Guns, Germs, and Steel

All I could think about while reading this book is that a much more appropriate title would be “Plants, Animals, and Geography.” Alas, I bet the publisher would have vetoed such a bland choice. In the end, those are the three key factors that influenced the long term success of every civilization on the planet. Ultimately, yes, guns, germs, and steel allowed one civilization to “engulf” another but the reason the dominant civilization had guns, germs, and steel in the first place was due to prehistoric luck. It found itself with plants that were amenable to farming, animals amenable to domestication and geography that enabled the extension and expansion of the young civilization when it was ready.

History unfolded the way it did, paraphrasing Einstein, not because any one civilization has (or had) smarter people than the others. But rather, the aforementioned plants, animals, and geography, provided a sort of head start to the civilizations that, in hindsight, appear “better” and they were able to spend more time working on the problems, challenges and technologies that ultimately developed into guns, germs, and steel. This is a reassuring conclusion. It means that if we could teleport prehistoric hunter-gatherers from one region to another we would still find that a civilization based in Europe ultimately engulfs much of the world. And more importantly, this conclusion renders racism that proclaims the superiority of one genetic group over another baseless.

Following the high-level but thorough analysis of how the modern world came to be, Diamond couches his conclusions a bit. He recognizes that there are some notable outliers that don’t fit the pattern he describes. China, in particular, which stepped backwards from its position as technology leader suggests that plants, animals, and geography were only a starting point. There were and still are a multitude of factors that impact the longterm success of a civilization.

After spending quite a bit of time on this book (it’s dense, dry and long) I’m left wondering about the utility of this knowledge. The author’s conclusions about racism are heartening and the discussion of technology/idea diffusion seems relevant to the distribution of information in large organizations—something he talks about a bit in his second edition follow-up. Something to ponder…


The Early History Of Smalltalk

Reading about the invention of object oriented programming feels a bit like reading about the invention of the wheel. Not that I’ve read anything about the invention of the wheel, but of course that’s because I take the wheel for granted. I guess OOP sometimes feels like the programming equivalent of the wheel: I suppose I’ve also taken object oriented programming for granted. To be reminded of the fact that someone had to sit down and develop the kernel of that idea and see it through into useable system was refreshing and a little frightening. 

An engineering education requires reading a huge amount of technical literature but very little of what’s read is a first-person historical narrative and that made reading Alan Kay’s account of Smalltalk’s development particularly engaging. A strange byproduct of the technology industry’s rapid pace of advancement is that we rarely have time or inclination to read historical technical documents. We never seem to devote time to the process of how the technologies we use were developed.