Thursday, January 11, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Steel: What it Means for Race

I'm sitting here watching the National Geographic documentary based on Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel," and it's fucking incredible – both on its own terms, and because of its implications for race studies. For those unfamiliar with the basics of Diamond's argument, it can be boiled down fairly clearly. The argument is that the historical dominance of European cultures over rest of the cultures on Earth boils down to the geographical accident that granted Europeans certain natural resources. Specifically, these are domesticated grains, such as wheat, and domesticated beasts of burden such as cows and horses. These, along with other geographic advantages, allowed for surpluses of labor that led, in time, to innovations in technology, such as steel swords and horsemanship. European domestication of animals also bred new human diseases, but prolonged contact increased immunity to them to levels not present in other populations. All of these, in turn, led to European military and, ultimately, cultural dominance.
Diamond's extremely compelling hypothesis is essentially the nuclear option of anti-racist argumentation – but without any of the negative implications of that phrase. Any historical thesis dependent on an essential difference between people, whether couched in terms of race or culture, is rendered absurd by Diamond's view of human history. All of the differences between human societies, and therefore all the differences between their accomplishments, arise not from any essential genetic or moral superiority, any surplus of bravery, intelligence, or creativity, but from natural advantages inherent in certain groups' homelands. In light of this, all previous explanations of certain groups' dominance are revealed as post-facto justifications of a geographical fait accompli that predates any race, much less individual.
A command of this material is an essential part of any rhetorical arsenal aimed at countering racialist or culturalist worldviews. Diamond explicitly describes the Europeans as "accidental conquerors," and this is the only self-understanding that can grant the dominant population groups a healthy distance from the mythology of their own superiority.
This is, incidentally, a perfect example of one of the unspoken driving principles of academic and intellectual life. Independent of its intellectual merit, Diamond's conceptual framework has gained a lot of traction because it can be reduced to a catchphrase. Although, ultimately, it's not a terribly accurate one – guns in particular are not nearly as valuable to European dominance as, say, grain, or horses. I guess grain isn't nearly as sexy as guns.

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