Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Rather than point the finger at racial or ethnic differences to answer this question, Diamond focuses on environmental differences and proceeds to lay out a comprehensive case. Four sets of factors, he argues, contributed to the world as we see it today.
First, are the differences between continents in terms of the number of species of wild plants (such as wheat) and animals (such as pigs and horses) available for domestication. Shifting from hunter gatherer societies to agrarian societies will be easier in regions of the world such as the Fertile Crescent (modern day Iraq) when plants and animals are more easily domesticated. Second, is the directional orientation of continents and presence of natural ecological barriers. East-West orientation (such as in Eurasia, as opposed to Africa or the Americas) leads to similar climactic conditions, making it easier for plants and animals and hence civilizations to migrate and dominate. The third factor is the isolation or lack thereof of certain continents allowing easier diffusion of technologies. Area and population size is the fourth factor. Starting with these factors, Diamond lays out a convincing case for why certain countries and societies dominated world history while others didn't. Especially interesting is the case of China which was so far ahead of the world that it could have had an industrial revolution in the 14th century! To truly understand the strength of his arguments and the linkages, you have to read the book.
Jared Diamond is a professor of geography and physiology at UCLA. He won the Pulitzer prize for this book. To view a video about the ideas surrounding his next book Collapse - How Societies Fail and Sometimes Succeed, this video is a good starter.