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review 2019-01-09 23:34
What a weighty tome! (DNF)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond

This is a weighty book, ya'll. Jared Diamond's book had been on my list for ages because once upon a time it had been on one of my recommended reading lists for an undergraduate Anthropology class (I majored in that field). I didn't have the time to read it then (it is 425 pages after all) but the topic still intrigued me. Much like the book above I was interested in the subject matter and found no fault with the writing style (other than it being more like a textbook than casual, recreational reading) but it was so dense that I didn't always feel compelled to pick it up in a spare moment. (I also kept falling asleep for some reason.) Progress: I made it to page 290 before I had to concede defeat (and ship it to the next person waiting to read it).

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2018-10-15 18:48
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond

This is an interesting and influential book that in its broad conclusions makes a lot of sense, though I have doubts about Diamond’s reasoning on some of his smaller points. It’s longer than it needs to be, but largely because it is thorough and takes the time to break down academic subjects to be accessible to intelligent but non-specialist readers.

First published in 1997, this book sets out to explain why Europe was able to colonize such a large part of the world in the last few centuries. Europeans’ possession of “guns, germs and steel” was an immediate cause, but why did they have these things when people on many other continents did not? Diamond’s answer comes down to the environment in different parts of the world. In essence, all of these advantages come down to agriculture. In a hunter-gatherer society, population is kept relatively small, people have to focus on acquiring food, and (unless they live in an especially bountiful area), small groups typically need to move from place to place, such that they can’t have too many belongings, especially if they have no domestic animals to carry them. A society built on farming, however, tends to be much more populous, can support a class of people who do something other than farm (an elite class of nobles, but also specialized trades), and can accumulate belongings, which makes developing new technology more worthwhile. So, parts of the world that had a head start on farming also had a head start on developing technology, such as metallurgy.

Meanwhile, European germs played probably the most decisive role in their conquest of the Americas, as well as some other parts of the world; given the size of the native population (an early European visitor to the east coast of the modern U.S. wrote that there didn’t really seem to be room for colonies because the area was so heavily populated) and the difficulty of getting even small numbers of people across the ocean on wooden ships, one can imagine that this could have turned out much more like the English conquest of India, or might not have happened at all, if not for the epidemics that killed some 90% of the population. Why were the Europeans the ones with the germs? Well, human epidemics have come from domestic animals (think swine flu and avian flu today), and epidemics need a large population to stay alive; otherwise they will simply kill everyone they can kill and then die out with no new hosts. Therefore, epidemics evolved in places where people lived in close quarters with domestic animals, and stuck around in populations large enough to produce a new crop of children before the epidemic died out (this is why diseases like measles were once considered “childhood diseases” – not because children were more susceptible, but because the diseases were so prevalent that children would almost inevitably catch them before growing up). Both individuals and populations exposed to these germs would eventually develop immunity if they survived.

But the opportunity to domesticate animals wasn’t spread evenly around the world. Asia and Europe (referred to throughout the book as “Eurasia” since it’s really one landmass, considered two continents for political rather than geographic reasons) had lots of options, including horses, cows, water buffalo, sheep, pigs, and goats. As far as domesticable large mammals go, the Americas had only the llama (which didn’t spread beyond the Andes), while sub-Saharan Africa had none. It isn’t that people didn’t try – people will keep almost anything as a pet – but numerous factors influence whether a large mammal is a good candidate for domestication. It needs to live in herds, to tolerate its own herd’s territory overlapping with others (or you’d never be able to bring in a new cow that wasn’t related to your current cows), to not be overly or unpredictably aggressive toward humans (this is why the zebra has never worked out), to not panic, bolt and throw itself against the fence until it dies, and more. Eurasia had a couple of major advantages here. Being the largest landmass, it had the most animal diversity. And, as modern humans evolved in Africa and Eurasia, animals evolved alongside them, presumably learning how to deal with human hunters’ increasing skills; on the other hand, most large mammals went extinct in the Americas and Australia shortly after people arrived.

With agriculture, too, Eurasia had an advantage, causing it to kick off there early. Again, there was a greater diversity of plants, only some of which make sense to domesticate and begin to grow. The Fertile Crescent (roughly modern-day Iraq and Turkey), perhaps the first site of agriculture in the world, had it particularly easy: wheat already existed in a form quite similar to its modern equivalent, and grew bountifully, so the idea of taking it home and growing it wasn’t much of a leap. On the other hand, with corn – a staple crop of Mexico and eventually the eastern U.S. – there isn’t even agreement on what the wild ancestor was; the plant that might have been the original corn produced husks only about an inch long with tiny kernels and other disadvantages. People had to work on it for a really long time before it became a suitable staple crop for large swathes of the continent.

And then too, you wouldn’t switch from hunting and gathering to farming for just one crop. While hunting and gathering seems like a precarious lifestyle to us, it can actually be better than subsistence farming. Farmers worked harder – which makes sense, since they had to nurture their food every step of the way rather than simply finding it and bringing it home – and based on their skeletons, early farmers’ nutrition was worse than that of hunter-gatherers. So it’s the total package that counts; in areas that provided a nutritionally-balanced diet of domesticable plants, plus domesticable animals to supplement that diet and also provide labor and fertilizer, farming made a lot more sense than it did in areas without such a bounty. Essentially, the sort of lifestyle people had depended on the food options available, and some places supported agriculture much more than others. Nobody’s building a densely-populated empire from a desert like the Australian outback.

There is a lot more to the book of course, but I think it’s the central thesis that’s the most convincing. Many of Diamond’s other points – ancillary to his main argument – don’t work so well. For instance, he’s very interested in how a Spanish force of about 150 managed to defeat and capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who was supported by thousands of troops. Certainly the Spanish weaponry played a decisive role, particularly since it was the first time the Inca had encountered guns or cavalry. But Diamond claims that we know well what happened based on the (likely self-serving) accounts of several Spaniards, without apparently realizing that the Inca would probably have told a different story, and then makes a big deal of the fact the Inca lacked writing, arguing this is why they weren’t aware of prior Spanish conquests in Central America and therefore walked into a trap. But this ignores the fact that people who can’t depend on storing information in written form tend to have far better memorization skills than people who write everything down (Homer was not unusual in being able to recite epic poems from memory), and the fact that “they’re going to try to kill you with terrible weapons” is a simple message that could certainly have been transmitted intact had the Inca had envoys in Central America, all while assuming that Atahualpa didn’t know it was a trap. Without contemporary Inca sources, we have no idea whether perhaps he did know, but being new to the throne of an empire destabilized by epidemics, had to go anyway or risk looking weak to his subjects and promptly being overthrown.

There’s some other questionable reasoning here: that it makes sense that the wheel, while invented in Mexico, wasn’t actually used for transportation because there were no animals capable of pulling carts. (So what? People too can transport far more weight on wheels than they can carry.) That New Guineans are probably smarter than Europeans because their society has a higher homicide rate. (A society with lots of murder and warfare would select for strength, skill with weapons, and ability to maintain strong social ties far more than it would select for abstract, creative, or analytical thinking. Plus, an anthropological study of a New Guinea tribe found that those typically targeted for murder were the elderly, who would have already passed on their genes regardless.) And the 2003 epilogue, attempting to apply principles of societal development to how corporations should organize themselves to best promote innovation – apparently inspired by business leaders writing to Diamond about the book – even if true, has nothing to do with the contents of this already-long book.

Obviously there’s a lot to chew on here, hence the long review. I do think the book is worth reading, though it’s unfortunate that Diamond doesn’t cite sources for individual facts, and only includes generalized “further reading” lists. The book has some repetition that makes it a little longer than it needs to be, but overall I think it does a sound job of explaining some of the broad strokes of human history.

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review 2018-01-27 01:49
He's always watching
The Goldfish Boy - Lisa Thompson

If you read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (or at the very least my review of it) then you won't be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed The Goldfish Boy by Colleen Oakley. The bare bones of this book is remarkably similar in that it's centered on a cul-de-sac in England where there are secrets behind every door and there's a mystery involving the disappearance of a small child. Yes, they're remarkably similar except...the main character is a young boy named Matthew who suffers from a debilitating case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD which has resulted in him being unable/unwilling to leave his house. He is hyper-observant of everyone's movements and takes detailed notes which is how we get to know all of his neighbors. The majority of the novel takes place in his bedroom where the reader is trapped right along with him. Besides the discussion of OCD, Oakley tackles the internalized shame and fear of living with a mental illness. This is written in the style of Rear Window where the reader is seeing through the eyes of someone who is on the outside but also very much on the inside. (I'm deliberately being vague because to be anything else would give away the mystery.) This book made me wonder how common OCD might be in children and how this could be misdiagnosed as agoraphobia or vice versa. (Wait til you see how Matthew's parents view his behavior.) I felt that the author was extremely sensitive in her handling of this debilitating illness and wrote about it with just enough detail for us to feel as if we were getting a glimpse inside of Matthew without beating us over the head with it. Of note: I didn't much care for any of the adults in this book. Far and away, they were all pretty much useless cretins. The book though was riveting and I immediately passed it on to my co-worker who then passed it on to her teenage daughter. That marks it a winner in my books. 10/10

 

What's Up Next: Close Enough to Touch by Colleen Oakley

 

What I'm Currently Reading: The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers and Quackery

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2017-10-10 19:00
The Secret Life of Germs / Philip Tierno
The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them, and How We Can Protect Ourselves Against Them - Philip M. Tierno Jr.

They're on everything we touch, eat, and breathe in -- on every inch of skin. And despite the advances of science, germs are challenging medicine in ways that were unimaginable ten years ago. No wonder the world is up in arms -- and using antibacterial soaps.

From the common cold, E. coli, and Lyme disease to encephalitis, mad cow disease, and flesh-eating bacteria, Tierno takes readers on a historical survey of the microscopic world. Rebuffing scare tactics behind recent "germ events" Tierno explains how the recycling of matter is the key to life. Yes, he'll tell you why it's a good idea to clean children's toys, why those fluffy towels may not be so clean, and why you never want to buy a second-hand mattress, but he also reveals that there is a lot we can do to prevent germ-induced suffering. You'll never look at anything the same way again.

 

 

I chose to read The Secret Life of Germs because I have often heard the author on CBC radio, brought in as an expert on microbial issues. It was published back in 2001, so some of the information it contains is out-of-date, though it was cutting edge at the time.

There is still plenty of good info in this volume. If nothing else, the author’s attention to prevention of disease was an excellent reminder as the cold & flu season approaches. I’m washing my hands more often and for longer than I had been—its so easy to get lazy about this! And handwashing goes so far towards keeping us healthy.

If I have any quibbles, it is with referring to all microbes as “germs.” To me, a germ is a disease causing agent, not a benign or helpful microbe. But I am sure that this title caught a bit more attention through using “germs” in the title than it might otherwise have garnered.

If you are interested in microbiology, may I recommend I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, which offers more recent information, also in an easy to read format.

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review 2017-02-22 16:53
Germs! Germs! Germs!
Germs! Germs! Germs! (Hello Reader! Level 3 Science) - Bobbi Katz,Steve Björkman

This book educates children about germs. I would use this book with older grades such as third, fourth, and fifth graders but the Lexile level of this book is 170L. Before, during, and after reading, I would complete a KWL chart about germs with students on the board. As a hook to the lesson, I would get each student to put lotion on their hands (that has glitter in it) and give them three minutes to walk around putting the glitter on the board, knobs, or desks. This would serve as a visual for germs. After reading the book, I would host a whole-group discussion on all of the ways germs get in your body and ways to keep them out. Then we could play a game. To set up for the game, the teacher would need to use painter's tape to make a big circle on the floor or use chalk to make one on the sidewalk. The circle would need to be big enough for each student to jump inside. The students will pretend to be the germs in the story as it is read aloud. The students will begin by standing on the line that creates the circle. As the teacher reads the story aloud, the students will jump in the circle if the germ gets inside the body and will jump out of the circle if the germ is prevented from getting in the body. After playing the game, students could write about how they will prevent the spread of germs in our classroom. This lesson would be good to do during the beginning of the school year or around flu season.

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