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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 1999 /3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Mona Charen

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What caused civilization? --
PROBABLY EVERY PERSON in the world has pondered the question: Why did some civilizations advance, develop technology and expand, while others remained extremely primitive?

Not only has everyone probably mused on these questions, but it's a safe bet that many in the Western world have probably also concluded -- silently perhaps -- that the answer lies in the genetic superiority of some races over others.

Jared Diamond, a molecular physiologist and evolutionary biologist, has been considering these loaded questions for 30 years, and his explanation, contained in the book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," is so convincing that it deserves to be read the world over.

The answer requires a journey into pre-history and the dawn of civilization. Thirteen thousand years ago, all human societies were based on the hunter/gatherer model. In order to advance further, humans had to develop agriculture and domesticate animals. Why agriculture? Because hunting/gathering is labor-intensive. Only with the advent of agriculture did human societies produce enough food to permit some members of the tribe to have leisure time. With ample food and leisure time can come settled dwellings, larger populations, governments, religions, bureaucrats, soldiers and technology.

All humans attempted to domesticate plants and animals. But not every region of the world was equally blessed with naturally occurring domesticatable animals or nutritious plants. There are, Diamond writes, roughly 200,000 wild plant species. But only a few hundred of these have been domesticated, and only about a dozen crops provide the nutrition necessary to make the hard work of agriculture pay off. Those are the dozen species that, to this day, provide 80 percent of the world's crops -- wheat, rice, corn, barley, sorghum, soybeans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, manioc, sugar cane, sugar beets and bananas.

In the prehistoric Americas, for example, the naturally occurring plants included corn, potatoes and beans. But the corn our ancestors encountered had a tiny cob only a half-inch long. Thousands of years of breeding were required to bring corn to its current size -- and its nutritional value is modest.

The most blessed region of the world was the Fertile Crescent, or Mesopotamia. There, primitive peoples found naturally growing wheat, barley, rice and peas. These crops, in addition to high caloric and nutritional value, were fast growing and easily stored.

The story was similar for animal domestication. In the Americas, the only domesticatable mammal was the llama -- which could be used only in cold climates. In sub-Saharan Africa, none of the mammals was suitable for taming.

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Without domesticated animals, people lacked transportation, fertilizer, leather, a source of ready protein, milk and deep plows. Once again, Mesopotamia was blessed with everything necessary for civilization -- cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and dogs, among others.

The Eurasian continent also had a strong advantage over other parts of the world. It has an east/west axis, so that crops and animals developed in the Fertile Crescent were easily transferred east toward China and west toward Europe. Alas for Africa and America, the north/south axis meant that plants and animals could not readily be transferred. Climactic differences, as well as difficulties of terrain, made sharing of technology very difficult.

Those who domesticated animals and lived in close proximity to them paid a short-term price -- most of the epidemic diseases that have ravaged mankind were caught from animals. But after weathering the first onslaught, Europeans developed immunities. And when they set out to conquer the Americas, their germs did most of the dirty work (not that the Europeans understood this), killing up to 95 percent of the Native Americans. When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1520, they carried one slave with smallpox.

Mexico's population was then about 20 million. By 1618, smallpox had reduced Mexico's population to 1.6 million.

Space permits only a brief hint of the fascinating breadth of this book.

Diamond offers an explanation for why hunter/gatherers took up farming in the first place, why the mammals of Africa proved resistant to domestication, and for why so many large mammals were wiped out in the aftermath of the Ice Age. He conveys both great respect for the ingenuity of human beings at all times and places, as well as a well-founded belief that Asians and Europeans were blessed by good climates, good geography, and usable flora and fauna, whereas New Guineans, Australians, Native Americans and Africans were handicapped by the lack of them.

These differences date back thousands of years, but we are still feeling the effects today.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate