Guns, Germs, and Steel
by Jared Diamond
This book sets out to explore what sets of circumstances caused various human societies to end up in far different circumstances from others -- in particular, how the Western European cultures ended up dominating the Middle Eastern, Asiatic, African, or Mesoamerican ones. The answers aren't simple, or easy to explore without arousing controversey, but the author certainly brings us lots of interesting information along the way.
One of biggest questions explored here dates back long before the Western European expansion of the last 600 years -- Diamond explores why, given mankind's likely origin in Africa, it was the Middle East and generally Eurasia that experienced the phenomenal growth from the agricultural revolution. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, he shows that although you couldn't have easily predicted what culture would end up hegemonizing its neighbors, you could have predicted that it would be somewhere on the the Eurasian landmass.
Although North and South America taken together are almost as large as Eurasia, Diamond points out it's unlikely that cultural innovations would thrive there. Why? Because the Americas lie primarily on a north-south axis, whereas Eurasia lies east-west. The significance of this difference is that new developments in domesticated plants or animals were likely to be transmitted easily and quickly throughout the Eurasian landmass -- the chicken got from its domestication in China to Western Europe in only 500 years -- whereas such phenomenons could not easily spread in the Americas (the only native American domesticated mammal, the llama, was unable to spread to North America because it was poorly suited to the intervening Central American jungles).
Keeping a careful eye on political correctness (Diamond points out early that he does not believe cultural superiority has anything to do with events), Diamond goes through these and many other fascinating stories about the fates of societies. You won't be disappointed with the content in this book, and it will make you think. Highly recommended.