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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Discussion Topic

The development and spread of writing in some societies but not others, according to "Guns, Germs, and Steel."

Summary:

According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, writing developed and spread in some societies due to factors like the availability of suitable crops and animals for domestication, large and dense populations, and complex social structures. These conditions allowed for the surplus production and social stratification necessary for writing to emerge. Societies without these advantages did not develop writing independently.

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Why did writing develop and spread in some societies but not others in "Guns, Germs, and Steel"?

Chapter 13 starts off with an excellent example to support the answer given in #2. The discovery of the famous Phaistos Disk and the way that it represented a form of writing that was not adopted indicates that writing only developed and was taken up when there was a perceived need for it to be adopted widely. As the chapter explores, many different factors feed in to the invention of writing, in particular the bureaucratic need to record.

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Why did writing develop and spread in some societies but not others in "Guns, Germs, and Steel"?

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The last answer is pretty thorough, but I will address why writing did not spread from culture to culture. If there is trade between different groups, they will naturally influence one another. As human societies were becoming more complex, they were better able to trade farther and farther away. As trade became more common, a system of keeping records is needed in both societies. Thus, writing begins to spread. Communities that were isolated and did not trade were less likely to need to develop systems of writing.
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Why did writing develop and spread in some societies but not others in "Guns, Germs, and Steel"?

One reason why writing didn't get invented in some societies (and didn't spread to them from other societies) is that those societies did not have any need for it.  Diamond talks about how writing is really only useful if you have a pretty complex society that is based on agriculture and has a pretty organized government.  Societies like this need writing for record keeping.  But other societies that don't have bureaucracies and such have very little use for writing so they would not be likely to invent it or even to borrow it.

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According to Ch.12 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, why didn't writing spread to all societies?

Writing developed in one of two ways, and seems to have arisen independently in both Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. Developing writing was a matter of assigning symbols to spoken words, and later to sounds, syllables, and abstract concepts. These early writing systems were very complex and hard to master, which made them slow to spread. Additionally, the vast majority of people in a society did not need writing in their daily lives. Because of this fact and its complexity, it was largely limited only to a small group of scribes and other bureaucrats who used it for record-keeping, either for economic or religious purposes. It spread only among settled agricultural societies, who had a need to keep such records, and not to hunter-gathering societies, who had no need for them. 

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Why did writing arise and spread in some societies but not others, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel?

The answer to this question can be found in Chapter 13 of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  There, Diamond discusses various aspects of the way in which writing develops and diffuses.  The discussion of your question begins on p. 233, though the actual answer does not appear until pp. 236 and 237.

The first part of your question asks why writing arose in some societies and not in others.  First, it was very unlikely that writing would arise independently in many different societies.  This is because it is so hard to come up with the idea of writing and to develop a writing system on your own.  Diamond says that the vast majority of societies borrowed writing from the few places that invented it independently.  The few inventors of writing, Diamond says, were those who started farming first.  Writing is of very little use to hunter-gatherers and no such society ever invented writing.  It is useful to farming societies once they reach a certain size and level of sophistication.  Therefore, the societies who started farming first were the ones who actually developed writing.  As Diamond says on p. 236

Writing arose independently only in the Fertile Crescent, Mexico, and probably China precisely because those were the first areas where food production emerged in their respective hemispheres.

The second part of your question asks why some societies borrowed writing and others remained illiterate.  Diamond attributes this to the remoteness of some societies.  He says that the societies that did not borrow writing were those that were too far away from societies that had writing.  Some of these societies, like that of Hawaii, were a long way from the nearest literate societies.  Others, like that of the Incas, were not really that far from a literate society in miles, but were separated from them by terrain that was very hard to cross.  Thus, some societies did not borrow writing because writing could not reach them.

Writing, then, only arose independently in places that got agriculture first.  It diffused to almost all societies, but it failed to reach some societies because they were too isolated.

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Why did writing arise in and spread to some societies but not to others?

Most societies with writing did not develop it on their own.  Rather, they "borrowed" it from or were inspired to develop it by neighboring societies who already had writing.  If societies were isolated and so were not aware of writing and its value, they were unlikely to create it on their own.

The societies that did independently invent writing were those with complex hierarchies and sophisticated systems of food production.  Writing was needed for politics and was generally learned by bureaucrats who had the comfort of available time and energy.  As food was available to them, they had no need to hunt and gather for themselves. Since their basic needs were being met, they could focus on a higher level of existence and communication.

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