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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is the importance of a writing system to a civilization?

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The importance of a writing system to a civilization according to Guns, Germs, and Steel lies in the power that comes with literacy. It provided European conquerors with a distinct advantage in conquering the world.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, we discover that writing systems, however primitive and undeveloped, gave certain civilizations a distinct advantage over others. The development of written systems gave civilizations access to a wide range of materials that could be used to help them conquer new lands and establish lucrative trade routes across the globe. Knowledge is power, as they say, and those civilizations with writing systems were better able to accrue the knowledge necessary to expand and prosper.

By contrast, civilizations without writing systems, such as the Inca, were unable to draw upon the wealth of knowledge that made it all too easy for the Spanish to conquer them. Culturally and geographically isolated, the Inca were in a vulnerable position, making it almost inevitable that someday they would be challenged and defeated by a rival civilization where some form of writing system was in operation. And that's precisely what happened.

Literate civilizations who prevailed over nonliterate ones were then in a position to record their deeds for posterity, stimulating the development of historical memory, a crucial component of any lasting civilization. The writing down of historical deeds would ensure cultural transmission from one generation to the next, thus contributing to the overall stability of society.

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According to chapter 12 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, the development of writing and literacy equates to power. The book points out that literacy was one of the factors which made it possible for European conquerors to conquer as much of the world as they did. Their ability to read gave them access to information gleaned by previous explorers, and their ability to read maps that showed them where they needed to go.

Diamond argues that although the Europeans were not more intelligent than anyone else in the world but that their success in advancement lay in their ability to read and write. The power of the written word, according to Diamond, lay in the ability to pass on knowledge with greater detail, greater speed, greater quantity, and greater accuracy.

Throughout history, writing has been used to great effect to codify and enforce laws, control people, and ensure the continued exploitation of lower classes—who were invariably illiterate. In a nutshell, Guns, Germs, and Steel argues that the written word has been an essential tool in the mission of creating colonies and conquering as much of the world as possible. Diamond likens writing to weapons and political organizations in terms of the power that it provides its masters.

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Writing systems are vital to the development of civilization. Most cultures only began to truly develop and adapt once they achieved some form of writing. This is because transcription and record keeping have extremely important roles in human history. Writing acts to preserve the past and tell the stories of history so that we can learn lessons and grow. But more importantly, it allows us to record important information.

The first forms of writing were used to give instructions on building structures and cities, to create calendars so that humans had a better understanding of weather and harvests, and to instate laws and decrees for civilization. Without a written document, many of these things would have failed to be achieved, leaving civilization without much to build upon.

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The invention of and widespread use of writing by civilizations was integral to the concentration of hierarchy and state power. While writing certainly became a beautiful way to record artistic creation and the thoughts of humans, an immensely large function of writing throughout history has been in the conquest of peoples and the recording and enforcement of laws. As hierarchies became solidified through the building of civilizations, written laws became a way of controlling masses of people and recording hierarchical and bureaucratic structures that used systems of taxation and other means of exploitation against lower classes of people. History is said to be written by the victors, and the written word has certainly been used to cement colonialism and conquest.

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The importance Diamond assigns to writing is succinctly described in the following passage from Chapter 12, entitled "Blueprints and Borrowed Letters": 

Knowledge brings power. Hence writing brings power to modern societies, by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy and in far greater detail, from more distant lands and more distant times...Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organizations as a modern agent of conquest.

Writing enabled the conquerors to record information about the lands and people they encountered, which facilitated their rapid conquest. Diamond goes on to observe that writing was enormously difficult to invent, and spread largely through diffusion. Its main use was for record-keeping, which accompanied and facilitated the development of complex bureaucracies. As such, it remained the province mostly of elites until very recently in world history. In any case, the fact that writing, like other important technologies, spread through Eurasia relatively quickly, and not to other regions, was a result, Diamond argues, of geographic factors instead of cultural ones.

Source: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Socieites (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999), 215-216. 

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Although most of the chapter is devoted to talking about how people developed writing systems, there is a bit at the beginning that tells you why writing systems are important to a civilization (look in the second and third paragraphs of the chapter).  Diamond summarizes the idea by saying "Knowledge brings power."

What Diamond is saying there is that knowledge is important and that writing can bring (and preserve) more knowledge than is possible without writing.  When a civilization is able to write, they can record information about how they have done things.  These records can be exact and can last.  Civilizations can also get ideas from faraway places by writing them down.

The basic idea, then, is that a civilization with writing can preserve its knowledge by writing it down.  It can also gather more knowledge than it could without writing.  By having more knowledge, it can have more power.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does a civilization adopt or decide to use a writing system?

You can answer this question by reading in Chapter 12.  There, Diamond says that there are two ways in which civilizations adopt an writing system (rather than creating one of their own).

Diamond says that writing has spread in two main ways.  The first of these is what he calls "blueprint copying."  In this method, one culture borrows a writing system directly from another.  The one culture essentially just takes the other culture's writing system and uses it for their own language.  The second is called "idea diffusion."  In this method, a culture hears about the basic idea of writing and then develops its own completely new system of writing.  Diamond says that societies adopted writing in one of these two ways.

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