Saturday, 11 September 2010

Guns, germs, and aardvarks

At an airport I bought a copy of Jared Diamond's classic Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It aims to provide a "non-racist" answer to an interesting question: "why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents"? Why was it Pizarro who captured and subdued Atahuallpa, rather than a Peruvian explorer enslaving the King of Spain? Diamond notes the proximate causes — horses, ships, steel weapons, gunpowder, and smallpox — but he searches for ultimate causes. How did Europeans come to have all of the advantages that allowed them to conquer most of the world? Diamond reasons that it was ultimately a question of geography (presence of domesticable species, orientation of continental axes, etc).

All very plausible and interesting. The prose is uninspiring, and often repetitive, but the ideas seemed worth exploring, and I figured I'd learn something along the way.

In Chapter 7, though, I hit this:
The seeds of many wild plant species actually must pass through an animal's gut before they can germinate. For instance, one African melon species is so well adapted at being eaten by a hyena-like animal called the aardvark that most melons of that species grow on the latrine sites of aardvarks.
Aardvark? Hyena-like? I'm not a zoologist, but that didn't sound right to me.

GGS is a Pulitzer Prize winning book, written in 1997. My paperback edition contains an Afterword written in 2003. They've had plenty of time to identify and correct any glaring errors.

Still, it seems certain that Diamond really meant Aardwolf.

Perhaps the aardvark error was introduced by a 'helpful' editor. However it happened, it doesn't inspire confidence. I'll persevere, but will take what I read with a few extra grains of salt.


  1. I just started reading this book, and this bit jumped out at me today! I found your blog post by searching for "hyena-like" and "aardvark," trying to see if there was something I was missing. Thanks for the aardwolf explanation!

  2. Jumped out at me too, along with one or two other things that a non biologist might not spot but these minor faults do not interfere with the major premises which are very interesting. In my view an excellent book.

  3. It is aardvarks that eat the melons in question (the aardvark melon) and distribute the seeds in faeces. The mistake is that it is clearly the aardwolf that is hyena-like. Wherever this confusion arose it does not affect the real premise of the book which I enjoyed enormously.