Jared Diamond's 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize for offering a lucid and plausible explanation as to why civilizations in Eurasia advanced faster than those in other areas of the world resulting in the prominence and dominance of Eurasian cultures throughout history.
According to Diamond, Eurasia's advantages lay in prehistory when Eurasia was endowed by nature with a large suite of domesticable plants and animals and a long east-west orientation in a temperate climate zone that facilitated the exchange of species, technologies and diseases. In the Americas, by contrast, fewer domesticable species were available, while a narrow bottleneck of land at the Isthmus of Panama and a long north-south axis crossing many climate zones inhibited the spread of new ways. Thus, when Eurasian and American cultures met in 1492, nature, geography and history had predetermined that the former would dominate the latter.
2/2/03 studentsfriend.com to J.R. McNeill, historian and author
...I would very interested in your reaction to my one-page summary of world history.
2/3/03 J.R. McNeill reply
2/17/03 studentsfriend.com reply
Do you accept the notion that Eurasia's long band of moderate climate might explain Eurasia's bounty of plants and animals in the first place? This seems logical to me.
As you may recall, I am attempting to write a one-page summary of world history as the introduction to my concise online textbook alternative. In this summary I want to acknowledge geography's influence on the development of human societies, and I am trying to incorporate Diamond's ideas as an example of this influence.
2/19/03 J.R. McNeill reply
I do not think that Eurasia's East-West orientation meant its climate was similar even at identical latitudes. If it were so, then one would expect a narrower range of plants and animals within Eurasia than elsewhere.
Climate is more than temperature: there are extreme variations in precipitation patterns within Eurasia, at similar latitudes. JD's key insight is the inequality of the distribution of potentially domesticable species: this was chance, not climate. Or so it seems to me.
2/19/03 studentsfriend.com reply
And geography didn't have much to do with the relative speed with which new crops, livestock, technologies and germs spread across Eurasia, compared to America. This despite the fact that Eurasia has far more land lying within temperate zones than America, and this land is contiguous. I can't help but think Eurasia's geographic situation somehow contributed to its rapid advances.
How about this? People like to live in temperate zones. This is where most of the world's population has always been concentrated, right? (After humans left Africa anyway) So, where population is most dense, exchange will likely be most rapid. In this way the large temperate zone of Eurasia contributed to its rapid advances. Does this make sense?
2/20/03 J.R. McNeill reply
2/20/03 studentsfriend.com reply
NOTE: The one-page summary of world history cited above is an evolving document and probably should always remain so. It has been modified in light of this discussion and other influences.