Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel. I had meant to read this book when it came out in 1997. Was there ever a better title? From the time of the civil rights movement or perhaps earlier I have thought that primitive peoples don’t know less than Harvard Business School graduates, they just know different things. Diamond suggests that they may be smarter. In a place like Papua New Guinea before it was “discovered” by Europeans, there was no organized society larger than the band, which consisted of a few interrelated extended families. The primary cause of death was murder by persons from other bands. Life was short, but very likely it was the cleverest Papuans who lived long enough to reproduce. In more complex societies people enjoyed some greater level of protection and therefore the less intelligent members of that society had a greater chance of reproducing. It seems obvious that over a period of 10,000 years, the average intelligence level among Papuans would rise in comparison to intelligence levels in less selective societies. Diamond’s years of field work living among Papuans convinced him that the conclusion is valid. He found that Papuans have an amazing knowledge of every element of the environment in which they live, that they make good decision and they are amazingly curious when they run across something new, for example noticing and investigating everything that was unfamiliar when he took them along to assist him outside their own territories. Whether he is right or not, this made a great introduction to his thesis that environmental differences determined levels of development throughout the world. In Papua, the general term for the tangible products of western civilization is “cargo.” In 1972 Diamond was walking on the beach with a Papuan politician named Yali, when Yali asked him this question: Why do western countries have so much cargo? This book is Diamond’s attempt to answer that question. He identifies four factors that account for differences in levels of development throughout the world before the age of discovery began in the 15th C CE.
1. The presence of plant and animal species suitable for the agricultural development necessary to increase food production and support larger and more complex societies.
2. The ease of diffusion of farming and technology. East west diffusion in areas with a horizontal axis like the Fertile Crescent is easier because weather conditions are similar throughout whereas a north south axis can be a barrier to diffusion.
3. The ease of intercontinental diffusion. Advances moved more easily from Eurasia to Africa than to Australia or the Americas.
4. Within a continental area, development of farming enables larger populations, and these larger groups displace smaller, less technologically advanced groups. In these larger groups, there are more inventors and innovators and they have much more to work with.
The “guns” and “steel” of the title obviously represent the technological developments that enabled advanced societies to colonize more primitive areas. The question of “germs” is less obvious and perhaps more interesting. People living with domestic animals received from them diseases such as small pox and measles and over time developed some immunity to them. When peoples who had developed without exposure to domesticated animals were exposed to these diseases, 90% or more died. It is estimated that when the first explorers visited North America, the native population was about 20 million. By the time settlers arrived, this population may have numbered no more than a million. Whole societies like the Mississippi culture were wiped out by the spread of disease without ever being exposed directly to a European. Diamond makes his case well. His basic tools are archeology and linguistic analysis. May 2012
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided, How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. How the pop psych business people must hate this woman! She starts off with the breast cancer gurus who would tell a woman that she should look at her illness as an opportunity to turn her life around and goes on from there to take on the team builders, motivational speakers, life coaches, mega-church preachers and a host of other hucksters who prey on the public by bringing them feel good messages that will make them healthy, happy and rich. For the origins of this pseudo psychology she goes back to the 19th C when Mary Baker Eddy was promoting self cures and proceeds on to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win friends and Influence People in 1936, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 and a host of others since then. Here are a couple of lines I swiped from a review in the Washington Post: “Crafted as a correction to Calvinism's soul-crushing pessimism, positive thinking, in Ehrenreich's view, has become a kind of national religion, an abettor to capitalism's crueler realities and an overcorrection every bit as anxiety-producing as the Puritans' Calvinism ever was.” It’s easy to cope with her message about the people marketing hopefulness as some kind of physical science based on quantum physics, but not so easy to sort things out when she takes on Martin Seligman and “positive psychology” and happiness research. Is “positive psychology” a legitimate branch or subset of psychology or something different? Her research is thorough but secondary. She hasn’t “read the literature,” but what she has to say seems worthy of consideration by those who have. Among the many reviews I read was one by a college professor who offers a course in positive psychology, and he opined that the book was a useful commentary on his discipline. May 2012
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I have read many books on Lincoln and the Civil War and this may be the best. Early in my reading I made a note of an incident that impressed me. In the 1830s Henry Seward and his wife Frances started off on what was to be a three month tour through the south. They got as far as Virginia and turned back after seeing the poverty that accompanied slavery and its cruelty, including the sight of a dozen African American boys age 6 to 12 tied together on their way to auction in Richmond. The main theme of the book is how Lincoln swept his rivals for the presidential nomination in 1860 into his cabinet, thereby unifying the Republican party by including representatives all of its divergent views within his administration. There are extensive profiles of each of the cabinet members, all of whom started out scorning Lincoln as a dumb country lawyer and all of whom ended up as devoted friends and admirers, except Salmon P, Chase at Treasury who never forgave Lincoln for winning the nomination. Along the way we learn that Lincoln was a consummate politician and capable of leadership at the highest levels and under the most difficult conditions. With little military experience, he taught himself to be an effective commander in chief. I came away admiring not only Lincoln but also Seward and Stanton, both of whom sacrificed much and made important contributions to the success of Lincoln’s presidency. One thing that struck me was the passions about personal relationships expressed in the letters quoted by Goodwin. Another was the thought that in this day of email and texting, it may be harder for future historians to reconstruct our time than it was for Goodwin to write about the Lincoln era. Those people wrote long letters and they kept the ones they received, treasure troves for researchers. May 2012
Anne Perry. Treason at Lisson Grove. There’s a traitor in the British Special Branch and there are anarchists lurking everywhere. I started to summarize the plot and that didn’t work, so I’ll just say that this is a pleasant period piece with lots of intrigue and a stay at home spouse who is just as good a detective as her husband. March 2012
Jeffrey D. Sachs. The Price of Civilization, Rewakening American Virtue and Prosperity. Read this book. Get everyone you know to read this book. Dr. Sachs succinctly summarizes everything I have learned in nearly 78 years about politics, economics and sociology. I can’t say his analysis of what’s wrong with the way we are governing our country and of what we should be doing is brilliant, because it should be totally obvious to any thinking and informed adult who has any concept of social responsibility. Sachs believes that we need more government, not less, because the market, useful as it is for producing the goods we need or think we need, does not and cannot deliver the public goods and services essential for our society. Priority areas are education, infrastructure, the environment and science and technology. He even invokes Hayek and Friedman to help make his case. America is falling behind other developed countries in most of the areas that really count, principally, education and health. If we don’t change our ways, we will only fall farther behind. He demonstrates that we can afford to move forward, if only we can agree to do it. He gives about equal time to criticizing our two political parties, the Republicans for a totally unrealistic approach to the economy and the Democrats for following the Republicans. In effect we have two center right parties, who cater to special interests and wealth, with occasional lip service from Democrats about taking on our real problems and investing in our future. May 2012
Jay Winik. The Great Upheaval. April 2012 I really enjoyed this book but after reading the New York Times Review, I suspect it was a lot better by ear than it would have been on its many, many pages. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/15/books/15gord.html Winik takes us through the last two decades of the 18th C in Russia, France and North America. His thesis is that it was in this period that the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau came to fruition and enabled society to make the transition to the modern world. The acceptance of the Enlightenment was successful in the United States, messy and delayed but eventually successful in France and possible in Russia but then fended off and delayed for 100 years when Catherine the Great changed her mind about adopting liberalism. I particularly appreciated Winik’s detailed commentary on the events of the French Revolution and also on events in Russia, about which I was relatively ignorant, perhaps because other authors I’ve read did not value the influence of Russia on western events as much as Winik does.