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GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel 
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Post GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
Although I'm sure there are a number of things we haven't gone into regarding the second section, we'll go on. Diamond's argument builds up, but it's somewhat repetitious, too, so that he's always carrying a lot of material over into the succeeding chapters.

His plan for section 3 couldn't be simpler: "Hence the next four chapters will explore how the ultimate cause of food production led to the proximate causes of germs, literacy, technology, and centralized government" (p. 195). Let's pause to think about this statement, especially in regard to the last three items in his list. These we think of as having complex causes and evolutions, yet D. says they result from a single condition, that of being able to produce food on a scale that frees many in the society from having to get food for themselves, and creates a steadily growing population. Proof for this claim can be found simply by counting the societies who have taken a different path to writing, technology, and centralized government. There aren't any, so therefore the evidence seems strong that mere quantitative growth produced dramatic qualitative differences. In other words, as someone has said, more is different.

It's important to see how general this theory is, how little it explains the particular events of our history, and that it isn't incompatible with the view that cultures can go off in ways not according to any pattern or logic. that we can identify. But D. does propose that fundamentally, it was the freedom of people to do things other than produce food that compelled the changes that began to constitute civilization. Even more importantly, the rate at which various areas of the world progressed (the word is unfortunate but probably unavoidable) had everything to do with which groups came out on top in the many inevitable clashes between them.

Diamond's idea is simple, but it has the value of making history more understandable, in that we can see history as more than a heap of events and data without any controlling principle. Hegel proposed a dialectical view of history that some find useful for explaining patterns of change. To Hegel's nonmaterialism, Diamond offers an entirely material view that tries to do something different. It doesn't really say anything about what concerned Hegel, which had to do with the spirit of the ages. It also is more universal, perhaps, less tied to an intellectual tradition of one part of the world.

Thinking along with Diamond, I look with some awe at the monumental role of accident and contingency in our history. To think that, for example, the human world would almost certainly be vastly different today had large animals in North America not become extinct, puts things into perspective. Nobody has mentioned this yet--very surprising for any discussion on booktalk. org--but traditionally the explanations for why history happens relied mostly on gods.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
DWill wrote:
These we think of as having complex causes and evolutions, yet D. says they result from a single condition, that of being able to produce food on a scale that frees many in the society from having to get food for themselves, and creates a steadily growing population. Proof for this claim can be found simply by counting the societies who have taken a different path to writing, technology, and centralized government. There aren't any, so therefore the evidence seems strong that mere quantitative growth produced dramatic qualitative differences. In other words, as someone has said, more is different.

It's important to see how general this theory is, how little it explains the particular events of our history, and that it isn't incompatible with the view that cultures can go off in ways not according to any pattern or logic. that we can identify. But D. does propose that fundamentally, it was the freedom of people to do things other than produce food that compelled the changes that began to constitute civilization. Even more importantly, the rate at which various areas of the world progressed (the word is unfortunate but probably unavoidable) had everything to do with which groups came out on top in the many inevitable clashes between them.

Diamond's idea is simple, but it has the value of making history more understandable, in that we can see history as more than a heap of events and data without any controlling principle.

I've been making my way through Part 3 and I think JD is building his case for GG&S quite well .. I liked his chapter on writing and I offer a thought from Ferdinand de Saussure on linguistics and semiology below. Regarding 'simple,', I wonder if JD has fallen prey to that old trap .. "the devil in the details" ... he has avoided the devil by avoiding the details thus oversimplifying ..

"... in language there are only differences. A difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it."

Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, 1916



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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
It's always been a question whether there could be something knitting together the disparate facts of history or culture. I don't know that there is anyone who has advanced a theory that is widely accepted. Diamond could yet be one, but the limitations have to be understood. I suggested that perhaps he is partly to blame if readers reject him for not delivering a theory of everything historical. The simplicity itself won't be the problem but is rather a potential strength, in a scientific sense.

Diamond is much interested in languages, too. I have to admit I got lost in the chapter, "Speedboat to Polynesia," where he details the linguistic evidence for the dispersal of peoples. But at least he might answer the criticism of lack of detail! I'm not sure of de Saussure's meaning but find it an intriguing passage. A funny thing is when I try to imagine exactly why languages developed thousands of times along separate lines, I can't reach an answer, though it seems to be simple. I mean, why did different sounds issue from different people? What is the explanation for this other than it happened at random? Does de Saussure explain it? It seems to me that language and culture might vary so much for similar reasons.


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Tue Dec 27, 2011 10:03 pm
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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
I was fascinated by Diamond's discussion of language in his book, The Third Chimpanzee. The way I understand it, humans do undergo many random changes that become apparent only after a period of isolation (and compared to other isolated groups). We see many superficial biological changes such as: skin color, eye color, hair color, shape of head and body, etc. If I remember correctly, Diamond says that many of these changes don't convey improved adaptability. I think this is what's called genetic drift? Anyway, in isolated groups we will see many cultural changes as well. Changes in language are especially obvious. In the United States, for example, we can see cultural "drift" with various accents and dialects. Such changes perhaps lead to cultural identity and social cohesion. We form bonds with others who are the same as us, thus people in the south who share certain cultural traits may feel an affinity towards others with similar speech and mannerisms. I'm just speculating here.

Diamond also discussed how we can trace movements of early European people by following the evolution of language. I don't have the book with me to elaborate, but it sounds like he goes over much of this material in GG & S.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
The random physical changes that have, until recently at least, been viewed as markers of race, are easier for me to understand than the evolution of sound systems that depend not all on physical evolution. If it is somehow environment that influences the sounds people invent in order to communicate with each other, how could we learn more about that process? Why did the San people of South Africa speak in clicks, for instance? Beyond the aspect of sound, why are grammars so different?


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
Our brains seem very wired to create language. If you put 100 babies on an island and cut off all communication, I would bet they'd create a functional language within a generation or two. In The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond conjectures that two factors, probably above all other considerations, gave our primitive ancestors the jump on homo erectus and other now-extinct hominids. First and foremost was our capacity to produce a variety of phonetic sounds that gave us the capacity for language. Maybe it was a random mutation that changed the shape of our mouths to give us a larger repertoire of grunts. The second was longevity, wherein we started living long enough to be able to acquire and pass down vital information to our children, information about planting and hunting or whatever techniques we developed to help us survive.

By the way, one of Amazon's book reviewers calls The Third Chimpanzee a "dry run" for Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he says the latter book is better. I'll have to read it some day.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
The Third Chimpanzee sounds interesting, I might tackle it after GG&S. Here's a bit more linguistics theory from Ferdinand de Saussure:

"Common-sense understanding of the function of language would see it as a system for naming things; seemingly, an object turns up in the material world, we apply a name to it and communicate this to others, and the word enters into usage. Saussure sees it differently. For him, language is a mechanism that determines how we decide what constitues "an object" in the first place, let alone which objects might need naming. Language does not name an already organized and coherent reality; its role is far more powerful and complex. The function of language is to organize, to construct, indeed to provide us with our only access to, reality. This distinction might become clearer if we refer to Saussure's proposition that the connection between a word and its meaning is not inherent, or natural, but, in most instances, quite arbitrary; the word "tree" means what it does to us only because we agree to let it do so ... Further there is no natural reason the concept should be expressed at all. There is no universal law that decrees that we should distinguish between trees, and say, flowers, or between trees and grass; that we do so is a matter of convention. ... When Saussure insists that the relation between a word and its meaning is constructed, not given, he is directing us to the cultural and social dimensions of language. Language is cultural, not natural, and so the meanings it generates are too. The way in which language generates meaning is important. He insists that the function of language is not to fix intrinsic meaning, the definitions of those things it refers to. Language is a system of relationships; it establishes categories and makes distinctions through networks of difference and similarity ... The insights contained within Saussure's theory of language have a relevance beyond linguistics because they reveal to us the mechanisms through which we make sense of our world. Specific social relations are defined through the place language allocates them within its system of relations. Such an explanation of language endows it with enormous determining power. Reality is made relative, while the power of constructing the 'real' is attributed to the mechanisms of language within the culture. Meaning is revealed to be culturally grounded - even culturally specific. Different cultures may not only use different language systems but they may also inhabit different worlds."

from British Cultural Studies, G. Turner, 1990



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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
The medium of language we call writing enabled human societies to get to the next level, so to speak. The invention of writing was partly in response to the demands that larger populations created, partly just a function of human creativity. I don't think it's possible to label it as one or the other. But what I wanted to talk about was the first chapter in the section on germs. Diamond is good at taking large chunks of time and geography and imposing a coherent pattern on them. He makes us see how vital the evolution of microbes is to understanding our history. I was especially interested in how the existence of a New World without any crowd diseases before the arrival of Europeans lends a kind of credence to the New World as an Edenic place. It was indeed thought of in those terms by Europeans after they received news of the place from explorers and missionaries.

It was never really an Eden, of course, but it became the opposite of one with the transmission of the diseases which the Europeans unleashed on the natives of the Americas. The figures on the lethality of the many diseases that arrived--all, according to Diamond originating in the domestic animals of Eurasia--are astounding. They show how this unacknowledged advantage put the final end, in effect, to the cultures of the New World. The advantage was already large, but Diamond suggests that without disease to decimate (literally) the indigenous populations, history would have turned out substantially differently; more accommodation might have been necessary on the part of the colonizers. The role of disease is something our history books probably didn't say much about. Diamond thinks that much of what we're taught about the clash of the New and Old worlds reinforces our need to believe that our replacement of so many cultures was somehow natural, all part of the march of progress. Low-balling the population of the New World (now believed to have been 20 million vs. old estimates of 1 million) made the destruction seem less dramatic than it really was.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
DWill wrote:
The medium of language we call writing enabled human societies to get to the next level, so to speak. The invention of writing was partly in response to the demands that larger populations created, partly just a function of human creativity. I don't think it's possible to label it as one or the other ....

Low-balling the population of the New World (now believed to have been 20 million vs. old estimates of 1 million) made the destruction seem less dramatic than it really was.

My apologies for the 'linguistics rabbit trail' but I have been thinking about how all literate socieities were once oral language based societies and transmitted their accumulated knowledge over the eons to each other orally. Apparently they did quite well at transmitting knowledge because once they became literate (no more than 5,000 years ago, a spit in the human history bucket) and moved beyond writing up the palace accounts and other mundane business, they had some important stuff to say. I'm wondering if the effectiveness with which a language was created (thinking about Saussurian signs, signifiers and signified here) eventually translated into more rapidly accumulating knowledge and then into writing because the limitations of oral language would have frustrated those with greater ambitions. The key choice to use an alphabetized system to 'signify' and to construct a grammar that somehow facilitated communication and transfer of meaning but also ultimately leant itself quite well to the printing press ... was this just luck? ...

Regarding the devastating impact of germs on the New World, there is no debating that massive numbers of people were killed off by the microbes that came with the Europeans. This went on right up to the 20th C as Europeans finally arrived in the highlands of New Guinea, the far north of Canada and other last bastions of traditional, non-colonized societies. But I confess to not understanding how there could have been 20 million native people living in the pre-euro contact americas. If you assume life spans of 50 years and an average population of 20 million for the 1,000 years prior to Columbus, that is 400 million people who lived and died. That's a lot of bones and gravesites, they would have been all over the place .. ...to the extent that gravesites would still be preserved, I would have thought there would still be much more evidence of all those 400 million past lives .. did the first colonizers simply ignore the gravesites en masse and plough them under or build over them (that's quite possible, unfortunately) ... maybe there is more evidence in mesoamerica, which is where a lot of the population was, I'm not sure ...



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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
I guess it's assumed that alphabetic writing came about through evolution, from pictograms to a system based on the sounds of one language. That's the way Diamond presents it, which of course goes along with his insistence that the only condition needed to produce writing was state-level society. This is an example of Diamond trying to establish a reductive basis for the key achievements of civilizations. You have been fighting him a bit on this, saying that there are some intrinsic or unique factors that can't be left out. The inventiveness of any particular group doesn't make it for him as an explanation for the development of writing. He does have some difficulty explaining why the Incas didn't have writing, but says that given more time they might have gotten it. Alphabetic writing has clear advangtages, but the lack of such a system in China didn't prevent the Chinese from innovating printing technology.

I'm not sure about the evidence for the greater numbers of New World people, I mean what that is based on. Maybe part of it could be skeletal evidence. In any case, even one million people could be assumed to leave many bones behind in graves, though if these aren't fossilized I don't know if they'd be expected to last long.

I got to thinking about the effect of the great epidemics that are of fairly recent origin (about the last 2,500 years). The social effects must have been great, and perhaps epidemics retarded the advent of modern, scientific societies. Maybe they were a primary cause, whereas feudalism and Christianity could have been secondary causes.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
I became separated from my copy of the book over the holidays, so I'm working from memory, with the aid of summaries of the chapters on writing and invention from a handy online synopsis (http://www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/gungermsteel.html)

Quote:
Chapter 12: Blueprints and Borrowed Letters

The use of writing originated in SW Asia with Sumerian cuneiform (c. 3000 BC, logograms evolving to phonetic symbols and determinatives etc.), Mesoamerica (c. 600 BC), and probably China (1300 BC). Other cultures adopted writing by blueprint copying or less directly by idea diffusion. Writing systems may incorporate various combinations of logograms (representing words: e.g., much of Chinese, English symbols such as $, %), syllabaries (representing syllables: e.g., Linear B, Japanese kana), and letters contained in alphabets (representing roughly single sounds, though in some cases, a phoneme may be represented by 2 or more letters). Other possible independent sites of writing were Egypt (3000 BC) and Easter Island. Mycenaean Linear B developed 1400 BC from the Linear A syllabary of Minoan Crete. The alphabet arose from Egyptian hieroglyphs for consonant sounds, which Semites c. 1700 initially adapted. The Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, adding vowel sounds (c. 8C BC). The Etruscans modified the Greek alphabet and later the Romans, leading to the Latin alphabet we now use. The Cherokee Indian Sequoyah developed a writing system for writing Cherokee using 85 symbols, including some from our own alphabet though not according to our usage. Other writing systems include Han'gul of Korea, ogham (Ireland), and the Rongorongo script of Easter Island.

Writing was initially used in complex stratified societies by an elite few (e.g., professional scribes) to maintain palace records and manage bureaucratic accounts (e.g., in Sumeria, records of goods paid in and out), collect taxes, facilitate enslavement (a principal use according to Levi-Strauss), promulgate propaganda and myths, promote religious practice, etc. Writing was not used by hunter-gatherer societies. Some complex food-producing societies never developed writing (e.g., Incas, Tonga, Hawaii, Mississippi Valley Indians, subequatorial and sub-Saharan West Africa--probably because of isolation and failure of idea diffusion).

It's not hard to see why writing would develop in "complex stratified societies," and why it just wasn't something needed in simpler societies. Compared to oral language, the rudiments that writing systems start with have little to recommend them for use by the culture. They are clumsy and only utilitarian compared to the rich resources of oral language. We might view societies without writing as primitive, but we should also appreciate the accomplishment of transmitting culture and information entirely without writing.

It's a bit harder to understand how some complex food-producing societies got along without writing, since the first use of it would be as an administrative tool. Diamond cites as reasons isolation, the failure of idea diffusion, and simply the lack of more time. From Diamond's discussion, it seems that long ago, just as now, it wasn't always necessary for a culture to be especially innovative, as long as it was receptive to using innovations from other places. This is where blueprint copying and idea diffusion come in. Today we hear a lot about China relying on the innovations of the West, yet the eagerness of the Chinese to put our inventions to work has propelled them to the no. 2 rank of world economies.

Although writing systems began as the tools of the elite, and literacy remained uncommon for centuries in most cultures that had it, the rise of the modern nation-state was linked to larger proportions of literate citizens. Business ran on writing. Protestantism and democratic movements were also spurs to literacy. Today, high literacy rates correlate with high per capita income or at least high GDP (as in China).
Quote:
Chapter 13: Necessity's Mother

The Phaistos disk (disc) The first printed (stamped, not handwritten) document is the Cretan Minoan Phaistos disk of 1700 BC, but it did not lead to a proliferation of printing apparently because it was ahead of its time, lacked receptive circumstances and supporting technology, etc . Though necessity is sometimes the mother to invention (e.g., cotton gin, nuclear weapons, steam engine), invention often precedes the creation of necessity (e.g., airplane, light bulb) and arises cumulatively from creative geniuses building by trial and error on the discoveries of their capable predecessors.

Early models of inventions often perform poorly and appear unconvincing. The flourishing of inventions requires acceptance within a society, which is influenced by the invention's: (1) economic advantage, (2) social value and prestige, (3) compatibility with vested interests, and (4) ease with which its advantages can be observed. Receptivity to technological innovation varies from society to society and is increased by (1) longer human life expectancy, (2) lack of availability of cheap or slave labor or a high cost of labor, (3) patents or other legal protections, (4) ready availability of technical training, (5) rewards for investment via capitalism, etc., (6) individualism, (7) encouragement of risk-taking, (8) scientific outlook, (9) tolerance of diverse views, (10) religious tolerance and religious encouragement of innovation, (11) ±war, (12) ±strong central government, (13) ±rigorous climate, and (14) ±abundant resources. Receptivity to innovation varies widely on each continent. Most new developments arrive by diffusion, which for places with geographic or ecologic barriers is limited.

Food production and large population and land mass favor more rapid technological development--e.g., in Eurasia. In New Guinea and other areas of the world, conservative (resistant) and more receptive societies lived side by side. The Navajo more than other Indian tribes adapted European use of dyes for weaving and took up ranching. The receptivity to innovation in Islam and China has varied over time. Thus no continent has been unusually innovative or noninnovative over history.

Important inventions such as guns can allow a culture to overrun another. Yet in Japan, the samurai restricted the adoption of guns until Commodore Perry arrived 1853. Other examples of cultures rejecting new innovations include the Tasmanians (fishing), China (ocean going ships), and Polynesians (pottery in some areas).

Technology is autocatalytic, begetting more technology, and the rate of development can accelerate dramatically.

The main factors leading to the difference in technological development between the conquering Europeans and the New World inhabitants were: level of food production, barriers to diffusion, and differences in human population.

This chapter raises a possible contradiction in Diamond's thesis. All along, he has been saying that cultural factors didn't figure in whether a given group of people adopted food production, animal domestication, and writing. Geography was the sole determinant. But when it comes to less basic, more advanced innovations, he cites a multitude of cultural factors that can make a culture either technologically progressive, or not. I suppose he would say that these cultural traits still do not relate to differences in innate abilities. Even if they don't, could culture, even at its most basic, have been part of the reason for cultures not adopting food production or domesticating animals? Diamond sees the facts as decisive at this level. If the plants and animals weren't available, or they didn't migrate easily from other areas, a given people wouldn't be able to use them. What it might come down to is whether we're looking at areas that originated food production or areas or groups that adopted it. For the originators, Diamond says there was no consciousness of trying to domesticate plants and animals. There was a need to feed growing populations, so whatever presented itself as a better way to do that would be used. For the potential adopters, there could be choice based on whether food production was a more efficient way to provide calories. If it wasn't, why change to it? Diamond cited examples of h-g groups that didn't change to food production after learning that neighboring groups were doing it. So it seems clear that cultures can formulate responses to technology on a more or less conscious level, as opposed to what was happening when the earliest peoples were moving gradually toward farming.


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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
DWill: It's unfortunate you've become separated from your GG&S, oh well, it is a hefty tome to lug about, makes one appreciate the Kindle. Thanks for your helpful comments even without the tome.

With regards to holding a view of the primitiveness of oral societies, my personal opinion is that this is a bias that we hold as a literate society who are proud of our accomplishments and we are generally too myopic to see the value of the oral tradition. In modern times, the residual oral societies have become so few and so weak that this further corroborates our bias, although there are more cases recently of oral knowledge being valued.

But I do think that writing is well suited to certain advances that would have been too awkward, time consuming or even impossible if attempted orally. The earliest uses of writing for accounting purposes (making this an old profession but still not the oldest) I think demonstrates this. Writing is just the sensible way to keep accounts and to establish contracts and make other business arrangements. When computer applications were in their earlier phase, so many applications were business and finance oriented because the technology lends itself so well to this area. Gradually, computer applications related to arts and culture are being developed but it has taken decades to get there (a long time in the computer world) and I would suggest that the fit is much tougher to make and the technology had to morph into something quite different before it was usable.

Writing works really well for certain types of communication, in fact, may be a necessary prerequisite, but for other communication, say an epic story or knowledge about one's environment, a healthy oral tradition might do just fine. Diamond clearly uses adoption of technology as a yardstick of development, really as a way to establish a pecking order of societies from primitive to complex and stratified, and I think writing was essential to technological development (seems unlikely that the steam engine could have been developed in an oral society) so these two feed each other.

I think Diamond is too technology focused and I don't think he emphasizes other forms of development as having value, for example, cultural development, where writing would not have been such an essential platform and advantage, hence the bias against oral tradition ...



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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
As usual, I have fallen behind and am playing catch up. I have two thoughts to share -- I should really read all the posts before I make them, but what the hell. First, it seems to me the real driver here is population size. And thought number two is: I am not convinced that it is "people freed from producing food" that is the impetus for the "progress" of society (centralized government, writing, etc.). I think a better case can be made that centralized government, writing, etc. develope to meet the need for technologies to deal with, 1. managing the increased number of people in the group and 2. to manage the wealth created by the new mode of food production. Ok, now I will go back and read over everyones posts.


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Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:50 pm
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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
DWill wrote:
...But what I wanted to talk about was the first chapter in the section on germs. Diamond is good at taking large chunks of time and geography and imposing a coherent pattern on them. He makes us see how vital the evolution of microbes is to understanding our history. I was especially interested in how the existence of a New World without any crowd diseases before the arrival of Europeans lends a kind of credence to the New World as an Edenic place. It was indeed thought of in those terms by Europeans after they received news of the place from explorers and missionaries.


I agree with the first statement and a "me too" to the second.


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Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:57 pm
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Post Re: GGS 3: From Food to Guns, Germs and Steel
DWill wrote:
I got to thinking about the effect of the great epidemics that are of fairly recent origin (about the last 2,500 years). The social effects must have been great, and perhaps epidemics retarded the advent of modern, scientific societies. Maybe they were a primary cause, whereas feudalism and Christianity could have been secondary causes.

In one of my grad classes (Death & Dying) I remember reading something along this thought line.


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