What is History 10: Polynesia a Natural Experiment of History

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Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997

ORT_Logo  Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 23 January 2020

Articles in the What is History? series are 1 Introduction 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress and 9 Guns, Germs & Steel Overview.

I introduced Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs & Steel in my introductory article on What is History? and again in article 9 with an overview. Diamond is a biologist as I am by training. His foray into history is almost one of frustration. Because as a biologist he understands evolution and is interested how an intelligent naked ape might develop into what we recognise as a human being (Homo sapiens) and how humans might develop agriculture, settled towns, city states, political structures and civilisations.

Yuval Harari (a historian) in Sapiens is attempting something similar from a different perspective.

The development of human history is set in a background of geography, climate, the distribution of plants and animals and other external factors. These sorts of things are quite acceptable as the study of ecology with animals and plants, but suddenly become less acceptable when one deals with human beings and human history.

Diamond’s frustration with history was because mainstream history did not cover the issues of the biological origin of human beings, the development from a hunter gathering background and the influence of such things that can loosely be called environment on human history.

Diamond is frequently labelled as an environmental determinist and dismissed, but that is wilfully misunderstanding what he is trying to do. Part of this is simply an unwillingness to accept a different approach, but Diamond is also at fault for the quirky way he approached his topic.

In article 9, I felt the need to give an overview to the good, the bad and the controversial in Guns, Germs and Steel to get over these issues so that we could begin to look at some of the important findings contained in the book and their implications for human history.


A unique idea

Of a normal book, if I said that Diamond’s one original idea was… I would be readying myself to belittle the work.

However, we are talking about a generalist work in Guns, Germs and Steel whose aim is to examine the impact of external forces on human history. Generalist integrating works are moderately unusual because they require synthesis of a diverse array of disparate academic disciplines and they rarely contain new ideas other than the generalist overview itself.

In spite of this, there is one very original idea in Guns, Germs and Steel, that Diamond appears to have had, which he outlines in Chapter 2 A Natural Experiment of History.

It is Diamond’s apparently novel idea that is the basis for the remainder of this article.

With humans, one can’t take a group of subjects and expose them to some form of experimentation over generations to prove or disprove some hypothesis. (That has only happened in Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) One can do this in biological science. For example, one could imagine placing experimental populations of wild rats in enclosed colonies and subjecting them to different controlled environmental conditions over generations.

In human history one can make some assertions such as, the development of agriculture occurred in various places because of local scarcity of resources, or droughts on the Mongolian steppes propelled tribes of warrior horsemen towards China or Europe. But, one cannot experimentally verify such assertions. Or, easily state whether they are true or false.

Diamond because of his biological background would have liked to experimentally verify aspects of human history but could not. However, because of his long association with New Guinea and his knowledge of the Pacific, he eventually came to the idea that the Polynesian expansion into the Pacific provided the most known and perhaps the only verifiable natural experiment of history in the history of humankind.

Unfortunately, the apparent novelty of the idea is not Diamond’s. Patrick Vinton Kirch, Diamond’s main source of information on Polynesia, said in a personnel communication that he and others had raised the idea in the scholarly literature several times and that it was well-known amongst researchers in the Pacific.

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