Yesterday we took a small commuter train (the "hev") up to a picturesque town north of Budapest called Szentendre (which means "St Andrew"). We brought our books and I finished the very enlightening Guns, Germs and Steel. Agi and I have been bringing up different points made in this book for the last couple of weeks--it's easy to do because the author touches on an incredibly wide range of subjects. My conclusion is that this is one of the most remarkable, powerful and illuminating books I've ever read. It's as if my understanding of a huge number of issues was covered in a hazy fog and he lifted it (or at least part of it). Here are some of the key questions and issues he hits upon:
- When did civilization start? (About 13,000 years ago. And in honor of finishing this book Agi and I saw the very entertaining 10,000 BC last night. I liked it a lot more than she did. The woolly mammoths are amazing).
- Why did civilization start? (Formal food production by farmers allowed specialization of skills and then required forms of government. Hunter-gatherers are basically egalitarian in nature but then in order to organize everything as you grow, you move to tribes, then bands, then chiefdoms, then kingdoms then nations then empires.)
- Why did Eurasians become dominant, and not, for example, Native Americans? (Very briefly, the best plants and animals that could be domesticated existed in the fertile crescent, right near the Mediterranean. Domesticating plants like wheat and sheep for clothes and food and horses for transportation allowed Eurasian society to develop and grow in population. Living with or near animals and with many other people caused very vicious germs to develop. Europeans eventually developed something of a resistance to these germs, but the native Americans didn't have this resistance and so were wiped out by smallpox,etc. when the Euros arrived. Their horses and guns were crucial too in killing off and conquering the native Americans.
- Why didn't the Chinese develop into the dominant cultural and geographic power, rather than Western Europeans? (Though the Chinese are on their way) This was very interesting: the reason why is that they may have been too centrally unified, unlike the Western Europeans who were constantly competing with each other for power. The Chinese were involved in overseas exploration until the 1300s or 1400s I believe but then their emperor decided to shut that off and turn inward instead. As a result, the Euros continued to compete for power and grow technologically. Europe has been a volatile region with lots of horrible wars and colonization--but it's also produced remarkable inventions, art and culture.
All right--that's enough! Also, if you're at all interested in this topic but don't want to read the whole book, simply go to Borders some evening and read the final chapter where he summarizes everything.
Here's some pictures from Szentendre.