Jared Diamond and Western (Cargo)

SummaryAcknowledgementIntroductionWhy Should We Help?The BenefitsThe Venture ItselfHow to Avoid the Marie Antoinette SyndromeThe Action PlanConclusionSelected Bibliography


We in the Western world have inherited tens of thousands of years of progress, innovation, and development that have stemmed from our good fortune to have ancestors who lived in the Fertile Crescent. This fortuitous (for us) history is documented by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies.

In this book, Diamond seeks to explain why some societies today wound up with the (cargo), a New Guinean term for the goods of society (Diamond, 1999, p. 14). He examines the influence of geography on the rise of human societies and refutes the claim that some races or groups of people have the (cargo) because they are inherently superior in intelligence or creativity to those who don’t.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only non-literate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gathers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial . . . . (Diamond, 1999, p. 13)

According to Diamond, one of the first places in the world where highly developed societies arose was the Fertile Crescent in southwest Asia (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 4). Around 10,000 years ago, the peoples in this area adopted agriculture and abandoned hunting and gathering (Diamond, 1999, Chapters 4 to 8).They also began to domesticate wild animals, which in the Fertile Crescent included cows, sheep, goats, and pigs, and later acquired horses from what is now Ukraine (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 9). These animals (provided meat, milk products, fertilizer, land transport, military assault vehicles, plow traction, and wool, as well as germs that killed previously unexposed peoples) (Diamond, 1999, p. 158). The Fertile Crescent is shown in the following map.


Figure 2: The Fertile Crescent

(Diamond, 1999, p. 135)

This figure shows the present-day countries that the Fertile Crescent encompassed.

The decision to switch to agriculture wasn’t based on brilliance or inherent racial superiority, but on the fact that the Fertile Crescent was abundant with various crops (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 8) and wild animals suited for domestication (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 9). Only one other area in the world was as well endowed: China (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 16).

Growing crops allowed for permanent settlements, food surpluses, and the rise of the state, with its accompanying complex economy, social strata, judicial systems, etc. The population grew, and with that growth came a rise in technology: methods and tools for improving agriculture yield, for warfare, for travel. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 13) ([A]ll things being equal, technology develops fastest in large productive regions with large human populations, many potential inventors, and many competing societies) (Diamond, 1999, p. 262). The more people there are, the more likely that technological innovations occur and are reworked into even better technologies (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 13).

The good fortune of the Fertile Crescent did not remain isolated but proliferated throughout Eurasia (considered one continent for Diamond’s purposes) because of Eurasia’s dominant east/west axis. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10)

Axis orientations affected the rate of spread of crops and livestock, and possibly also of writing, wheels, and other inventions. That basic feature of geography thereby contributed heavily to the very different experiences of Native Americans, Africans, and Eurasians in the last 500 years. (Diamond, 1999, p. 176)

The east/west axis of Eurasia allowed the superiour technological package, especially the food crops, of the Fertile Crescent to reach many, varied groups of people scattered across its huge expanse. The package spread quickly across the same latitudes of the continent, to the British Isles, to China, to Japan. There were some impediments: mountainous areas in Europe, which actually helped inspire competitiveness and thus more development, and the Europe/Asia divide, which kept China somewhat isolated. However, as these impediments were not insurmountable, technology spread apace across the continent. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10)

In the game of (cargo), Eurasia won. The Fertile Crescent was the genesis, along with China, of Eurasia’s huge head start over the rest of the world. The widespread proliferation of the Fertile Crescent’s technological package led directly to Europe’s eventual domination over much of the world. (Diamond, 1999, p. 417)

Other continents did not fare as well. In Africa and the Americas, pockets of independent agriculture did arise, but these continents did not have the variety of crops or big mammals that could be domesticated (Diamond, 1999, Chapters 8 and 9). In North and South America, the dominant axis is north/south, which is inhospitable to the spread of crops needing the same latitude (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10). The following map shows the axes of the continents.


Figure 3: The axes of the continents

(Diamond, 1999, p. 177)

The map in Figure 3 shows the east/west axis of Eurasia and the north/south axis of the Americas. The latter axis is restricted by the narrow Isthmus of Panama and at other points by deserts, which effectively blocked the flow of information and development. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10) The land mass of the Americas is only two-thirds the size of Eurasia, which meant less area for large populations and the benefits that they bring. (Diamond, 1999, p. 263)

The continent of North America (not the indigenous peoples) recouped dramatically, however. When the settlers from Europe (fortunate inheritors of the Fertile Crescent (cargo) arrived, they found the climate and geography comparable to their homelands and easily transferred their highly developed food and technology packages to their new continent. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10) They also had the tragic advantage of germs that they were immune to but that the indigenous peoples were not. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 11).

Africa suffered the same troubles as the Americas: a north/south axis and a huge desert that effectively stymied the interchange of ideas and technology. This continent is only 40 percent the size of Eurasia, which meant, like the Americas, a smaller population. (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 10) Unfortunately as well, Africa, with its large tropical area, was also burdened with the devastating tropical disease of malaria (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 11; Sachs, 2005, pp. 196-200).

Sub-Saharan Africa proved to be incompatible, except for South Africa, with European crops, so Europeans did not colonize most of the continent. Malaria and other tropical diseases were deadly to the Europeans and thus stymied any large scale transfer of the Western world’s huge technological advantages. (At least, however, the indigenous populations were not virtually destroyed as in the Americas.) (Diamond, 1999, Chapter 19)

If Diamond is right, we needn’t feel so smug about our success or so superior over other less fortunate societies. We pulled the winning cards from the (cargo) deck.


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