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Guns,Germs,and Steel:The Fates of Human Societies

The past few threads regarding issues surrounding GPL, OSS, and especially the digression towards their ideals has forced me to ask what books might people direct me towards that would help (in laymen terms I suppose) explain the nature and progression of civilizations and such politics?

I find this poli-sci conversation very interesting and my current focus is to start reading "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies", but other input would also be helpful.

Friday, August 1, 2003

"Common Sense" by Thomas Paine.

Friday, August 1, 2003

"The Fountain Head" by Ayn Rand

Friday, August 1, 2003

"Atlas Shrugged" - Ayn Rand

"The Cathedral and the Bazaar" - Eric Raymond

"More than a carpenter" - Josh McDowell?


Matt H.
Friday, August 1, 2003

How exactly does Josh McDowell's book relate to the progress of civilization and politics?  I really don't see the connection evangelical Christian apologetics and Philo's question.

Maybe if you said _Escape from Reason_ by Francis Schaeffer, I could understand THAT, as he talks often of the "downward spiral" of civilization ever since the 19th century ...

Both books are anti-recommended by this reviewer, btw.

Friday, August 1, 2003

I'm always amazed when someone over the age of 18 recommends Ayn Rand's trash, especially as a seminal work on understanding civilization.

Her work has a certain simplistic rebelliousness and righteousness that appeals to the adolescent. But it is poorly reasoned and poorly written and is one of the few works for which it would be better to read the Coles Notes versions rather than the originals.

Friday, August 1, 2003

The weird thing about Ayn Rand is that while her stuff is logically and historically rubbish, at the same time people who've somehow managed to read and believe it (and had some luck on their side) have been individually inspired and motivated to succeed.

If everybody read and believed Ayn Rand, we'd all collectively be living in a meaner and more unpleasant world... less than zero sum game... yet others have seen and used her thinking as winning strategy personally.

John Aitken
Friday, August 1, 2003

I would recommend reading some books on economics.  One fairly recent  one written for the lay reader is Todd Buchholz "From Here to Economy".  In one small easy to read book he manages to cover macroeconomics, microeconomics, international trade and investment.  He also wrote a book on the history of the study of economics: "New Ideas from Dead Economists", also an enjoyable read.

It has been a while since I listened to "Guns, Germs, and Steel" ( I have it on tape).  It is very interesting, but is primarily concerned with pre-industrial revolution events.  There is not much that you can relate to the open software movement.

Friday, August 1, 2003

Could you be more specific about how Ayn Rand's work is "trash" and "rubish"?  It shouldn't be too hard for you to come up with some specific examples since her work could only appeal to an "adolescent" and is so "poorly reasoned" (I won't hold my breath for your answers).

The "meaner and more unpleasant world" comment suggests to me that you either didn't read or didn't understand the book and latched on to the conventional misinterpretation of her work. 

Friday, August 1, 2003

Although I haven't read it, I understand W.F. Buckley recently wrote some great tome tirelessly and authoritatively tearing apart pretty much everything Ayn Rand ever spoke or wrote because he saw her influence in some right wing circles as still being quite pervasive and harmful.

John Aitken
Friday, August 1, 2003

Progression of civilizations and society is neither linear nor constant. In fact, there are some developments in history which do not represent progress at all, but serious regression. Take for instance agriculture during the medieval ages in central Europe. Peasants' productivity dropped even though the Romans had proliferated their advanced methods to central Europe. It simply has been forgotten or replaced by superstition. World War I/II were serious drawbacks for human evolution.

However, not everything that happens right now will sustain. Not everything which happened might repeat. Events which start for bad reasons might end with good results. Actions for the benefit of peoples might end in disaster.

Sure there are books which give you a clean and serious retrospective on certain, clearly defined fragments of history. But I would not touch anything which claims to explain the big picture, or foresee future, or show where society is heading for.

Johnny Bravo
Friday, August 1, 2003

It's so easy for the left-wing to insult the right-wing, especially when said person is dead.

Mickey Petersen
Friday, August 1, 2003

"The Great Transformation" - Polanyi

"The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" - Keynes

Seth Gordon
Friday, August 1, 2003

I haven't read AR in 20yrs, so I admit I can't remember the specifics and I'll have to get back to you.  I read one of her books and skimmed another... (Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead)... can't remember which was which.

Roughly, my recollection is just that neither was credible, and they were both very much at odds with all other historical, biographical, and literary sources for her settings.

John Aitken
Friday, August 1, 2003

"The Wealth of Nations" - Adam Smith

David Roper
Friday, August 1, 2003

I can see people having problems with Ayn Rand if her work is treated as a Bible, but there's nothing wrong with reading the work, considering the messages, and making your own decisions.

Of course, I feel that way about ANY book.


Friday, August 1, 2003

Sociobiology by Edward O. Wilson

The g Factor: the Science of Mental Abilities by Arthur R. Jensen  - this is a good counterpoint to "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Warning: Highly politically incorrect
Friday, August 1, 2003

Guns, Germs, and Steel is about the affect of geography and biology (plants, animals, and microbes) have on human societies.

Historian Fernand Braudel has a great three volume work that starts with "Structures of Everyday Life ...".  His focus is Europe, but he compares Europe with just about everywhere else.  It's been a while since I've read the set, but they're good.

If you'd like to see a well reasoned take-down of Ayn Rand and have a fun read at the same time, check out Matt Ruff's "Sewer, Gas, and Electric".  In it there's one scene where an AI version of Rand is grilled about the details of Rand's life and how that life matched her philosophy.  Rand fans are unlikely to enjoy this (nor the several page summary of Atlas Shrugged).

The whole book is funny, but I particularly enjoy the chapter that parodies the finale of a Tom Clancy novel.  I'll say no more for fear of spoiling it, but you'll know it when you see it.

Bruce Perry
Friday, August 1, 2003

At quick glance I read that as Guns, Germans and Steel.

Friday, August 1, 2003

Some Marvin Harris, to balance out the Edward O. Wilson might be interesting.

"Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches"
"Cannibals and Kings"
"Our Kind"

...for some good overview, or "Cultural Materialism" for some lighter bedtime reading.

Friday, August 1, 2003

Not to nitpick, but I would bet World War I/II resulted in progress rather than being a setback.

The number of people killed was appalling, but honestly not enough to endanger the human species.  And the technology that was developed for use in the wars probably has accelerated the pace of "progress" in the 20th century immeasurably.  Nothing like the fear of death to mobilize you to do great things, like building enormous armies, developing radar, whatever.

I agree with the general point that "progress" does not always march forward.

Saturday, August 2, 2003

What a fortuitous time for me to see this question, seing how as I am studying the same sorts of thing.

My newest passion, and what I think shall be a constant study throughout life, is human nature and behavior, particularly as it relates to Deming's (the management guru guy) Theory of Profound Knowledge - in other words, I seek to be capable of predicting human behavior, at least on micro scales, within a certain acceptable range of statistical control, to the greatest extent I can.

Here are the books I recommend to help equip you with enough knowledge of culture, psychology, and animal behavior to help you attain a far better understanding of human behavior in such things as politics and social life.

Understanding Culture : An Introduction to Anthropological Theory -

The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist - an incredible, eye-opening look at culture and politics in non-human animals. This book provided me with a great deal of understanding on how culture is (or at least can be) transmitted, and set me off in my interest in Anthropology.

Other books by Frans de Waal will likely be similarly fascinating, though I've not read them. "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape" and "Chimpanzee Politics" are probably the major ones of interst, but that's getting pretty far from your particular stated interest of the development of civilization.

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Naked Economics: Uncovering The Dismal Science -
Only useful if you don't already have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of Economics, but this is a great way to get a lot of understanding fast if you are so inclined.

Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences - here note that "Economics" is meant to mean "Neo-classical economic theory". It's pretty easy to get into even without a great deal of understanding of Economics, and not the most fun read in the world, but still facinating and important. It does a fine job of pointing out some subtle things (like fallacious uses of Utility Theory, where cardinal and ordinal uses of utility are mixed in such a way as to falsly support things such as Aggregate Indifference Curves) that one might otherwise easily miss.

If you aren't much into Economics, you can skip "Debunking Economics". It's not particularly relavent to your interests here.

You WILL likely be interested in material in the field of "Developmental Economics", as it particularly relates to how human societies develop economically, including the 'why' and the 'how to'. Don't expect total answers to your questions though, because frankly, no one knows the answers to these questions right now. Out of all the sciences these are simply the most complex and hard as hell to empirically test (hard to fit a whole human society, both present and past, into a labratory), and they are, as such, relatively primitive.

Now, this may sound a bit strange, but the last book I'm going to reccommend may seem to have the least to do with what you are asking about, but I think it provides a fascinatingly large amount of insight. It is a book called "A History of Art", but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available on I bought it relatively recently at a Walden's Books store.

While it's main purpose is going over the entire history of art, it provides a fascinatingly large amount of information on social dynamics and developments relating to why art was expressed the way it was. If you can find it, it would be a great read on occassion, but if not then any comprehensive art history book would probably be of interest.

That's about it. I have heard that Guns, Germs, and Steel is a great book, but I haven't read it myself, so I can't give an opinion.

Hope this helps in some way, and good luck!

Saturday, August 2, 2003

"Guns, Germs and Steel" was great on a "macro" level: understanding forces that acted upon, enabled or disabled the progress of civilizations.

Stephen Pinker's book "The Blank Slate" is a very good summary of modern cognitive psychology for the lay reader (the "micro" level).  But it is much more than that as well: his treatment of human psychology is embedded within a wider discussion of how theories of humanity have also been a key component of our political and cultural struggles for over a century.

Pinker goes into a fair amount of detail regarding the reigning Marxist (pseudo-scientific) theories of human nature  because he feels that they represent the most dangerous challenge to real science.  While Marxist economics have been quite thoroughly discredited, Marxist theories of human nature - radiating out from academia - dominate our elite culture.

The Blank Slate points out how deeply such theories have been affected by an a priori commitment to certain political ends and how, as research has continued to pour in, the defenders of these theories have been backed into a very difficult intellectual corner.  In the end, cognitive science has revealed a great deal about human nature that is bound to make nearly everyone with strong, a priori convictions about human nature a bit uncomfortable. 

Pinker is unique in his ability to illuminate the interaction of culture, politics and human nature in forming the world as it exists around us.

Mark Brittingham
Sunday, August 3, 2003

"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them broken....There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Rearden, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with." -- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Ch. III, "White Blackmail"

Mike Sivertsen
Sunday, August 3, 2003

As one who recently read "Atlas Shrugged" (actually listened to the full length book while commuting) it has several ideas that are directly relevant to the 50% socialist society in which Americans live. The general premise of the innovators, the engineers, the producers, the CEOs walking off the job permanently rather than having their hard earned paycheck/entire company "stolen" by the government and redistributed to others is similar to some of the points from an article in Forbes that ran last December, "How to Ruin American Enterprise"  ( ).

For a quick read of some of the high-points from Rand's 1300 page opus check out:

It was very refreshing to see the residents of Tennessee successfully defeat a proposed state income tax in 2001 and 2002.

Mike Sivertsen
Sunday, August 3, 2003

My picks,

- Non-Zero, The logic of human destiny

- Darwin Dangerous Idea

- Freedom Evolves

S. Pinker sucks.

Monday, August 4, 2003

Adam Smith & Keynes stand up.
Maybe Barbara Tuchman, even if she was wrong, and someone on the Indian Mutiny or the Conquistadors (bastard pricks).

Also Shakespeare and Tolstoy.
Laurence Sterne is special for having invented Monty Python in the 18th century.

John Aitken
Friday, August 8, 2003

The prick reference was mostly directed at Pizzarro and friends.  By most accounts Clive wasn't too bad for his time and place... even if he was a mean SOB in a sortof Drakelike tradition.  Certainly, unlike some of the Victorians, he wasn't much of racist... Clive several times had indian officers in command of english troops. 

Sometimes the business consultant gurus sound to me like the military advisors in War and Peace.

John Aitken
Friday, August 8, 2003

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