Where to start? For the two of you out there in TV land who haven’t read this book, Diamond explores some of the possible reasons why certain cultures are the dominating, while others are the dominated. It seems he is really trying to refute the statements that Europeans and Asians are “smarted” than other cultures, which is why their cultures have spread, flourished, and subjugated other cultures such as the Aborigines of Australia.
One of the main themes of this work is that our relationships with animals has had an incredibly large impact on the “success” of some cultures, and that geography had more to do with technological advancements than did intelligence.
The argument of beasts: Diamond notes only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Other large mammals (lions, rhinoceros, moose, elk, etc.) have proven to be too difficult/dangerous to be domesticated. Thus, if a specific society lived in an area where you could domesticate a large mammal, you had a beast of burden and could give up your hunter/gatherer method of life, and go to a sedentary farming lifestyle.
Beasts also provided those with close man-animal relationships with germs, namely exposure to smallpox and influenza. Though they were deadly in the first exposure, humans eventually developed antibodies which made their immune systems resistant to these deadly diseases.
Not so much the Native Americans, which is why it makes sense that when Columbus and Cortes showed up, nearly 80% of the native populations were wiped out without lifting a blade or chambering a round. Fascinating stuff, really.
A review of this book could go into great detail, as there were several interesting theories and explanations offered by Diamond. I would caution everyone to take this with a grain of salt and read some other experts on the field. Oversimplification can make some of the more detailed and complex systems seem obvious.
Still, if you’re looking for a good starting place for an overall discussion of the evolution of certain societies, this is a broad-brush place to start.