Why are some societies innovative

by francine Hardaway on June 20, 2006

Why are some societies innovative and not others? How does innovation spread? And why were some civilizations (European) the conquerors and others (Native American) the conquered? I�m finally getting around to reading Jared Diamond�s Pulitzer Prize-winning book �Guns, Germs, and Steel,� and some of the answers surprise me. It turns out the advance of civilization isn�t a matter of people at all, but rather a matter of geography and environment. The conquerors are the people from areas of the world with the most resources and the best opportunities to meet other people, survive that encounter without dying from new germs or conquest, borrow innovation, and blunder on.

When you were in school, you were probably taught that the dawn of civilization was between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in a place called the Fertile Crescent. Depending on your world view, that�s either the Garden of Eden or the geographical spot where the first hunter-gatherers became farmers.

And why did this happen? Because at certain latitudes, like that of the Fertile Crescent, climatic conditions caused a greater variety of wild grasses to flourish. Some of these grasses mutated into common forms of cereals, which our ancestors discovered could be cultivated to feed large groups of people. The more wild grasses, the more chance of edible mutations. The more edible mutations, the more chance that food cultivation could develop. Clearly, cultivation would have a tough time developing in Greenland. Hence farming started in the Fertile Crescent.

Before food cultivation, people were nomadic. They foraged for food in roving bands. There really wasn�t enough food to support people who didn�t contribute to finding it. And the nomadic lifestyle meant the accumulation of very few �possessions.� You had to travel light. Grab the baby and move on.

But once the initial fourteen grains (barley, millet, rice, etc) were domesticated for food and could be planted, it became possible to create larger tribes and stay in one place. Another advance was the ability of a society to divide labor � not everybody had to be engaged in the location of food. Now some members of the tribe could be artists, scribes, engineers.

With the cultivation of food came the domestication of animals. The same parts of the world that produced great varieties of grasses fed many more species of animals. Human beings tried very early on to domesticate animals for food, but of the many animals on earth, only a fairly small number (cow, pig, sheep, dog) could be domesticated either for food or pets. We found out which ones very quickly.

Lots of animal species just didn�t lend themselves to domestication. Either they were finicky eaters, or they wouldn�t breed in captivity, or they were just too dangerous. The zebra, for example, bites and never lets go. The mammoth is too large; while other species take too long to mature. Even today�s professional zoologists can�t domesticate these species � although they can tame individual members.

Living with domesticated animals was a mixed blessing, because animals were hosts for microbes, to which the animals were immune (survival of the fittest), but we were not. Eventually, whole tribes that lived in certain regions developed immunities to the germs from familiar animals. But when they met another tribe from another region, they were often wiped out by the other tribe�s microbes � to which they had no immunities. The Spaniards wiped out the Incas that way. Many smaller tribes wiped out larger ones with microbes, not guns.

Enough of these fascinating examples. The takeaway from this incredibly detailed book is that latitudes, growing seasons, and whether your continent lay on an east-west axis were the most influential factors in how and where civilization spread and whether your particular tribe (later �state�) was the inventor of a technology or a victim of it, a conqueror or the conquered.

I realize that Diamond is a geographer, and that his particular hammer may cause him to view certain aspects of history as nails. Nevertheless, his hypotheses are backed up by a great deal of evidence.

Why do we care? Because one of the key points of the book is that necessity is not the mother of invention. Quite the contrary, many inventions are exactly like early stage technologies: imperfect, and without apparent use. Primitive societies stumbled on rocks that could be tools, marks that could become writing systems, or grasses that could be food. If they ate something and it didn�t kill them, it had a market.

In Diamond�s view, man is not even the central player in the advance of civilization. He�s just there to take advantage of evolutionary mutations, endlessly trying various pegs in various holes to find out which ones fit. If you believe that there�s any connection between the past and the present, our efforts to systematize innovation within universities and corporations could be less fruitful than we think.

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