Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
Explaining everything


There are countless theories to explain why some parts of the world have lots, and others little; why North and West are rich and much of the South and East wallow in poverty and underdevelopment. Some of the theories are odious and racist, others are ideological, conspiratorial or downright silly.

One of the latter goes something like this: people from cold climates (Europeans, Japanese, Han Chinese) are more industrious, inventive and creative than people from the tropics (almost everywhere else) because they had to work harder to cope with the cold. I have had thoughts like those brayed into my ear by saloon bar sociologists in many places, including Kathmandu. As a representative of one of those northern peoples, the Canadians, let me say I've never felt more dull-witted and uncreative than in a Nepali January. I can't invent ways to find any LPG or kerosene. And as for industrious, well, ask the editor of this paper about whether I met the deadline for this column.

A ray of light, if not warmth, on this perplexing topic comes from a newly acquired book Guns, Germs and Steel by the American scientist, Jared Diamond. The cover blurb says the book is "a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years." It may sound grandiose but it's not. This is one of the best things I've ever read, on any topic. It oozes humanity and an endless fascination for an array of topics. Diamond is a biologist by trade, a genius and a polymath by inclination.

His thesis is blindingly simple. People evolved differently in different parts of the world according to their access to wild plants and animals to domesticate. The largest selection of those were in West Asia, what historians call the Fertile Crescent, modern day Iraq, Turkey, Palestine,
Israel, and Egypt. The same plants and animals were also acquired by adjacent societies and those that traded with the West Asians: the ancient Chinese and Indians, the Celts and Teutons of northern Europe and even some indigenous folk from Southeast Asia. Having a broad choice of domesticated plants and animals meant that nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down and produced food surpluses. This allowed them to support specialists, first craftspeople, then scribes, bureaucrats and inventors. They developed technologies, the "guns" and "steel" of the book's title.

Meanwhile, the people of the Americas, Africa and Australasia lagged behind because, according to Diamond, they had fewer, less efficient food sources. No wheat, for example, no cows, horses or pigs. They were not able to develop writing systems, the wheel or gunpowder. Their societies largely remained organised as village-level chiefdoms without central political authorities. There were exceptions to this: the Incas of South American, the Aztecs of Mexico and the Mississippi valley native tribes are some of them. But these people were particularly vulnerable to something else that was developing in the Eurasian societies-the "germs" in the title of the book.

European colonialism wiped out huge numbers of people in these less developed society, usually through the spread of disease that had leapt to humans from domesticated animals. Those who domesticated the animals had developed relative immunities, those who hadn't died in droves. Any other resistance was seen off by military technology and the use of horses in battle. People in South Asia, Africans, Australian aborigines and indigenous hunter-gatherer societies in various other parts of the world suffered similar fates as developed peoples spread outwards in search of gold, land and loot. Religion buttressed imperialist movements and Diamond is particularly scathing in his analysis of the role of organised faith in economic development. Successful societies, he writes, had religions that justified "kleptocratic elites" who in turn funded military structures, mercantilism and national myths.

The underlying message here is that circumstance, luck and a degree
of ruthlessness gave the north its prominent position in global development, not intellectual or evolutionary superiority. Diamond's conclusion is a withering attack on racism and social Darwinism and a plea for the inheritors of history's good fortune to be both humble and generous
in victory.

May I humbly recommend this book to people from both sides of the global development divide.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)