ISBN: 0393061310

This Pulitzer-winning book attempts to explain history, from an environmental geography and biogeography imperative, through historical sciences like evolutionary biology and geology.

It asks (and offers explanations) interesting questions: why didn’t the Inca Empire invade The Spaniards? How did early people domesticate plants without modern technology?

P25. Author sums up his lengthy book: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

Says the book sets out to provide the “ultimate explanation” why history unfolded differently on different continents, rather than solely attribute to racial, technological or cultural explanations (his prologue points out particularly why race is not the reason, by way of sharing his experience working with the New Guineans).

P10. He asked a good question: “… Why didn’t traditions like Confucianism and the Judaeo-Christian ethic instead develop in western and China, respectively?”

P152-153, 161/ 166. Makes the case that it’s the (limitations of) indigenous biota, environment, and the animal species themselves — rather than people — that determine the degree of food production and large-scale domestication of animals, and subsequent development of social and political structures etc.

P87. Diagram showing the “factors underlying the broadest pattern of history”; from ultimate factors (east/ west axis, suitable wild species for domestication etc.) to proximate factors (horses, steel swords & guns, ocean-going ships, political organisations & writing, epidemic diseases).

Chpt 1 – “Up to the starting line”. An overview of human evolutionary history up till 11,000 B.C. (13,000 years ago). By P46, he makes the link between human expansion and subsequent extinction of large animals — Australia/ New Guinea; America West — rather than climate changes (questions why the large animals died out at the point of human expansion, when they survived earlier eras of climate changes).

Chapter 2. Polynesian islanders. The Maori conquest and extermination of the Moriori. Geography playing a part in how both societies developed. The Maori were able to establish large scale farming, which allowed them to develop and support a social system with specialist roles (e.g. artisans, soldiers). Also had experience in organised warfare. The Moriori, on the other hand, settled on land that forced them to adopt a hunter-gathering culture, low population density, and were not organised like how the Maori were.

P68. Francisco Pizarro, with a ragtag group of 62 cavalry and 106 foot soldiers captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa within a few minutes of first setting eyes on each other. Pizarro was in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the locals, out of contact with the nearest Spaniard reinforcement. Atahuallpa was in Cajamarca, the middle of his own empire, immediately surrounded by his 80,000 strong battle tested army. Chapter 3 starts with excerpts from Spanish eyewitness accounts. Fascinating account of the fear and one could say bravery of the Spaniards (“many of us urinated without noticing It,s out of sheer terror”) when confronted with the numerical superiority of the Incas. The Spaniards laid an ambush (whether as a contingency or as a premeditated attack, it wasn’t said explicitly). Friar Vicente de Valverde handed Atahuallpa the bible when asked, and was greatly offended when Atahuallpa threw it away (he was apparently frustrated at not knowing how to open the book nor read its contents). The Friar then shouted to the Spaniards to “come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of god”. And so rushed the hidden spanish cavalry, supported by the cannons. The unarmed Incas panicked and were slaughtered. Atahuallpa was captured. It was also clear that the Inca army did not exercise any initiative when they saw the attack, for they remained battle-ready but stationary a mile away from Cajamarca.

The better weaponry of the Spaniards (cavalry Vs. Foot soldiers; steel armour and swords, lances and daggers — rather than the slow loading harquebuses — Vs. blunt clubs and quilted armour) enabled them to defeat the numerically superior native indians, even when the Incas later mounted two large-scale rebellions. Other advantageous factors for the Spaniards include the preceding Incas civil war, triggered by the smallpox epidemic brought by the Spanish settlers of the Incas, that would have meant a more united Incas empire. P78. Diamond is also quick to point out that disease also struck the invaders (malaria, yellow fever).

P78. To the question why the Inca Empire didn’t instead try to conquer Spain, the Incas did not possess the sort of ship building technology. Also, they did not have a writing system, unlike the Spaniards (printed information among thE Spaniards of the exploits of the discovery and initial success led to more expeditions).
P79. Atahuallpa walked into an apparent trap because he was misled by word of mouth accounts, of how the Spaniards were disorganised and that they would be easily subdued. Atahuallpa also appeared to be entirely ignorant of the Spaniards’s conquests that began in 1510, and was also unaware of the Spaniards’s existence until Pizarro’s landing on the Peruvian coast in 1527.
P80. Summarises the factors for European conquest of the New World instead of the Native Americans’s colonising Europe: better military technology based on guns, steel weapons, and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; centralised political organisation of European states; and writing.

Next two chapters answers why those immediate advantages were on the side of Europe than the New World.

P103. Only a few areas in the world developed food production independently, and at widely differing times (even when locations seem suitable for farming).

P108. Farming was not a conscious choice (no other farmers to observe) but evolved from hunting-gathering. Preceding paras also give possible ways hunters also cultivated crops but not in the scale that we are familiar.
P111. Autocatalytic process – a gradual rise in population Increased the demand for food, and rewarded those who unconsciously produced food (rather than gather), which led to larger population and increased demand.

Chpt 7 on the domestication of plants (I understood it to be a process involving cultivation of wild plants; discovery of what can or cannot be eaten or cultivated; observing other animals consuming the plant; conscious or unconscious selection of plants with mutant genes, e.g. non-bitter seeds).

“natural selection” – how plants and animals with traits that allow them to survive/ propagate better would therefore mean more of them with those traits. E.g. p123. During the Industrial Revolution, British moths developed darker tones, as a reaction to the soot polluting the environment. Darker moths stood out less than paler ones, and therefore more survived to pass on the dark genes. So, same principle that early farmers applied: selecting the seeds/ crops that yielded what they wanted, and refining that by further selection of plants that had desirable traits like size, sweetness, leaves or fruits etc.

Chapter 8. The climate of the Fertile Crescent influenced the evolution/ of wild plant species. The mild, wet winters/ long, dry summers selects plant species that can survive those cycles (annual plants, like wheat). These plants put their energy into producing big seeds adapted to the dry/ wet seasonal cycles, rather than making wood or fibrous stems (e.g. Trees and bushes that are inedible by humans). Also, wheat has a higher protein content compared to rice and corn (better nutritional qualities that I think the author implies there’s an effect in the development and expansion of eastern Asia and the New World).

P145. People in earlier civilizations have a much more intimate knowledge of a wide range of native plants, which modern people may not appreciate (partly we are reliant on those few plant species, and traditional knowledge has gradually been lost).

P106. Table about the ancient 14 species (major 5 and minor 9) of big herbivorous domestic animals, including the names of their wild ancestors.

P169. Six main reasons why some animal species resist domestication.

p176. Chapter 10 “Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes”. The spread of crops tend to follow a more favourable east-west weather pattern route (benefiting Eurasia) and less so a north-south route (Africa and Americas). Makes sense, as crops would prefer a more stable weather and would fare less successfully when subject to weather differences along the north-south axis.

P195. Chapter 11 “Lethal gift of livestock”. How viruses like measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and flu are most closely related to animal pathogens from cattle, pigs, ducks, dogs, birds. The animal pathogens transfer to humans and later evolving to affect humans, i.e. Use humans as hosts. P207. Table showing the human disease and the animal with the most closely related pathogen.

P225. How writing systems develop: “Blueprint Copying” or by “Idea Diffusion” (or degrees in between).
P226. The Roman alphabet is a product of a long sequence of blueprint copying, and can be traced back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

P228. On how, around 1810, a Cherokee indian named Sequoyah, observed how white settlers had a system of making marks on paper that “gave them great advantages”. So he started experimenting with different approaches to develop a writing system for Cherokee. He was illiterate (did not know English) but was able to subsequent adapt the English alphabet, from a English spelling book, and devised a written system for the Cherokee language. The Cherokees attained 100% literacy in their language, bought a printing press, and began printing books and newspapers.

P235. “As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ancient writing’s main function was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.”” Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals came much later.

P236 – 238. Concludes that ecology and geography has an influence over development of writing. Writing systems were developed by societies that could support dedicated scribes, and whose societies had a need to use writing systems to serve its political institutions (taxation, record keeping, propaganda).

P239. Makes the case that “invention is the mother of necessity” rather than the common refrain. Also the final use of the invention could differ from original use. E.g. Edison’s phonograph (P243) was originally intended for uses other than music (he considered using it for music a debasement, and reluctantly conceded after 2010 years).

P244 – 245. How James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1769 really arose from him repairing and subsequently introducing improvements to Newcomen’s steam engine invented 57 years earlier (over 100 had been produced). Which Newcomen followed Thomas Savery’s 1698 patented steam engine, and even that was after Denis Papin’s 1680 unbuilt design that had precursors in ideas by Christian Huygens and others. Btw, Savery was English, Papin was French, Huygens was Dutch.

Chpt 14. explains the reasons why large complex societies develop centralised governments and structures (necessary for conflict resolution and maintenance of order).
P265. On an incident in 1979, New Guinea tribe Fayu who live an isolated existence that when a few dozen gather (for bride exchanges), “murderers suddenly found themselves face-to-face with their victim’s relatives”. The Fayu population was also decimated by their internal warfare.

P276. “The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree…”

P277. Four solutions used by Kleptocrats to maintain popular support and also the comfortable lifestyles:
1. Disarm the populace, arm the elite.

2. Makes masses happy by distributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways.

3. Use monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence.

4. Construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.

P290. How the Zulus came to be united under chief Dingiswayo in 1807, whose strategy was to draft young men into military regiments by age rather than clans, and left conquered chiefs’s family intact to rule on his behalf (like Genghis Khan, I thought).

P297. Explores why Australia, despite its native population having a headstart in developing stone tools, ended up being conquered by Europeans. Author makes the connection between geography, native plants and animals, food production, population densities, social structures (they remained as hunter-gather societies since their population size was kept constant; population size is linked to food consumption/ production, which remains constant as the native biological species were harder to domesticate).

P310. Wrong to think of Australia’s aborigines as “desert people”. They weren’t; the invading Europeans drove them to places where the Europeans didn’t desire.

P322. Chapter 16. “How China became Chinese”.

P343. How a linguist might be able to work out if Austronesians living on Taiwan 6,000 years ago had pigs.

P353. “indigenous germs and food producers prevented the Europeans from settling most of this region [Southeast Asia] in significant numbers.”

Chpt 19. P376. “How Africa came to be dominated by blacks”, when it had “five of the world’s six major divisions of humanity” (by A.D. 1000 it was already home to blacks/ Bantus, whites*, African Pygmies, Khoisan, and Asians/ indonesians). *the whites range from Egyptians, Libyans to Moroccans.
Again, the ultimate factor was geography that the Bantus occupied.

Epilogue. P408. Suggests developing “human history as a science, on par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology.”

P410-411. He reasons that the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies “committed ecological suicide by destroying their resource base”. Northern and western Europe benefited from a higher rainfall and faster regrowth of plants compared to Fertile Crescent region. Food production, livestock, technology, writing systems were received from the Fertile Crescent, which then “gradually eliminated itself as a major center of power and innovation.”

P412. He suggests China lost its lead when it stopped its naval fleet exploration and expansion. although Columbus also faced obstacles in getting his exploration request granted initially, he was able to seek assistance from the different rulers, since the rulers were fragmented. China, in contrast, was one united political unit so there was no recourse when the decision was made to stop the treasure fleets. In this case, China’s “chronic unity” placed it at a disadvantage over Europe’s “chronic disunity” (to me, this is one drawback of too centralised a government).

Ends with references for further readings.