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Preface, Prologue, and Part One 
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Post Preface, Prologue, and Part One
I think at this point we can bundle the videos and book together and start the discussion. So, whether you have things to say about the video or the book, you can say them here. I suggested that we take this book in four sections separately and see how that goes. We're reading 9-81, the two introductory parts and "From Eden to Cajamarca."

Since there's no rush to get started, I'd like first to do some introductions if possible, taking a page from the social book clubs where everyone knows things about the others. If you've been in a book club, you'll know that sometimes you don't even talk much about the book! We'll avoid that here, I'm sure, but a little chatter can help create more of a group sense. It would be a good policy to always include something about the topic in each post.

So, about me. I'm Bill Daniels, living for the past 22 years in Berryville, VA, which is a small northern Shenandoah Valley town about 60 miles from DC. It's sparsely populated compared to the booming Northern VA area to the east and Winchester to the west. Nice place to live. Married almost 36 years (yipes!) with two daughters ages 22 and 20. One dog and one cat. I've been involved mostly in education and human services, and for the past 7 years have been working in mental health. Studied English undergrad and grad, and a while back got an M.S. in rehabilitation counseling. I read broadly if not deeply, and not exactly voraciously. I have other things I like to do, mostly outdoors, that take up my time.

I'm attracted to books like Guns, Germs, and Steel, books that attempt to tell us something we didn't know about where we've been and who we are. I like bold generalists over more restrained specialists. One of my regrets, though, is that I didn't persevere in studies of science (not to mention math, which I however find it harder to regret not liking).

Diamond seems to me to bring a formidable skill set to his work, combining the scrutiny of the scientist with the expansive scope of the historian or philosopher. He has been criticized for trespassing in areas not his specialty. It's hard to always know how to view such criticisms. It can of course be true that gross errors are committed by writers with these ambitions; but it's also true that they can, to use a tired saying, think outside the box more readily than most specialists can. Those who have heaped praise on this book believe Diamond has joined up some major disciplines and produced a grand synthesis, a scientific explanation for the reason why certain groups raced ahead to modernity while others didn't. To a large extent, these phenomena seem to have been considered beyond analysis and theory before Diamond's work.



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Thu Nov 17, 2011 11:33 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Hi everyone. My name is Michelle and go by the alias "Venus" online. I'm 26 years old and active duty Air Force. I've been married for almost 6 years and I have one 16-month old son. I'm currently stationed at Hill AFB, UT -- snuggled against the beautiful Wasatch mountains where my family and I frequently hunt, camp, fish, and play in the woods. :)

Before joining the military, I was in college for three years studying anthropology. To this day, understanding human evolution is a great passion of mine. After running out of money for college, I left to join the military and have had the opportunity to travel to many places in the world, including the Middle East where three massive turning points in human history emerged: settlement, agriculture, and alphabetic writing. My job as an aircraft controller and frequent deployer has allowed me to meet people from many different cultures. Although I think I've passed the age and opportunity of pursuing a career in anthropology, it still remains a life-long journey of learning for me. I regularly subscribe to and read anthropology journals for the far-reaching understanding of humanity it gives me.

When I first read Jared Diamond's book 5 years ago, I was struck dumb by his explanation for global wealth disparity in the world. Although I think his book left out one more crucial element in human evolution (writing), I still enjoyed his book for its elegant, scientific, non-racially charged answer to Yali's question.

I'm still watching the NatGeo series today and will go back later to comment. Tonight, I will be reading Part One. As I finished reading the Prologue this morning, a part on page 25 jumped out at me --

Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves."


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Sat Nov 19, 2011 3:11 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Great post, and I'm really excited that you'll be reading the book with us. With your background in anthropology as well as your experience internationally, you'll have a lot to contribute. I do recall from the video that Diamond cited writing as one of the important advantages the conquistadors had over the Incas. But he obviously didn't rank that weapon in his top three!

Playing in the snow. Really, already? come to think of it, I did read a sad story about an extreme skier who died recently in an avalanche in Utah. I like snow, as in a lot. Too bad that here in Virginia not enough of it falls to be of any use for having fun.



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Sat Nov 19, 2011 7:02 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Greetings, my name is Jackie Ondy, aka Saffron. I am the moderator for the poetry Forum. I live in the most northern county in the state of Virginia; on the other side of the Blue Ridge from DWill. In fact, we used to work together. I am another one in the group who has spent some time in school dabbling with Anthropology. It was my undergrad minor (art major). I did about 2/3 of a master's program in Sociology in the mid 80's. Why only 2/3? Babies and grad school do not mix well. About 15 years later I completed an MA in Psychology and currently work as a social worker. I'm a projects kinda person. I've always got something cooking (sometime literally - I learned how to make cyrstalized ginger today). My current most fun project is section hiking the Appalachian trail with my daughter. I've got 273 miles done out of 1900. I figure in about 10 years I'll get 'er done. Time to say something about Jared Diamond. I found Colapsed fascinating and enjoyed the read even though it was long. So far, this one is off to a great start. I did not really like much of the National Geographic program. Glad to be a part of the discussion of G,G, & S.



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DWill
Sat Nov 19, 2011 10:52 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Reading over just the first two short sections, I'm again struck by the protean abilities of this author. I wonder who else could have attempted this kind of synthesis.

This material also makes me wonder how my attitude toward the topic of reparations to conquered groups might change. Bringing all this out into the open, proving that there is nothing other than chance responsible for my privilege and their misfortune, gives urgency to social justice concerns. I've never thought that the strong and powerful were better, but I did assume that there was something, however indefinable, about some groups that gave them an edge in the race to be the top dogs. Diamond tells us that it was nothing more than being in the right place, that there are no innate intelligence differences between groups of humans that give one group an advantage over another. So, looking at the losers in this competition, and now understanding why they came to be so, what are our obligations towards them if we value compassion and fairness?

JD brings up the matter of proximate causes or explanations vs. ultimate causes and explanations. This is important, since most explanations for inequality have stopped at proximate causes, such as the fact that the Spaniards had guns with which to awe the Incas. But why were the Spaniards the ones to have the guns in the first place? That speaks to the ultimate causes Diamond wants to uncover in the book.

Did anyone find inconsistent JD's statements about New Guineans being smarter than Westerners? One reviewer criticized JD for saying this without anything but anecdotal evidence. And, if New Guineans can be smarter, why couldn't the success of other groups be attributed to some evolved advantage in smarts?

I hope saffron and venusunderfire and anyone else will feel free to pose any questions to the group as we go through this "project."

Venus, I'm curious about your user name.



Sun Nov 20, 2011 9:56 am
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
DWill wrote:
Did anyone find inconsistent JD's statements about New Guineans being smarter than Westerners? One reviewer criticized JD for saying this without anything but anecdotal evidence. And, if New Guineans can be smarter, why couldn't the success of other groups be attributed to some evolved advantage in smarts?

Yes, I think he could easily and most likely be mistaken on this idea of his. We know that brains are way more flexible than previously thought. We also know that whatever pathways or skills the brain uses most are the best developed. One more thing to add in, we have some understanding of how a child’s environment impacts brain development and eventual IQ as measured by western developed tests. It stands to reason that different cultural groups may have different areas of, for lack of a better way to describe, of intellectual expertise that might make one group appear to be smarter.

DWill wrote:
Venus, I'm curious about your user name.

Just a stab, but how about something along the lines of women still having to defend their place in the world as full citizens. Venus, what say you?



Sun Nov 20, 2011 10:17 am
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Saffron wrote:
Yes, I think he could easily and most likely be mistaken on this idea of his. We know that brains are way more flexible than previously thought. We also know that whatever pathways or skills the brain uses most are the best developed. One more thing to add in, we have some understanding of how a child’s environment impacts brain development and eventual IQ as measured by western developed tests. It stands to reason that different cultural groups may have different areas of, for lack of a better way to describe, of intellectual expertise that might make one group appear to be smarter.

Yes, that's what I was thinking, that the abilities the New Guineans show are simply due to their having to adapt to different environments. If JD had been born into that culture, there is no doubt in my mind that he'd be equally as adept at the skills New Guineans have. I think that brain development possibly is a different question, I mean whether, during the crucial stages of growth, how children spend their time has a lifelong effect on their intelligence. Diamond says that TV watching has probably made U.S. kids stupider, and maybe he's right on that. Whether that could have created an overall dumbing-down of the whole population when all the TV watchers reproduced, is an unknown.

I remember reading a remark by Levi-Strauss, to the effect that a hunter/gatherer treading carefully through the woods, and the New Yorker driving through the streets, are each employing finely attuned skills and are alert to things of which the other could not even recognize the existence.



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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
DWill wrote:
.... I think that brain development possibly is a different question, I mean whether, during the crucial stages of growth, how children spend their time has a lifelong effect on their intelligence. Diamond says that TV watching has probably made U.S. kids stupider, and maybe he's right on that. Whether that could have created an overall dumbing-down of the whole population when all the TV watchers reproduced, is an unknown.

I remember reading a remark by Levi-Strauss, to the effect that a hunter/gatherer treading carefully through the woods, and the New Yorker driving through the streets, are each employing finely attuned skills and are alert to things of which the other could not even recognize the existence.


First, you have to excuse my brief answer. I am working on a netbook and I am not so good on the smaller keyboard. I was not so much thinking about things like TV. The type of effect I had in mind was more like if you live in the desert and have to be able to find water in every available way you will be tuned into fine details of plants and the landscape that indicate water in ways that we westerns would have to get specialized training to acquire. This skill of attention comes just by virtue of having grown up in the the desert and I would expect that it would work different muscles in the brain; like maybe the visual spacial parts. I think the example you give at the bottom of your post captures what I was thinking.



Sun Nov 20, 2011 12:34 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
DWill wrote:
Did anyone find inconsistent JD's statements about New Guineans being smarter than Westerners?


I did find his statements inconsistent a bit. Throughout the book and in the prologue, he maintains that it is not biological (genetic) differences between human groups that enabled some to rise to literate, conquering, industrial complexity -- but then he also asserts that "natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in" Western, literate societies (p. 21). Yet, if it's true that New Guineans are more intelligent (which I don't believe), it is only because they live in environments that have warfare, food scarcity, and no passive entertainment for their children -- environments that, by his reasoning, would yield more intelligent citizens (culturally, not genetically). Throw an American baby in the arms of a New Guinean mother for 20 or so years, and you'd have an intelligent person, in the New Guinean sense.

I have two objections to this: 1) Definitions of intelligence are subjective. There is no clear measurement for an over all "intelligent" person. Today, most of us recognize that there are multiple kinds of intelligences (artistic, musical, mechanical, personal, interpersonal, leadership, mathematical, even "survival"). 2) His explanations for the "superior" intelligence of New Guineans is entirely based on proximate, environmental influences -- he even says, "New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood" and so, in our societal environments, "they look stupid to Westerners" (p. 20). Well of course, they look stupid in our environment and we look stupid in theirs; our cultural environments have their own challenges and opportunities.

DWill wrote:
Venus, I'm curious about your user name.


"Venus" is my favorite planet, mythic goddess, and plant (the flytrap, although I'm fascinating by all carnivorous plants). "Under Fire" comes from my love of debate. And I have some pretty out-there views, compared to most people.

What does your username mean, DWill?


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Sun Nov 20, 2011 12:40 pm
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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
While I was watching the video and reading the first chapter, I enjoyed Diamond's "whirlwind tour of human evolution and history" because it gave me a brush-up on my archaeological knowledge of the deep human past. I had to stop, at one point, and give myself a fun exercise about the "order" in which human evolution/development generally arose on a global scale. Yeah, I quizzed myself; I'm a nerd. lol.

So I wrote down all the "ultimate cause" factors that enable a society to increase in complexity. And then I researched them all to see, in what order, they emerged in history to widespread use by today's literate, complex societies. What I found interesting is the first factor (stone tools) was really the only factor that all humans shared at one time. Not all cultures developed settlement, agriculture, writing, or even metallurgy. I was also surprised (I don't know why) by the order in which they fell in. For some reason, I thought agriculture came first then settlement later, and metallurgy would predate writing (well, in some parts of the world, I guess it did).

This is what I found:

1. Tool use (stone) - 2.6 mya - 10,000 BCE (paleolithic)
2. Settlement (villages, H/G, part-time horticulture) - 20,000 BCE - 10,000 BCE (mesolithic)
3. Agriculture - 10,000 BCE - 2,000 BCE (neolithic)
4. Writing - 7,000 BCE - 3,000 BCE (proto and pictogram writing)
5. Metallurgy - 5,500-3,300 BCE (copper, chalcolithic); 3,300-1,200 BCE (bronze age); 3,000-800 BCE (late bronze age/iron age)
6. Alphabet - 2,000 BCE


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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
venusunderfire wrote:

DWill wrote:
Venus, I'm curious about your user name.


"Venus" is my favorite planet, mythic goddess, and plant (the flytrap, although I'm fascinating by all carnivorous plants). "Under Fire" comes from my love of debate. And I have some pretty out-there views, compared to most people.

What does your username mean, DWill?

Hint: Take a look at the post where he introduces himself - the very first post on this thread.



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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
Saffron wrote:
Hint: Take a look at the post where he introduces himself - the very first post on this thread.


Ah! I feel silly now! I need more coffee! Hehe.

Saffron wrote:
I am another one in the group who has spent some time in school dabbling with Anthropology. It was my undergrad minor (art major).


That is so wonderful! I rarely get to meet people who have a lot of interest in anthropology. What did you think of the list and order of the "causal" factors I provided above and the way Jared Diamond presents them in his "whirlwind tour" in chapter 1? Are there any missing from the list or ones you think should go in a different order?

I know people might eventually come to think I focus a little too much on the effect alphabetic writing on human culture and human brain, but it's just something I've recently started studying and it fascinates me to no end. I think for Diamond's purposes, he lumps tools/writing all into one big bundle called "technology;" and some groups developed these technologies because their environments provided the opportunity (rich in metal, papyrus, clay, wax) and some didn't for the same reasons. What do you think? Does a group of people need to have a specific kind of environment to develop writing, the same way they need the right environment to develop metallury?

Saffron wrote:
I found Colapsed fascinating and enjoyed the read even though it was long. So far, this one is off to a great start.


I still need to read this one. I watched the NatGeo show based off this book a while back and I really enjoyed it.


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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
venusunderfire wrote:
Saffron wrote:
Hint: Take a look at the post where he introduces himself - the very first post on this thread.


Ah! I feel silly now! I need more coffee! Hehe.

I think you've got the idea, but the W may surprise you. I'll let him decide if he wants to share that peice of information.

venusunderfire wrote:
What did you think of the list and order of the "causal" factors I provided above and the way Jared Diamond presents them in his "whirlwind tour" in chapter 1? Are there any missing from the list or ones you think should go in a different order?

I've been thinking about it since I read your post this morning. It looks right on to me. And don't worry about appearing too stuck on your interest in alphabetic writing. You will soon see that each of us has something we are stuck on. That last question you asked about development of writing is a good one. Off the top of my head, it seems to me that other developments in the culture will have to lead to the need of a written language. In my opinion people are very inventive when the need of something arises. I think there is a lot in the old adage, "were there is a will, there is a way."



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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
With this discussion group well under way, I'd better get through the preliminaries and join in.
My name is Dwight. I'm a recently retired teacher living with my wife, also a teacher, in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. Most of my teaching was in multicultural schools in low income areas in Toronto, but the last eight years of teaching were in two Inuit communities in Canada's newest territory of Nunavut (established 1999). In the discussions, I expect to be drawing from some of those experiences and talks with Inuit elders, some of whom, in their youth, lived as their ancestors did over the last ten thousand years.

I read the book about 5 years ago, viewed the Nat Geo videos, and enjoyed a few of Diamond's interviews on YouTube. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll put another log on the fire, settle back with a fresh cup of coffee and try to complete part one of the book.



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Post Re: Preface, Prologue, and Part One
This is starting off in a very promising way. There might be too many ideas to manage well, but that's perfectly okay. I like the way venusunderfire got us thinking about why alphabetic writing would be dependent on the other material factors Diamond talks about. The typical explanation, I think, is that as agriculture really got going, a class of people called accountants was created. Well, kidding, but there did seem to be a need to keep track of stuff by making marks on whatever could retain an impression. But from there, I'm not really sure how the miraculous development of graphemes came about. I assume that in some cultures, the writing remained entirely pictographic.

It sounds as though we generally agree that Diamond leans a bit too heavily on his experience in New Guinea, and he doesn't convince us. He's probably trying to generate interest by using his own life, which he also did in the beginning of Collapse. It's a good nonfiction technique, but you need to be careful with it.

Edit: For venus, since I started off with disclosure, my first name is Willard. I'm a bit mifffed with the presidential candidate whose first name is also Willard but chooses to call himself Mitt!



Last edited by DWill on Sun Nov 20, 2011 6:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sun Nov 20, 2011 6:55 pm
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