Magazine article The Spectator

Judge Thou My Course

Magazine article The Spectator

Judge Thou My Course

Article excerpt

John Cornwall GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL: A SHORT HISTORY OF EVERYBODY FOR THE LAST 13,000 YEARS by Jared Diamond Cape, 18.99, pp. 400

Do you know why the keyboards of the world are configured according to the QWERTY arrangement (so named after the left-most six letters in its upper row)? You always thought it was designed for maximum ease and speed. But apparently this familiar layout was dreamt up in 1873 in a bid to slow down typists by scattering the commonest letters across the keyboard and concentrating them on the left - normally a difficult task for right-handers. The reason for this contradictory aim was that pre-1873 typewriters jammed if adjacent keys were struck speedily. Later, when more efficient non-jamming machines were constructed, the QWERTY was so solidly entrenched in the habits of hundreds of million of typists and typing teachers that manufacturers blocked all moves for a change.

That's just a taste of the huge circuit of weird and paradoxical factoids dispensed by Jared Diamond in his quirky, ambitious new book.

Diamond tells us that he was inspired to write his 13,000-year history after meeting a local politician called Yali on the beach of a tropical island in New Guinea. Yali had asked him: `Why is that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?'

Good question. Somewhat expanded, and viewed from a Western standpoint, the enquiry is about the reasons why Europe and the Near East gave rise to modernity, capitalism and science, early and first, while Africa, Australasia and the Americas lagged late and, for them, disastrously behind.

Diamond thinks he has the answer:

Authors are regularly asked by journalists [he comments, as if the two species are separated by an unbridgeable gulf) to summarise 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.'

From this prescriptive beginning there follows a breathtakingly self-opinionated history of the world such as only a full-time physiologist might write - for that is Professor Diamond's normal day job, which, I venture to suggest, he should emphatically not abandon.

Diamond is all too conscious that there are other, more conventional arguments arguments that he will obliterate by broad brushstrokes from his lofty overview of the gargantuan canvas. `Compressing 13,000 years of history on all continents into a 400-page book,' he informs us, `works out to an average of about one page per continent per 150 years, making brevity and simplification inevitable.' Yet this very compression he assures us brings a compensatory benefit: `Long-term comparisons of regions yield insights that cannot be won from short-term studies of single societies.'

Diamond's thesis is a disputatious repudiation of the notion, mooted as far as I am aware by no sane person nowadays, that inequality in human fortunes is a consequence of racial or genetic inequality. Inequality, he argues, is a result of the disproportionate resources available to people across the globe. Regions that enjoyed the largest quantity of domesticable wild animals and plants, and with geographical niches appropriate for cultural innovation, had a permanent advantage over others. …

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