Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did Europeans dominate and colonize the rest of the world for so long? Why did they develop technology faster than other cultures, and why did European diseases wipe out native populations and not vice versa? These are some of the basic questions that Jared Diamond attempts to investigate and explain in his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. This multi-disciplinary book, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, has been mostly well-received, with a not-insignificant share of criticism and mild controversy. I read the book four years ago, but I recently discovered and viewed a three-part miniseries by the National Geographic Society (aired by PBS in 2005) in which Professor Diamond visited diverse locales from around the world in order to reaffirm the basic ideas behind his thesis. I will provide a summary of these ideas, followed by my own opinions on this matter and why it matters to us.

Diamond bird-watching in New Guinea (from NGS/PBS)

Diamond, who is a physiologist by training, as well as an expert ornithologist, is currently a professor of geography and environmental history at UCLA. This book is the product of 30 years of study, beginning when he was in New Guinea on one of his annual bird-watching trips to that island and was asked by a local politician named Yali, “Why do white people have so much cargo [the word used for inventions/manufactured goods], but we New Guineans have so little?” Diamond had never considered this question, but quickly realized that it applied to other societies as well–Native Americans, Sub-Saharans Africans, Australian Aborigines, etc. The answer, which he methodically explains over the next 500 pages, is based on the environmental disposition of the continents, the relative number of various people-friendly plants and animals, and the positive feedback loops caused by these factors.  Basically, “It’s the geography, stupid.” Diamond’s approach has been criticized as presenting a deterministic scenario that is overly-dependent on the environment. In any case, it surely wholly discredited any vestiges of the widespread Victorian (and later) Era commonplace that Europeans were inherently superior, either genetically, mentally, or technologically.  Diamond uses a few case studies to demonstrate the error of this credence.

Some of the basic points include:

  1. Starting from a prehistoric time when all human societies were all roughly at the same level of development, about 15,000 years ago after the last Ice Age.
  2. Analyzing the development of societies from hunter-gatherers to agriculture, and later to more complex hierarchical structures with cities and kings.
  3. Listing the different types of edible plants in each geographical zone. Starting in the Fertile Crescent, the Eurasian land mass developed a rich agricultural tradition based around such nutritious (and protein-rich) grains as barley, two types of wheat, pulses, and flax, which were also easy to sow by throwing seeds over the ground. Nowhere else had such abundance: New Guinea only had a nutrient-poor tree-pulp harvest; the Americas had only maize, which was also nutrient-poor and difficult to plant by hand.
  4. Listing the domestic animals in each zone.  Diamond finds a total of 148 potential large (100 lbs. or more) mammals that could be domesticated in the world. Only 14 of these were ever domesticated, and all but one of these were native to Eurasia. The llama/alpaca from South America was the only outlier, and even that animal was never used for labor or transportation. The other 13, including the ‘big four’ of cows, horses, sheep, and pigs, provided Eurasian societies with a plethora of benefits, including meat, labor, milk, transportation, wool, leather, etc. Africa has a number of large mammals, but none that can be domesticated. Australia has none, and many were probably hunted to extinction long ago. New Guinea gained the pig only 5000 years ago, and it can only be used for meat in any case.
  5. Already, the simultaneous presence of this animal/agricultural diversity benefits Eurasia and leads to a positive benefit for humans, animals, and plants there.
  6. Because of the long east-west running axis of Eurasia, plants and animals could spread more easily to similar climates with the same day-length. There were no geographical barriers that hindered the spread of these plants and animals that were native to any local region throughout the entire landmass.
  7. Every other area had vast physical barriers and long north-south axes that prevented effective spread of any potential benefits from one area to another.
  8. As Eurasian societies gained agricultural surpluses due to their grain yields and available animal power, they also developed more complex societies with specialists who did not need to work for food. Writing was invented in the Fertile Crescent and spread. There were also artisans, inventors, and armies. Any innovation in one area would be quickly adopted by neighboring tribes/societies in an ongoing ‘arms race’ that insured the faster technological progression of these areas.
  9. Humans living in such close proximity to so many domesticated animals, and in ever-larger towns and cities, meant that diseases would be more prevalent and spread rapidly. Many plagues thus swept through Eurasia, killing large swathes of the population each time, but also genetically strengthening those fortunate survivors.
  10. The societies without such animal domestication, and without close proximity to other groups, did not suffer widespread plagues seen in Eurasia. This also means that when Europeans eventually sailed to distant shores, they took their diseases with them. They had become immune, but the Native peoples were not.
  11. Many technological developments were invented in the Middle East or China, but the Europeans were still able to reap the benefits, taking and improving on things invented elsewhere.
  12. Diamond argues also that environmental factors further helped Europeans more than other Eurasia societies. The original Fertile Crescent innovators had perhaps been too gung-ho about agriculture and eventually caused desertification of once-fertile land. China developed and became unified fairly rapidly, but was too isolated to remain dynamic. Europe, however, had enough mountain barriers to ensure a large number of independent states that could still constantly compete, trade technology, and engage in a never-ending ‘arms race’.
In one case study, Diamond discusses the conquest of the huge Inca Empire by only a couple hundred Spanish soldiers. The pathogens (probably smallpox) of the Europeans had already spread across the continent well in advance of the actual Spanish soldiers, killing a huge number of the native population. The Spanish had horses, which the Inca had never seen, and were extremely adept at using them in combat. They also had steel swords, and the inaccurate, but still impressive, early firearm called the harquebus. The Inca emperor, Atahualpa, thought that the small number of strange men was no threat and allowed them to advance all the way to his distant capital. Even though he was surrounded by an army of ten thousand, the Spanish were still able to orchestrate a surprise morning attack against the unsuspecting Inca and capture the emperor himself. They imprisoned him for 10 months and used him to gain vast amounts of gold treasure to take back to Spain, and then executed him. In this way, it was easy for a small number of Europeans to conquer and colonize other lands using their guns, germs, and steel that they had gradually gained through the ‘geographic lottery’.

Some criticisms of the book take issue with relatively minor points, such as the nutritional value of some crops like maize, the difficulty in adapting crops to new areas, and the effects of various geographical barriers (such as European mountains), etc.  A more serious criticism takes aim at the entire premise, stating that it is too deterministic, or dependent on environmental factors to explain the success or failure of every society, minimizing the actual innovations that were developed by the people themselves. Diamond has refuted this by explaining only that environmental factors (animals, plants, geography) allowed Europe to get a ‘head-start’ and develop faster; he says that other societies would have also progressed eventually to their own industrial revolutions, but at a slower rate. The Europeans had already used their advantage to conquer before other areas had the chance to catch up!

Also, some people say that Diamond has not made use of the more nuanced history of the modern world, and how societies continue to develop today. In fact, Diamond concludes his study in modern-day Africa, taking a trip into the interior of Zambia. There, he finds a society still devastated by the epidemic of malaria. In the video, he is emotionally overcome at the sight of so many helpless children having no hope, and dying in huge numbers. He realizes that geography still plays a part in determining the fate of a country. The colonization of Africa changed the lifestyle of the people there away from their natural customs to follow the European model. They came down from the cool highlands to live in big cities in the mosquito-infested lowlands. With prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore, he gives an example of how people can change their situation using current scientific knowledge and resources. Singapore also used to be a poor country in a swampy land with rampant malaria. A long series of land-reclamation projects and intense malaria-fighting measures eventually provided the people with the freedom to not only survive, but to flourish.

There are many other interesting facets of this book, but I will conclude with my final observation. Diamond has shown how geography plays an integral role in facilitating the success of a society. In ancient times, technological developments were gradual, as was the population growth. There was a slow ebb and flow and societies that were heavily dependent on the environmental factors they had to constantly deal with. Today, the world can be seen as almost one society, or at least one in which everyone is potentially connected and dependent on people from around the globe for various foodstuffs and products. Globalization is not going away. But a rapidly growing population now uses more natural resources than ever before, with huge industrialization straining limited supplies of fresh water, arable land, and animals and fish. Everywhere there is growing prosperity in the world, but it is built on a foundation of inefficient use of resources, rampant waste, and disgusting pollution of every kind. This is not the historical model of any successful society in history. There is no reason to think that our modern society will escape the pattern of failure that always follows from such environmental factors. The difference is that in the past, people were unaware of and helpless to influence their environment. That is not the case today. I wonder when we will decide to take control of our own fate to protect the environment that sustains our prosperous, and precipitous, society.

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7 thoughts on “Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

  1. The human/geography interface is so interesting to me! I would go on but you do such a wonderful job…thanks for the good read.


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  5. Great read!


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