They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5
Judge says to the High Sheriff, “I want them dead or alive”
Either one, I don’t care, high water everywhere
-Bob Dylan, High Water
History is fascinating stuff. Often it gets short shrift from poor high school teachers more focused on the memorization of facts and dates, than on helping their students make sense of the world. But, history is essentially telling the story of a people or place, so that we can understand those people, or that place, and ourselves better. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies explains that history helps by “teaching us what shaped the modern world, and what might shape our future (loc 6918).” And this is the general question behind Diamond’s thesis of why certain societies and peoples were able to achieve wealth, dominance, and modernization, while others entered the 20th and even the 21st century still stuck in the Stone Age. How did we get to where we are as a world? Why were European societies able to establish dominance and colonize much of the world, while others were not able? Why do some societies conquer others with ease?
Diamond’s multi-disciplinary study (he brings to bear history, biology, geography, anthropology, and other sciences) argues that it is a set of essential geographical and biological factors that have shaped human history, allowing for certain regions and peoples to get a jump start on others societies that do not have similar advantages. In short, geographical access to the correct climate and flora and fauna mix, allow for hunter-gatherer societies to produce enough food surplus to settle and become food producers. Certain areas, such as the Fertile Crescent have a high amount of domesticatiable plants and animals. If things go well, this means that population growth occurs and societies stabilize allowing for the emergence of more advanced economies, a bureaucrat class, and most importantly more free time for certain people to dedicate time to further innovation. Thus, innovations such as writing and steel lead to further innovations and ultimately the opportunity to dominate other societies. What is more, regular exposure to domesticated plants and particularly animals means that certain populations build up immunity to diseases which for other peoples are a quick deathblow, especially when different peoples come into contact with each other.
Simply put, certain other regions and societies (whether because they are too remote, have little access to plants and animals which can be domesticated, or live in areas where effective food production simply is not sustainable) get off to a slower start in the advancement game, and thus can arrive into the 20th century, like the Australian Aborigines, living in the Stone Age. Diamond does a good job of supporting his thesis with strong historical arguments, and also makes sure to note the importance of culture and historical anomaly. Yet, his argument is still open to the charge of geographical determinism, a kind of tautology of Darwinian evolution.
Diamond interestingly finds that economics may be at the core of human existence and flourishing. We are ultimately tied to our ability to develop stable food supplies and then leverage those to our advantage. However, even before Polanyi’s pessimism in The Great Transformation, we find that in fact the past is not a veritable Garden of Eden of pastoral and rural peace where farmers enjoyed pure labor, before the . Nor were hunter-gather societies, living off the abundance of the land, idyllic Actually a story of fighting over resources, insecurity, and ultimately violent and accidental conquest is what emerges. Diamond explains that “the main process running through the history of the last 10,000 years: human groups with guns, germs, and steel, or with earlier technological and military advantages, spreading at the expense of other groups, until either the latter groups become replaced or everyone came to share the new advantages (loc 7397).” It’s rough out there.
Even our own Biblical story seems to match up with Diamond’s narrative. Were Cain and Abel caught up in a battle over food production? And Cain was afraid of other bands of people that lay outside the protection of his group. Perhaps the reality of expansive and conquering bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and nations taking hold of the land at the violent expanse of others should inform our reading of the Old Testament text. Obviously the Jewish people lived out the improbable story of wandering nomads to slaves, to nation state, to displaced exiles in the midst of conquering and often rather nasty kingdoms. Not only does the Old Testament narrative match up with the history of humankind from wandering pre-societies to established political states, but perhaps it helps us to better understand the more unsavory and violent parts of the story. Humanity left to its own has chosen or accidentally stumbled into conflict. It’s rough out there.
And thus we come to religion, a topic which Diamond barely touches on, yet is a cultural and political force in shaping history. So can religion, and in particular Christianity help to turn the tide of dominance, conquest, and economic disparity? Violence is certainly part of the human story, one part which a just God can only punish also with violence. But, that violence was ultimately poured out on the God-Man, Jesus the Christ, hanging on the cross, so that violence, conquest, and fear are turned to love. With Jesus we go to establish his kingdom, now and not yet, and it is thus no surprise that many Christians throughout history have sought to bring about the end of violence, the equilibrium of societies, and human flourishing. Robert Woodberry’s recent study on how Protestant missions have helped to fashion democratic institutions is helpful here. As Christians our ultimate destination is not one of conquest and violence, it is a kingdom of justice, peace, love and salvation.
“Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and the end of human history.” Miroslav Volf- Twitter feed