by Quentin Long
©2009 Quentin Long

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   I’ve been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (GGS for short), by Jared Diamond. It’s a very interesting book which (as per its subtitle) takes on the question of why different human cultures have had such different histories—how come Western Europe sent ships full of explorers and conquerors to mess with the Americas, rather than the other way around, to cite one of Diamond’s examples. His book differs from past attempts to grapple with this question in that Diamond tries to push back the chain of cause-and-effect as far as possible. An earlier investigator might have decided it was because Western Europe got writing first, and be satisfied with that answer; Diamond goes on to ask why Western Europe got writing first, and so on, as far back as the existing evidence can take him.
   That focus on ultimate causes, rather than immediate ones, is what makes the ideas in GGS relevant to the furry community—or at least to said community’s writers. Now, GGS is too large a book to do justice to its arguments in one short essay. But if you were deranged enough to try to squeeze its nearly 500 pages into a 140-character Twitter post, you might end up with something like this:

   Agriculture means food surpluses means large sedentary populations (cities) means writing, also breeding for plagues & plague resistance.

   If you think the Twitter-ized GGS argument seems oversimplified, you’re right. All I ask is that you reserve judgement until you’ve read all 490-odd pages of the actual book, which includes heaps of data and supporting evidence and all that good stuff. Okay?
   Meanwhile: Just for grins, let’s presume that the factors Diamond identifies are sufficiently general as to be applicable to non-human sentient species. In such a case, herbivores would seem to have a significant advantage over carnivores, civlization-wise. For one thing, they eat lower on the food chain—a region that can support X number of kilos of herbivore biomass, will only support a fraction of X number of kilos of carnivore biomass. Secondly, herbivores are more-or-less ‘pre-adapted’ for agriculture, so they’re more likely to reap the benefits of the accompanying food surpluses. Carnivores, contrariwise, are petty well locked into a hunter/gatherer lifestyle; whatever other benefits that lifestyle may have, it’s not at all likely to yield the kind of abundant food stores you need before your culture can afford to have a ‘non-productive’ class like, say, scribes. Or scholars in general, really.
   What these two factors mean is that all else being equal, if you’ve got intelligent examples of both carnivores and herbivores running around on the same planet, the leaf-eaters are likely to attain civilization a heck of a lot earlier than the marrow-suckers are. So you might just end up with bovine conquistadores running roughshod over lupine ‘savages’…
   Or maybe not. ‘All else being equal’ is an assumption which simplifies this sort of analysis considerably, but how often is ‘all else’ actually ‘equal’? One possible point of departure from ceteris paribus: Disease resistance. Here in the RealWorld, the Native American populace was nowhere near as densely packed as what the Europeans were used to. So in effect, the white invaders had spent the past several centuries adapting to increasingly-lethal pathogens which would never have had a decent chance to get started in the comparatively less dense Native American cultures. But in a multi-species FurryWorld, the ‘primitive’ carnivores could easily be scavengers, who spend much of their time in intimately close contact with dead carcasses! If so, it’s anybody’s guess how the herbivores’ crowding-derived contagions would stack up against the carnivores’ corpse-derived plagues.
   Another possible point of departure is the relative levels of innate intelligence in the two species. Sneaking up on a leaf is much easier than chasing down an animal, on which grounds you could argue that carnivores are likely to have the edge, IQ-wise. Alternately, the need to master the intricacies of interpersonal relationships in a social species requires more brainpower than the proverbial ‘lone wolf’ lifestyle, on which grounds you could argue that herbivores ought to be smarter. As with so many other things, there just isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ general solution, so pick your baseline assumptions and run with the logical consequences thereof.
   Other factors which can be relevant include the distribution of potential candidates for domestication. One of Diamond’s major points is that when Culture X happens to live in a region that just doesn’t include any native plants that are suitable for cultivation, Culture X ain’t gonna pick up on agriculture until some other Culture Y’s representatives show up with crop plants—and perhaps not even then, depending on (among other things) how well those crop plants thrive in Culture X’s habitat.
   And since we are talking about non-human species here, what happens if one of your species has such low metabolism, that even a bog-standard hunter-gatherer lifestyle yields more food than they actually need? Such a species could conceivably have food surpluses, hence a ‘non-productive’ class, without needing to mess around with domestication and farming and so on!

    I could go on like this forever, but this is as good a place as any to end the speculation. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I also hope that authors take the ideas of GGS into account when writing their stories.

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