Friday, February 27, 2009

Reading Guns, Germs and Steel

I'm still reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. It is due back in the library next Thursday and about... oh...2/3 through. It's been slow-going, and I find myself reading a few pages, mulling them over and then moving onto something else, like emailing, reading blogs on Google Reader, or picking up an entirely different book. But don't get me wrong, this is a brilliant book. There is definite genius. It is, to put it simply, full of 'aha' moments. It is well-researched, there is no denying that. And it is quite something to be able to condense "the fates of human societities" into 425 pages (if you don't include the afterword written in 2003, which runs another ten or so pages).

But how to put one's thoughts on this book to the web? I'm not yet done with the book, so this is an entirely premature blog post. But as I read, I can't help thinking that I am in no way up to writing about this book. Even an academic, in his review, said: "This is an ambitious project, and no reviewer can comment on all of it with equal authority." So I will chicken out and leave it to the pros, but I will, however, offer you some interesting passages, such as these on killer almonds and why zebras can't be tamed:

"Most wild almond seeds contain an intensely bitter chemical called amygdalin, which breaks down to yield the poison cyanide. A snack of wild almonds can kill a person foolish enough to ignore the warning of the bitter taste."

"zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope - even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses- because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly towards them and then to duck their head out of the way."

And in an interesting section about Australia and New Guinea, something about languages and something else about dogs and blankets:
"New Guinea has by far the highest concentration of languages in the world: 1,000 out of the world's 6,000 languages, crammed into an area only slightly larger than that of Texas, and divided into dozens of language families and isolated languages as different from each other as English is from Chinese. Nearly half of all new Guinea languages have fewer than 500 speakers, and even the largest language groups (still with a mere 100,000 speakers) were politically fragmented into hundreds of villages, fighting as fiercely with each other as with speakers of other languages".

"During the Ice Ages Australia had supported even more big marsupials than New Guinea, including diprotodonts (the marsupial equivalent of cows and rhinoceroses), giant kangaroos, and giant wombats. But all those marsupial candidates for animal husbandry disappeared in the waves of extinctions (or exterminations) that accompanied human colonization of Australia. That left Australia, like New Guinea, with no domesticable native mammals. The sole foreign domesticated mammal adopted in Australia was the dog, which arrived from Asia (presumably in Austronesian canoes) around 1500 BC, and established itself in the wild in Australia to become the dingo. Native Australians kept captive dingos as companions, watchdogs, and even as living blankets, giving rise to the expression 'five-dog night' to mean a very cold night."
That's right people, "living blankets". If that doesn't get you running off to the library to get hold of your own copy, I don't know what will.

Reviews from several different perspectives
The New York Times (professional)
Curled Up (more of a layperson's POV)
A historian from the University of Strathclyde reviews the book (obviously academic)

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