In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is the lesson of the Phaistos disk?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Another problem with the Phaistos disk is that it was indecipherable by anyone who followed after the maker created it; therefore, it was discarded. But, the argument of Diamond that because the people of Crete in 1700 B.C. had no paper or materials to write on, and, therefore, simply did not develop a written language for this reason and not because they were less advanced or gifted than other civilizations seems rather shallow in light of the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, who did develop a written language which they wrote on the walls of tombs. 

In AD 391 it is recorded that the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closed pagan temples throughout the empire, sealing off the writings of the past.

This action terminated a four thousand year old tradition and the message of the ancient Egyptian language was lost for 1500 years.

So, if the hieroglyphics were written four thousand years before AD 391, then the Egyptians had a written language in 3600 B. C., a language for which they found a purpose. Obviously, then the Egyptians seem a people more advanced than the Cretes, making Diamond's main argument that certain civilizations advanced because of where they were and the resources that they had ring hollow. Besides, if one among the Cretes was creative enough to fashion some kind of writing, why were not others curious? Did this Crete not share his creation with anyone?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main lesson of the Phaistos disk, according to Diamond, is that necessity is not the mother of invention.  Instead, innovation happens simply because people tinker and change things and stumble on new things.  They then go looking for uses for their new inventions.

In Chapter 13, Diamond is trying to argue that some areas become technologically advanced not because they are more culturally inclined to invention or because they are smarter.  Instead, they become more advanced simply because they have all the things that they need to be able to find uses for the inventions that people come up with.

This is where the Phaistos disk comes in.  People in Crete in 1700 BC didn't have much use for printing.  They did not, for example, have paper.  Later on, in Europe, printing really did catch hold.  But it was not because the Europeans of that time were somehow better than the people of Crete.  Instead, it was because they had all the things they needed to allow printing to happen.

This is the lesson of the disk.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial