Why didn’t 16th century Native Americans sail to England, claim land for their queen, and nearly decimate the English race? Why did Francisco Pizarro conquer the entire Incan Empire instead of Atahuallpa sailing over to Spain and exerting his dominance? We all know the immediate answers to these questions: Europeans had guns, germs, and steel that made it easy to overcome their “savage” opponents. But the real question is why did Europeans develop guns, germs, and steel while so many other civilizations did not? What forces caused different groups of people to develop technology and innovations at different rates? Did civilizations advance differently because of superior genetics or environmental variables? Honestly, I never thought about these questions until I borrowed my friend’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. This is a must read and it actually won the Pulitzer Prize-the exorbitant detail in this book makes it an eye-opener that will change your perspective of the modern world. A common thought is that Europeans were more advanced then Africans/Indians/Insert Non-White Person because they worked harder and were generally smarter. This was the primary logic for most of history and is partly responsible for the mental foundation of slavery, racism, segregation, and general exploitation of non-white races.Today, scientists are trying to objectively answer the question of why societies advanced differently early on in history? The short answer to this big question is that genetics played no role in the differences, what mattered most was environmental luck.
So what is environmental luck? Environmental luck, in respects to civilization formation, entails three key components: available wild plants for domestication, available large mammals for domestication, and continent-axis orientations. 10,500 years ago agriculture began in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt); China would soon follow 1,000 years afterwards. Agriculture in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Amazonia independently began in 3500 B.C-the Eastern United States coming in last at 2500 B.C. Why was there such a big time disparity between these groups and plant domestication? One of the key reasons was that the Fertile Crescent and China were home to 33 large grass species: wheat, rice, barley, millet, etc. These wild grass species were abundant due to the vast land areas of Eurasia, numerous Mediterranean climates and large elevation changes. Early domestication was advantageous over hunter gathering in these two areas because these grass species provided easy nutrition (today the world gets 50% of its calories from grass plants). This cornucopia of seed plants in Eurasia is contrasted by the meek number available in the Americas-only 4 species in North America, 5 in Mesoamerica, and 2 in South America. Agriculture in Eurasia was further assisted by large mammals which were domesticated. Of all large mammals, Eurasia had 13 species (think cows, pigs, goats, sheep, camels, and horses) which were good candidates for domestication; a good domestication candidate needs to have a certain diet, growth rate, breeding behavior, disposition, and social structure. The Americas, Australia, and Africa only had 1 mammal that was suitable for domestication-dogs. These domesticated animals increased agricultural yield, provided food, and transferred germs to humans. Domesticated animals are the source of some of mankind’s most deadly diseases: Measles (cattle), Tuberculosis (cattle), Smallpox (cattle), Flu (pigs and ducks), Pertussis (pigs, dogs), Falciparum malaria (chickens and ducks), etc. This exposure to germs would eventually wipe out the majority of New World inhabitants and make it possible for Europeans to conquer native people throughout the world. The last key factor of environmental luck was the axis orientation of the continents. Eurasia’s axis stretches east to west with large spans of land on similar latitudes (Think England and China). The Americas and Africa axis’ stretch North to South with huge changes in latitudes (think Canada vs Chili). Similar latitudes meant similar day lengths and weather patterns which allowed for the rapid spread of agriculture across Eurasia. The wide range of latitudes in the Americas/Africa made the spread of agriculture difficult because of drastically different weather and seasons going north to south.
The environmental factors of Eurasia provided it with a lucky head start in respects to efficient agriculture. This head start wasn’t because of the people’s innovation but rather a host of key factors which included climate, plant availability, animal availability, and overall geography. Eurasia’s efficient agriculture (large seed plants and domesticated animals) would eventually lead to the first civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, China). Agriculture and domestication allowed individuals to specialize in jobs unrelated to food production: government officials, laborers, craftsmen, scribes, religious figures. The ability to have specialized positions provided groups of people to innovate and advance in technology. This progression of civilization in Eurasia was already full force before the America’s first signs of agriculture. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Asia would soon spread through the continent and bring about metallurgy, alphabets, and organized warfare. The prerequisites of guns, germs, and steel were all based on the ability to efficiently grow food. And the prerequisites for growing food were a host of environmental factors that led to some lucky people being in the right place at the right time. To be continued.