Got around to finishing a couple of books that are worth mentioning. The first was the recently popular Guns, Germs, and Steel. Its an interesting survey of the natural aspects of the planet that led to people in certain areas getting a head start on technological evolution, from the beginnings of agriculture to the refinement of technology. Quick read for a reasonably thick book, but I think thats because it was relatively light on real insight. Most of the key arguments could have fit in to a volume a fifth this long. There was quite a bit of personal anecdotes from the author about his experiences working with native tribes in New Guinea. I hate personal anecdotes (one reason I can’t stand to read anything by NY Times Journalist Thomas Friedman).
Anecdotes aside, some of Diamond’s (well-supported) assertions are that the initial availability of highly suitable agricultural crops (namely high-yield grains and domestic-able animals) gave early European and Asian peoples a head start on settling down. The east-west climate axis of Eurasia also made it easier for agriculture to spread quicker than going north-south as it had to in Africa and the Americas. He draws a lot of parallels between different people on different continents, and has many good stories, and its an enjoyable read, I’m sure which has contributed to its popularity.
A more interesting (to me) read was The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. A good friend of mine was reading this a couple of years ago and I picked it up, but its taken a while to get through the full thing. I believe dense is the word I’m looking for here. This book is chasing a similar topic, but from a fairly different angle. Instead of looking at environmental differences as a cause for the disparities in the modern world, Landes looks for cultural and socio-economic differences between early nations to explain how different nations advanced more quickly than others. In some places his arguments can be seen as a rah-rah endorsement of free-market economies, but this is in no way simple propaganda. There are several interesting stories of how certain civilizations missed their chance to advance rapidly because they weren’t able to harness the power of some of their more interesting inventions due to various attitudes holding them back.
Good reading, both of them. Now I think its time for something a little more brainless, me-thinks.