Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reflections on Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel.

Professor Miri Lavi-Neeman
Reflections on Jared Diamond
Guns, Germans, and Steel?
By Enas AbdelRahman


As a “brown woman”, as a Palestinian living under occupation in what we think of as a still existing “colonial settler state” in which the white Europeans hold the power, I am particularly sensitive to the issues and questions brought up by Jared Diamond.

Historians see the world in terms of something they call “History” which many feminists and formerly colonized peoples see as “HIS STORY” – the story of the white man and of power and privilege, told to make it seem obvious that the winners were destined to win.  Scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists and archeologists, see a different story, a story of chance and circumstance, a story of luck and contingency.

Jared Diamond, in particular, has become famous for looking at all the factors that allowed the “White Man” to come to dominate history.  His major idea is that a combination of biological and environmental realities having nothing to do with human “superiority” allowed the Europeans to take over the earth. One of the factors is disease – Europeans carried with them diseases to which they had adapted which devastated the populations of the Americas for example.  Another factor was the biological oddities that made it easy for Europeans and Asians to domesticate about 13 different species of mammals common to their landmass but made it almost impossible for Australians, Africans and Americans to domesticate theirs (the llama is the only large mammal that was domesticated in the Americas).  Another factor was the easy availability of iron deposits and the discovery of steel, forged and traded between the Arabs and the Europeans, and the development of guns thanks to a connection between Chinese gunpowder and European steel.   By the time of colonial expansion in the 1500s the long history of struggles between the Arabs and the Europeans had created technological conditions that made it easy for Europeans to conquer other peoples still using wood and bone and stone, using spears and bows and arrows. It was also easier for Europeans and Asians to spread their empires and work on their warfare techniques because of the way their landmasses were connected.  In other parts of the world a separation by oceans made this harder.  And then of course there is the horse – an animal once present in the Americas that had gone extinct but that had been domesticated throughout Europe and the Arab nations.

So the story we are now told, “Ourstory” rather than “history”, is that the Europeans made contact with the native peoples of the Americas and within a few years the  diseases they brought, which the people they met had no immunity to,  had wiped out 75% of the indigenous peoples.  With this disadvantage, it was easy for a few Europeans with steel weapons and guns, riding on horses, to wipe out and subjugate their victims.
What came after was a kind of psychological warfare:  In order to justify the conquest, the European historians and power holders made up stories that suggested or overtly stated that biology was to blame – they claimed that we were “inferior” and deserved to be their slaves or servants.  This pseudo-scientific rationalization was part of the campaign of “Eugenics” – the form of racism that the German Nazi party turned into a rationale for the Holocaust whose effects are still being felt today here in Israel and Palestine.

Jared Diamond began his book “Guns, Germs and Steel” with “Yali’s question” – the question of another brown person wondering why a minority of whites came to rule and still rule  the world instead of the more numerous darker people.  For those of us suffering under what still appears to us to be a “white occupation”, wondering why our “Mizrahi” or “Arab Jewish” neighbors still appear, for the most part, to be second class citizens, and why we are often treated as “animals”, this is a sore spot indeed.  It is hard not to grow up somewhere deep inside still  believing the Eugenics argument and to doubt oneself, because the true historical factors are not often discussed.  Reading Diamond’s analysis is therefore refreshing and helpful, since it uses science to demolish the myths still used against us by racists.

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