One of the most highly regarded histories of all time, Guns, Germs, and Steel caught my attention in a big way. How it sets up the dominos of time to bring us to the current era is as clear-cut as the Transitive Property.
The book further levels the genealogical and cultural propagandas so frequent in other lessons about civilizations. Any member of Homo Sapiens is capable of the same outcomes given the same environmental contexts – DNA does not play a factor (as it rightly should not).
Consequences of cultural differences also play out. In a personal eureka moment, I want to share with you the four cultural trends that persevere, usurping any methods that do not conform to one of the four. (Also note that culture drives what a society deems is valuable, thus drives the actions and thoughts of individuals.)
This overview is naïve, of course. Guns, Germs, and Steel does not contend with the question of a 21st-century global culture, the first of its kind. To show these categories of cultural action persist to this day, I’ll outline geo-political, commercial, and biological examples of how society has come to evolve the way it is.
A reminder, in paraphrase, from scholar William Durant: “Good” in history is that which survives. Be it biological, commercial, or cultural, Nature only cares about persisting to the next iteration. All else is a thought exercise at best, moral grandstanding at its most dangerous.
A castle is overcome when it is destroyed and its inhabitants ruined, the besieger then allowed to record only that there was victory for themselves.
First among equals, the primal tenant: an obstacle does not exist if made to not exist.
A culture or action that removes its competitors and predators survives, at least for awhile, and certainly longer than either competitors or predators.
The micro-action of “unfriending” an inflammatory character from Social Media is annihilation. A company that forces the closure of a niche shop is annihilation. A nation that blows-up the economics and utilities of another nation is annihilation. A species that puts to extinction a foe over resources or predation is annihilation.
Annihilation is Zero Sum, meaning that there is no compromise between one entity attempting to annihilate another. Being Zero Sum, once a state of mutually assured destruction is reached by any two entities, those entities must change their cultural attitudes towards each other to survive.
Non-annihilation towards one does not negate actions of annihilation against another. (Why the Cold War was an indirect war.) However, the idea of non-annihilation can assimilate itself into the rest of a culture, ‘pacifying’ a people to use other means of survival.
A castle is overcome when it surrenders and joins the besieger, who then puts to work what is deemed useful at the time.
“Apes together strong.” – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The most mutually beneficial tenant, an obstacle does not exist if it not only agrees to no longer be an obstacle, but joins in overcoming other obstacles.
Mitochondria evolving to give easy energy to a larger cell for protection and care is assimilation. When a new employee goes to a company function regardless of personal preference to socialize with the group is assimilation. Every business that buys other businesses, adapting the enterprise in a minor way to accommodate the other companies, is assimilation. Whether Catholic or Buddhist, missionaries morphing the likenesses of their idols to conform to the dominant traditions is assimilation. A nation teaching its language to the conquered, the refugee, the destitute, and the uneducated young is assimilation.
In short, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In that way, a disadvantaged entity survives in at least some part while an advantaged entity grows stronger by the double whammy of removing a rival and adding to its own benefits.
Take note that a disadvantaged entity has no guarantee to be whole and only minorly altered after assimilation. In Nature, niches allow only one entity space to exist therein, otherwise resulting in competition and obstacles. If an obstacle is removed by assimilation, a subpart of what was assimilated may already have its niched filled by the assimilator, meaning the subpart is then annihilated to avoid competition.
If assimilation is yet too costly, a more indirect route of asphyxiation exists.
A castle is overcome when it is starved out, the besieger then destroyer or enslaver of any reluctant survivors.
A tenant for the patient or the weak-but-numerous, an obstacle allowed to crumble under its own weight is no longer an obstacle.
A culture that takes no direct action against another entity can still overcome the other. The former does so by cutting off the inputs needed by the latter.
A plant denied adequate water and light, whether given too much or too little, rots and withers. A person not included in a social circle is asphyxiated of attention and leaves. A powerplant cut off from its water coolant overheats by its own reaction. A nation runs out of its fuel and food when an embargo asphyxiates it.
Isolation, which may arrive in the form of inundation (e.g. drowning, the isolation from oxygen), kills – a roundabout annihilation. A system – cultural, commercial, biological, societal – must interact with other systems to survive. It will find its niche otherwise too small to continue without at least severe adaptation and sacrifice.
Some entities have assimilated so many others as to become self sufficient and spared a destruction by asphyxiation. However, should the denial of exchange be parsed farther down (e.g. to a city rather than a country), an entity will collapse under its own wants and waste. To prevent a possible asphyxiator from realizing this, along with avoiding notions of assimilation and annihilation, the disadvantaged entity may agnosticize itself to external awareness.
A castle is overcome when the inhabitants do not know the besieger is already in the walls, the besieger falling below a level of notice.
The tenant of ignorance and parasitism, an obstacle is no longer so whenever it does not know to act as an obstacle.
A culture beyond the notice of other cultures survives. This is the hardest tenant to exist by, though it is the least destructive to other entities.
Great work must be done to become agnosticized (i.e. unknown) to other cultures. First, the culture, system, or entity wishing to be kept unaware must be self sufficient (immune to needing to interact with outside systems to gather resources or deposit waste). It then must be self regulating (the niche of the system avoids over-consuming what is available). Finally, the system must have complete attraction to its members (nothing must be allowed to leave, and all individuals must cooperate towards maintaining the agnosticized goal).
The first need of an agnosticized culture – self sufficiency – may be circumvented in the case of parasitism. An entity may subsist on the byproducts and rounding-errors of a more advantaged entity. Even greater care is required here to remain under the notice of a destroyer. As far as humans are concerned, we are very jealous creatures, even in the ownership of our refuse.
A mouse whisking away a nibble of cheese or crumb of bread without traps set or cats stalking is agnosticized. A person is spared ridicule by being a no-body without public appearance and so is agnosticized. A local provider is not run out of business by a larger corporation because it is agnosticized from the corporation’s notice. A non-seafaring people left alone on an island is spared disease and enslavement because it is agnosticized. A nation in isolation can slow cultural change because it is agnosticized.
Attention begets change from outside forces, whether on the subatomic level or cultural. To avoid attention, to agnosticize, means survival. Change will certainly come, yet remain internal, free from being targeted for annihilation, assimilation, or asphyxiation by other cultures.
And those are my big “aha!” takeaways from Guns, Germs, and Steel. Looking around the context of things in 2021, we see how these principles continue to play out across geographies, cultures, time, and even between micro-organelles to macro-economies.
To survive is “Good.” How to survive is to annihilate, assimilate, asphyxiate, or be agnosticized against the competition.
For your goals, which of these survival techniques are you leveraging? Help me assimilate your ideas into my own so we both may survive a little longer!
While we strive, cheers ~