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Is Geography Destiny?

David Langness | May 7, 2017

PART 5 IN SERIES How History Works

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | May 7, 2017

PART 5 IN SERIES How History Works

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Several years ago, at UCLA, I met an author and evolutionary biologist named Jared Diamond, who opened a new window into human history for me and many others.

Diamond wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he said:

The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.

Guns, Germs and Steel put forth a fascinating premise that upended many previous historical theories, by asking a fairly obvious question:

Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated or exterminated Europeans and Asians? – Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 15.

In his book Diamond answers that important question in a new way, saying:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves. – Ibid., p. 25.

Diamond’s work demolishes the old explanations for those disparities by removing rationales for racism from the historical equation. After his decades-long study of indigenous peoples, for example, he determined that:

All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments. – Ibid., p. 408.

This central idea, and the work of many other scientists and historians, has helped students of history explain why some societies became more technologically adept and wealthier than others. It has also helped historians discard the old explanations for the differences in cultures, which often relied on racist theories or culturally-bound measures of intelligence in different populations or racial groups.

Diamond argues that this more nuanced and detailed understanding of the forces of history must include the profound effects of the natural environment in its analysis. He does not believe in “geographical determinism,” the simplistic idea that the natural environment is responsible for all human choices, but he does grant the natural environment a larger and more prominent place in determining our history:

… many people yearn to believe that the human spirit, free will, and individual agency are the noblest expressions of being human and have broad scope. But even those noble things have limits. The human spirit won’t keep you warm north of the Arctic Circle in the winter if you are nearly naked, as are equatorial lowland peoples. – “Geographic Determinism,” from

So no, to answer the question the title of this essay poses, geography is not destiny. Certainly there are few geographical differences between, say, South Korea and North Korea, and yet the development of governance, culture and civil society in those two nations displays marked differences.

That fact and many other similar ones leads to an inescapable conclusion: human history, while heavily influenced by geography and environment, has been driven by an even greater influence—prejudice itself:

… among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity. As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest. For a period of 6,000 years history informs us about the world of humanity. During these 6,000 years the world of humanity has not been free from war, strife, murder and bloodthirstiness. In every period war has been waged in one country or another and that war was due to either religious prejudice, racial prejudice, political prejudice or patriotic prejudice. It has therefore been ascertained and proved that all prejudices are destructive of the human edifice. As long as these prejudices persist, the struggle for existence must remain dominant, and bloodthirstiness and rapacity continue. Therefore, even as was the case in the past, the world of humanity cannot be saved from the darkness of nature and cannot attain illumination except through the abandonment of prejudices and the acquisition of the morals of the Kingdom.

If this prejudice and enmity are on account of religion consider that religion should be the cause of fellowship, otherwise it is fruitless. And if this prejudice be the prejudice of nationality consider that all mankind are of one nation; all have sprung from the tree of Adam, and Adam is the root of the tree. That tree is one and all these nations are like branches, while the individuals of humanity are like leaves, blossoms and fruits thereof. Then the establishment of various nations and the consequent shedding of blood and destruction of the edifice of humanity result from human ignorance and selfish motives. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 299-300.

Baha’is believe that prejudice—whether race-, nationality- or religion-based—destroys human civilizations. The Baha’i teachings ask all humanity to rid themselves of these prejudices, and say that doing so is a prerequisite for a truly global human civilization.

But what about the deep class prejudices the Marxist historians cite as the causative factor in our historical evolution? In the next essay in this series, we’ll look at Marxist historical theory and the new insights it has to offer.

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  • May 8, 2017
    The past few months I've been working my way through Guns, Germs, And Steel. The basic idea, along with anything else coming out of the Cultural Materialist school of anthropology, is that in the short-term, any number of factors can have an effect, but in the long-term on a large scale, geography really was destiny. The ecological and geological conditions of Eurasia were vastly more favorable for the development of powerful complex civilizations than conditions in other parts of the world.
    With that said, Guns, Germs, and Steel provides an eye-opening look into the past. But I wonder how to ...apply it to the future history of humanity, now that geographic barriers to exchange have been largely abolished.
  • Melanie Black
    May 7, 2017
    David, this has been such an excellent series which have enriched and clarified my own thinking on these subjects. I've been reading Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States" in my spare time just to get a different perspective on this country's history. While studying the Baha'i writings along with it, reading essays from this website, and following the news of the world through both mainstream TV and print media, I feel as if my base of knowledge increases. I look forward to tomorrow's essay. Thank you for your service.
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