realized that he went too far with geographic determinism in “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

  12. Diamond does not give his readers the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact, he gives them much less. Inexcusably for an evolutionary biologist, Diamond fails to inform his readers that it is different environments that cause, via natural selection, biological differences among populations.

    What seems to be true (from preliminary studies) is that the gene variants that were under strong selection (reached fixation) over the last 10k years are different in different clusters. That is, the way that modern people in each cluster differ, due to natural selection, from their own ancestors 10k years ago is not the same in each cluster — we have been, at least at the genetic level, experiencing divergent evolution.

    In fact, recent research suggests that 7% or more of all our genes are mutant versions that replaced earlier variants through natural selection over the last tens of thousands of years. There was little gene flow between continental clusters (”races”) during that period, so there is circumstantial evidence for group differences beyond the already established ones (superficial appearance, disease resistance).

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