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Jool Study Guides - Guns, Germs, and Steel - Necessity's Mother - Chapter 13 - Part 3 (the final 33%)

Can I borrow your domestication of the carrot?

Last time, there was a huge list of possible variables influencing the advancement of technology within a culture and whether new technology will be accepted. Let me review (don’t do it!) it for you (please, no!): economic advantage, social value, vested interest, wow, look at that!!!...(at what?) get lost…I’m making a list here, you fiend! Oh, fine! FINE! I lost my train of thought. Look back at the previous unit and remember to review EVERYTHING! Where might innovation come from? Diamond posits that it usually comes from borrowing someone else’s stuff, seeing how marvellous it is, and then adopting it yourself. However, this depends on whether it is 1) easy to invent 2) invented in proximity to other societies. Plant domestication occurred in 9 different areas that lay in proximity to other societies, thereby ticking off both characteristics. Writing is different in that you wouldn’t necessarily happen upon it while feeding yourself. Although, when you saw it for the first time, you’d fall in love with the whole concept and adopt it - like a baby squirrel. The same thing likely occurred with the ancient wheel magically appeared in multiple locations within a few hundred years. Why? You know the answer. Go on….go on… diffusion! In other words, it’s like parents seeing a friend’s new car and immediately drawing up Operation Have A Lovely Car, TOO.  

How does it diffuse?

Option A is simple - I want it. Option B is - I want it to murder my enemies. In New Zealand, Maori tribes went for Option B. Those tribes that, by hook or crook (Europeans), got their hands on muskets wiped out and/or subjugated the tribes without guns et voila - technology diffusion. In this instance, Europeans probably sold guns to tribes or traded them, but technology could diffuse in other ways. People might emigrate (taking the tech with them), trade for them, secretly steal them (like silkworms - yes, really. Imagine stuffing those down your undergarments to hide from customs), and by having a huge punch-up and taking them from the losers (like the Arab army who beat up the Chinese and happened upon some lovely-jubbly papermarkers - RESULT!). German porcelain makers figured out their own method to produce it AFTER oo-ing and ah-ing at Chinese porcelain, so never underestimate what oo-ing and ah-ing can inspire. 

I don’t see the point of these guns, to be honest

The Tasmanian tribes had no contact (except that bloke who got washed up on shore inside a saltwater crocodile inside of a great white inside of a blue whale which swallowed the whole thing in error, which nobody realised because it was all inside the whale). Not.Much.Tech was diffused there. Persia, slap bang between Asia and Europe had all kings of people turning up with miraculous inventions, thereby granting them the privilege of relatively straightforward technological diffusion via a magnificent location in the middle of the Silk Roads. Sometimes, societies give up really nifty stuff like guns….yes, even guns. Japan, after getting some guns from Portugal in 1543 developed them further and then attacked everyone - ESPECIALLY KOREA - to become the regional bullies. Then, the Samurai led government made it clear that guns were for losers and swordplay was where it was really at. Japan got guns, had guns, and then discarded guns. In Europe, whenever someone tried to do the same, they’d be quickly overwhelmed by gun-toting nutcase neighbours and change their mind or have their mind changed for them when their heads got chopped off. That dawned on Japan in 1853 when a massive U.S warship rocked up with cannons as far as the eye could see. The idea here is clear, however, in that isolated societies get technology more slowly and can lose it for reasons that seem absurd to us. Some societies, like the Polynesian and Australian Aboriginal tribes stopped using bows and arrows.

It’s not what you know, but who you know

Perhaps then, it’s not so much about WHAT is invented that dictates whether it catches on, but who is nearby to also take up the cause. Thus, when you have a core of like-minded people surrounding the invention, autocatalysis can occur. That is such a delightfully eloquent word that describes how one invention, like iron metallurgy, smashes down pre-existing barriers and suddenly unlocks incredible new inventions as by-products. Pottery ovens provided the high temperatures to melt iron ore and the iron age became possible. Without iron smelting and forging, Gutenberg’s printing press would have been a damp squib. Iron smelting gave rise to steel and this made it possible to create accurate and reliable printing presses that don’t get squished (you know, because cold and copper tends to get all bent out of shape). You young ones may think, so what? Well, if your copper printing press keeps smudging h to look like b, you’re going to just throw the bleedin’ thing away and write it out by hand. As a consequence of autocatalysis, new inventions speed up more inventions, which is why it takes less and less time to make major breakthroughs.  

Two jumps

Humans made two huge technological jumps. The first was between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago when we stopped being idiots and our brains emerged with more than just “Uhhhhhhhhh”. The second was about 13,000 years ago when he stopped being nomadic and had more time on our hands. We began to build things like cups and plates in ovens because we wouldn’t need to carry the pesky things around with us all day long. Add in more food from the domestication of crops and you have people with potential. Eurasia, being east to west, is nigh on perfect for people to trade and grow similar crops as weather patterns and climates tend to be similar. North to south is far more treacherous as a trip through Mexico to Argentina will show you. Deserts, jungles, and mountains aren’t user friendly. A plant that grows in Brazil’s tropical environment won’t grow in Mexico, whereas German carrots will be just as happy living as Chinese carrots. 

Indeed, have a gander at Africa and tell me how and WHY you’d bother to traipse through the Sahara Desert to go north or south? From Korea to Ireland, the road lies mostly open. Sure, there are some gigantic mountains, but there aren’t any jungles full of fire ants nor deserts to parch your throats. Thus, technological diffusion was a darn sight easier from East to West along the Silk Roads than it was anywhere else in the world. 

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