Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Belated props for Dr. Diamond

This is a picture of our kitchen. You might notice the maple leafs on the fridge mailed to us a few weeks ago by Sandy (a highly illegal violation of Aussie customs but since they slipped through and we did not know they were coming I suppose we're in the clear). Also notice above the stove our quickly expanding little library.Kate and I read a lot here. Maybe because we feel like we’re on holiday, maybe fewer friends mean more free time. Who cares? We read. I like it. By curious analogy to Sandy and Ken (Kate’s parents), Kate reads fiction and I read non-fiction pretty much exclusively. We rarely share a book.

And for the first time in years I am reading 'non Organic Chemistry' and it feels good. Up until a few months ago I felt like any wasted reading could cost me my degree or post-doc, career. It was pretty tense :) I no longer have that feeling. Don't get me wrong, I like chemistry and I continue to read that too but I have no doubt the last five years have been (by necessity) a real ‘mind narrower’.

I’m going to try something different today with this post. Bare with me (or not). I'll start with a little story:

Seven million'ish years ago in Africa, Jack and Jill decided they would be monkeys no longer. Slowly, very slowly, they then spread all over the world killing lots of big animals and gathering nuts. By thirteen thousand years ago small bands of hunter gatherers with stone tools had spread to every single corner of the globe. They were intelligent, very intelligent, and yet not a single one of them could farm or write and nobody had any domestic animals or anything resembling what you or I would call technology. This is all FACT, proven by
chemistry (okay, fine, physics... no it's radio-chemistry damn it!). At that point, rather suddenly, because of critical population density and the end of an ice age and a bunch of other reasons Jack and Jill took a completely unprecedented turn toward civilization. They 'decided' first to domesticate plants and animals (which was very difficult) and this allowed them to settle down and feed politicians, builders, inventors, artists, and armies and thereby grow from bands to tribes to ‘chiefdoms’ to states and then to empires.

This all happened so that in 1998 Dr. Jared Diamond, a 61 year old professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, could describe these last thirteen thousand years in his ridiculously popular book and win heaps of awards for his effort. Here is a picture of JD.
I am impressed that JD would even consider aiming a complex history book full of original ideas at the general public rather than just publishing his ideas in academic circles for his geography, history, and biology buddies. And the brilliant award-winning aspect of his book was the fact that Dr. Diamond clearly explained (with ideas that were neither uncertain nor controversial) why, from an equal starting point thirteen thousand years ago ‘civilizing’ happened at different rates on different continents. Why did north North Americans not discover Europe and slaughter the English, French, and Spanish tribes? Was it race? Varying intellect and 'civilizability' between continents? Was it a few freakishly creative inventors that happened to be born in one place and not another? Nope. Nope. And nope. Highly motivated, intelligent, and racist scholars have tried endlessly to prove the above explanations (especially the first one) but they have not succeeded because these explanations are not true and therefore nearly impossible to prove :). The real reason is geography, and only geography. Cool eh? I thought so too. And I don’t care if you believe it or not, I just wish I had found time to read it eight years ago when Millington first suggested it to me.

Before I continue, I will briefly digress. This blog post is my attempt at a book review. I now notice book reviews in newspapers I'm developing the opinion that these ‘reviewers’ are mostly idiots. I say that because they are way too negative and make too much effort to sound smart.

Dude (I mean Sir), if you don’t like a book, why draw my attention to it at all? Save yourself time and effort and mention it not. Then I won’t buy it. I won’t even know it exists. I may save ten bones if I read that a movie sucks (that’s ten Mars bars) but books are available in the thousands and I don’t require anyone’s help ‘not buying’ them.

And reviewers try too hard to sound smart. I suppose it’s natural but I don’t like it. Dude (I mean Sir), you are not an author and your little article is just a glorified advertisement. So please, unless you have been asked for your expert opinion, don’t give me two pages of original thought. If you’re feeling so creative write your own book. Your review should be a summary and some quotes. Heck, quote the crap out of it! Take a cue from movie advertising and just spoil it. A trailer for a comedy is not some guy I don’t recognize delving into the characters or telling me how hard he laughed . Just a few funny scenes (usually too many). So quote the book numb-nuts.

And introduce the author so I know who I’m reading and can try and determine his or her motive. I’m a practical simple minded scientist-type and I dislike books with obvious (or worse, irrational) bias. I do not want to read non-fiction (arguably) written by politicians or scientologists or anyone else who is heavily invested in, and very proficient at, wasting my time. So briefly sum up the book, the author, and then hit us with some quotes.

Here, if you’re still reading this foolishness, I missed the last ingredient. These are some great, if somewhat random, JD lines that I could not help but underline while reading this book.

JD on cheetah’s and zebras:

…tame cheetahs were prized by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and modern Indians as hunting animals infinitely superior to dogs. One Mogul emperor of India kept a stable of a thousand cheetahs…. all of their cheetahs were tamed ones caught in the wild… efforts to breed cheetahs in captivity failed.
Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure even more American zoo-keepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope, even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses, because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then duck their head out of the way
JD on sheep:
At the time of a recent census, Australias 17,085,400 people thought so highly of sheep that they kept 161,6000,000 of them.
JD on ‘farmer power’:
In a one-on one fight, a naked farmer would have no advantage over a naked hunter-gatherer… farmer power lies in much denser populations that food production could support… Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.
JD on where food comes from:
A typical American fast-food restaurant meal would include chicken (first domesticated in China) potatoes (from the Andes) or corn (from mexico), seasoned with black pepper (from India) and washed down with a cup of coffee (of Ethiopian origin).
JD on the strange nature of many inventions:
…Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs-but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years later did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music
I should mention JD's big central thesis. He is all about the 'axes of the continents'. "Around those axes turned the fortunes of history" Civilization progressed faster where people had longitude rather than latitude to work with. This is because food production (that big first step) spread faster along the east–west axes than along north–south axes because plants are adapted to a particular latitude (temperature, growing season, etc). Here’s a picture from JD's article in Nature in 2002. (I hope he won't mind me borrowing it, nobody reads this anyway)

JD on one of his many personal insights about New Guinea (the book is full of these):
In a traditional new Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar new Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged ina long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.
I want to give you a few more quotes but first, a warning. History is full of harsh realities involving inhumane cruelty and death. If you are the type to get very emotionally involved then don't read this book (or the rest of this blog post). I like understanding the past but there is no certainly no changing it (although people do speculate). The human rights conventions adopted by most of the world today are a great achievement, but also a very new idea. The history of civilization (like evolution by natural selection) is mostly cruel, gruesome, and full of death.

JD on guns:
… in 1908 a British sailor named Charlie Savage equipped with muskets and excellent aim arrived in the Fiji Islands. The aptly named Savage proceeded single-handedly to upset Fiji’s balance of power. Among his many exploits, he paddled his canoe up a river to the Fijian village of Kasavu, halted less than a pistol shot’s length from the village fence, and fired away at the undefended inhabitants. His victims were so numerous that surviving villagers piled up bodies to take shelter behind them, and the stream beside the village was red with blood. Such examples of the power of guns against native peoples lacking guns could be multiplied indefinitely
JD on crappy diseases:
The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history - smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera - are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confided to humans… The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people at the end of the First World War. The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed one-quarter of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1352
JD on the sad fate of native North Americans:
The Indian population of the island of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million when Columbus arrived in AD 1492 to zero by 1535… For the New World as a whole the decline of the Indian population in the century or two following Columbus’ arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95%.... Europe’s sinister gift to all other continents were the germs evolving from Eurasians long intimacy with domestic animals.
I will finish with a lighter one. JD on dingos:
Native Australians kept captive dingos as companions, watchdogs, and even as living blankets, giving rise to the expression “five-dog night’ to mean a very cold night.
My parents and older relatives have always been concerned with me knowing my Polish-Catholic roots. This is more than understandable. I should. And if you wish to dig a little deeper, shameful or not, this book is as deep and well written and intelligent as a description of all of our roots will get.

Apparently there is now a three hour
PBS documentary that sums it up pretty well on DVD, so why read.

Here's a final thought. Much of this book is about the domination of 'haves' over 'have-nots'. Powerful advanced societies over weak primitive ones. It's not hard to step back and see that the story is far from finished. JD throws out some very universal insights about leadership, power, and large populations. There are some obvious parallels with aspects of the world today. Somebody will probably write an interesting update in another 1000 years.

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