You made it to the starting line! That’s the most important step. Nothing else happens until you show up. Way to go!
If you have any questions about the details of the Useful Humans 50 Book Project, click here to check out the FAQ.
Starting Off with a Challenge
I picked my first book to challenge me. I had started this book once before, but never got past the long introduction. This time around, I bought the audiobook, and I listen when I drive, shower, and get ready for bed.
The audiobook will take 14+ hours to complete. That’s twice as long as most books on my list. That’s okay. With 50 books to complete in 104 weeks (aka two years), I can easily finish this 14 hour audiobook in two weeks.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to our first book:
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The prologue is fifty three minutes long. I endured all of it, but it was very dry, mechanical, and scholastic. I actually played 20 minutes of the intro in the car while driving my kids to jiu jitsu. They begged me not to play it again on the drive home.
Not that you need my permission, but you have it to skip the intro if you get into it and find yourself doubting whether this book is for you. It’s easier to endure when it’s audible, for what it’s worth.
Chapter 1: Up to the Starting Line
Why have some societies prospered and dominated others, while some have remained isolated or technologically stagnant? That’s the question Diamond raises in this chapter. He explores the inequality in human development and technological advancement that has existed between different societies throughout history.
This inequality is not due to differences in intelligence or inherent superiority of certain peoples or races, but can rather be explained by environmental factors, geographical advantages, and historical circumstances. He introduces the concept of “geographic determinism,” suggesting that the physical environment, including the availability of domesticable plants and animals, played a crucial role in shaping the course of human history.
It’s important to understand the factors that contributed to the rise of agriculture and sedentary societies, which ultimately led to the development of complex civilizations. The availability of domesticable plants and animals in certain regions provided a head start for some societies in terms of food production and surplus, which allowed for population growth, specialization, and technological advancements.
Overall, Chapter One sets out to dispel the myth that intellectual superiority explains why some cultures and people groups develop faster and influence history on a grander scale.
I’m soaking this topic like a sponge. I’m not aware of any intrinsic beliefs that agree or disagree with the point he’s trying to make. I have never considered intelligence as a factor for historical impact. Probably due to the fact that the United States was considered the most influential country of the 20th Century and I sincerely question our collective IQs.
I wasn’t prepared for the New Zealander and Australian focus. Have I ever read a book that focused on these parts of the world before? I sincerely doubt it.
Chapter 2: A Natural Experiment of History
In this chapter, we’re introduced to the Polynesian islands and their unique historical and environmental context. These islands are served up as a natural experiment in which we explore the impact geography has on human development.
The Marquesas and the Society Islands had similar origins, cultures, and people, but they developed at different paces and experienced different outcomes. The Marquesas remained isolated and undeveloped, while the Society Islands saw the emergence of complex societies with advanced agriculture, social hierarchies, and technological progress.
The key factor is the availability of domesticable plants and animals. The Society Islands had more suitable environments for growing crops like taro and yams, as well as native animals like chickens. This allowed them to develop agriculture, leading to surpluses, population growth, and social complexity.
In contrast, the Marquesas lacked these resources, which limited their ability to develop agriculture and led to a more primitive and isolated existence. The contrast between the two island groups to illustrate how differences in geographical factors, specifically the availability of domesticable flora and fauna, can have a profound impact on the development of societies.
Overall, Chapter 2 highlights the concept of geographic determinism and its role in shaping the trajectory of human history by examining the natural experiment provided by the Polynesian islands. Diamond’s goal is to demonstrate how environmental factors can play a crucial role in determining the fate of societies and their levels of development.
A Note About Historicity and Timelines
The author continually references evolution and estimates of 11,000 B.C. for the initial human habitation of the Americas. For some, this will be a deal breaker, depending on whether you ascribe to a belief in the biblical account of creation or some version of big bang theory and evolution.
It’s a baby/bathwater scenario. Too many people hold an underlying belief that I disagree with to toss out everything they say. To do so would be to exclude the vast majority of discoveries and new data announced each year.
The goal of any book, podcast, movie, or conversation is to glean from it what you can while setting aside the assumptions and theories you disagree with.
It’s important for you to consider this approach to knowledge, because many of the most egregious ideological wars in human history could have been avoided if the groups involved had chosen to find common ground and knowledge that will expand upon our own rather than issuing absolute judgment against any data from a person who holds a belief you don’t share.
We’re here to grow and learn, and we’ll do that by reading books written by people with beliefs vastly different from our own.