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Thoughts from Linda:

In addition to our other books on the bookshelf which reflect “something old and something new” we are featuring this one as a “how to better understand COVID book.” It has been updated (new releases) over the years as new information has arisen.

Guns, Germs, and Steel
By Jared Diamond

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize along with the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, this book has been around since the mid-90’s. It offers a BIG PICTURE framing on the most strategic of questions concerning ‘planet earth’ that I have always thought might be of tremendous interest to a visitor from another galaxy to explain just how we got to our current state.  

The punchline, short-hand answer to the question is, of course, the title of the book. 

This book is relevant for all of us to explore, based on our status as inhabitants of ‘planet earth’ together, and in August of 2020, it is takes on even more significance.

In the midst of our COVID pandemic, the sections dealing with germs provide an excellent framework for understanding the planetary systemic dynamics that take us to many of the ‘root causes’ of the evolution of microbes so that we could even be experiencing such a global event in 2020.  

Exploring Chapter 4: Farmer Power will give you a good understanding/refresher on the significance of the transition from our early hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies. This single transition explains much about our current stage of evolution as well as that of another organism on the planet: the microbe.  

Once we as humans adopted the way of the farmer and began the process of food production, i.e., the domesticating of wild animals and plants and eating the resulting livestock and crops, everything changed. As he notes, “Diverse epidemic diseases of humans evolved in areas with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, partly because the resulting crops and livestock helped to feed dense societies in which epidemics could maintain themselves, and partly because the diseases evolved from germs of the domestic animals themselves.” 

He continues with this theme in Chapter 11, entitled Lethal Gift of Livestock, to explain that food production alone does not directly create the ripe situation for disease, but rather it makes possible the sustenance of denser populations, which create the breeding ground for the spread of unwelcome microbes.

In Chapter 11, he takes us on the journey of understanding the spread of disease from the perspective of the microbe and its point of view. “What evolutionary benefit does a microbe derive from making us sick in bizarre ways, and why should microbes evolve so as to kill us?”

In this fascinating and most educational chapter, he goes on to explain the strategy of the microbe, illustrating strategies such as more ‘passive’ ones such as the salmonella bacteria, which we contract by eating already infected eggs or meat. This is one of what he terms the simplest and most effortless of strategies: ‘Just lay the eggs and wait. ‘ 

He takes us through a whole range of ‘microbe strategies’ including that of COVID, which is like that of the flu in many ways. That is a vigorous strategy (practiced by such microbes as those which cause influenzas, the common cold and pertussis (whooping cough.) In this approach, the microbe induces the victim to cough or sneeze (and breathe, it turns out) thereby launching a cloud of microbes toward prospective new hosts. It then keeps its prey alive long enough to ensure additional spread. 

There is much more in this chapter, so it alone, makes this book a key one for you to add to your reading list!

Jared Diamond explains in his Preface that “this book attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. The question motivating the book is:  Why did history unfold differently on different continents?” He takes us through 19 power-packed chapters with answers to that question.  I have focused on the most relevant based on our pandemic, but here are a few titles of some of the other chapters: “How to Make an Almond,” “History’s Haves and Have-Nots,” “How China became Chinese,” “Zebras,” “Unhappy Marriages,” and “The Anna Karenina Principle.”

As Bill Gates noted, “This fascinating book … lays a foundation for understanding human history.”