Rocks and hard places

Marek Kohn explains why cows and sheep helped history's top dogs
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years by Jared Diamond, Cape, pounds 18.99

To protest against the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, an Australian Aborigine staged a mock-invasion of an English beach for the benefit of the cameras. His point was that we wouldn't think there was anything to celebrate if the First Fleet had sailed in the opposite direction, and the Australians had subjugated us.

The absurdity of the idea lets the steam out of its rhetorical point. Britain was a literate, ocean-going, industrialising state; the original Australians lived by hunting and gathering, using stone tools. Until recent times, whites considered that the explanation for the difference was straightforward. Whites were racially superior to black races, and that was that.

Now, the idea of racial superiority is in a similar position to smoking. Large numbers of people still adhere to it, but their ability to indulge in public is restricted. Because it is absent from polite society, it can have an effect without facing critical scrutiny. It jostles below the surface, alongside a vague feeling that human societies are complex things which must be shaped by more than a single influence. Even vaguer, however, is our grasp of what those influences might be.

Jared Diamond aims to provide a popular account of these influences, and how they have played out in all corners of the world. He brings good news. First, race doesn't matter. If alien scientists had transferred the prehistoric Australians to Britain, and vice versa, the former would have taken up farming, forged metal tools and perhaps sent fleets to force the Antipodeans out of the Stone Age. Like Europeans around the world, they would have achieved this mainly by bringing in germs to which local populations had no immunity, as well as by guns and blades.

Second, the choice is not between claims based on race alone, and counter- arguments that depend on multiple factors so elusive that one can only gesture in their direction. There are, Diamond asserts, just four major influences over the fortunes of peoples. These are the availiabilty of plant and animal species suitable for domestication; the orientation of land masses; their connections with each other, and their area or population size.

Eurasia came out on top on all counts. It gave its human inhabitants species such as sheep, rather than kangaroos. It lies east to west, with fewer climatic barriers to the movement of exploitable species than in north-south continents such as Africa. Eurasia was isolated from the Americas and Australia, restricting the diffusion of its livestock or technology. And its size encouraged innovation, with more societies in competition.

The basic simplicity of Diamond's model makes Guns, Germs and Steel a pleasure to read. As one ranges across the continents, ways of life, crops, alphabets and political forms, the blank areas in the atlas of humankind seem to fill up with landmarks and terrain. The book serves as a sketch of how he would like historical study to develop, as science rather than one damn fact after another.

There are, however, some questions for biological science to clarify if that project is to proceed. According to Diamond, the "Fertile Crescent" of Eurasia was a zone in which the ecology and geography were just right to encourage the start of farming. But according to a recent paper from the fringe of race science, the secret of the Crescent's success was its central location among human populations, which caused genes for intelligence to collect in it. Conversely, those genes remained sparse in peripheral areas such as Australia. That the Crescent was fertile and Australia barren was taken to be mere coincidence.

Diamond's model is far more persuasive, but he has more in common with the racial view than the bulk of his book suggests. He does not address current scientific-racist arguments directly, skipping over IQ tests in a paragraph. Yet one casual claim affirms a fundamental tenet of the scientific-racist paradigm - that some peoples are natually smarter than others. "Natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies," he suggests, concluding that "in mental ability, New Guineans are probably superior to Westerners".

The veteran big hitters of scientific anti-racism, such as Stephen Jay Gould, would probably sooner eat a copy of The Bell Curve than make a statement like that. Perhaps Guns, Germs and Steel represents a new tendency, in which liberals stress environmental factors while trying to redistribute claims of genetic superiority from dominant to marginal peoples. The first part of this strategy is vital, and Diamond has performed a valuable service in giving shape to the play of environmental forces. The second could boost the resurgence of race science by taking liberal opinion from its traditional position, which denies that genes influence intelligence, straight to the opposite camp, where racial inequality is seen as a fact of nature. If scientists believe there is a middle ground between these two positions, now is the time for them to speak up.