- “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond offers a compelling perspective on the fates of human societies, emphasizing the role of environmental and geographic factors. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of the forces that have shaped our world.
- I encourage you to delve into this book to gain a deeper understanding of how geography and environment have played a crucial role in the course of human history. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” challenges conventional wisdom and offers fresh insights that will broaden your perspective on the development of human societies.
Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) is a short history of humanity over the last 13,000 years. The question it poses is as simple to state as it is hard to answer: Why did some parts of the world develop advanced technologies while others didn’t? It rejects explanations that rely on assumptions about the relative intelligence of different peoples. Instead, it argues that the divergence of human societies is best explained by natural factors such as climate, biology, and geology.
Introduction: A brief look at the history of human divergence.
Table of Contents
Historians work on different scales. Some devote entire careers to single battles. Some cover epochs spanning decades. Others work on topics extending over centuries and millennia, like the history of economic systems and world religions.
Biologist, geographer, and historian Jared Diamond’s canvas is even larger. As he sees it, you have to zoom all the way out to discern “history’s broadest pattern.” To tell the full story of humanity, he argues, you have to start around 13,000 years ago.
The overarching theme of that story is divergence. In 11,000 BCE, one society resembled the next. Humans in today’s Peru, Poland, and Papua New Guinea had more in common than set them apart: they were all preliterate hunter-gatherers using stone tools.
Fast forward to 1492, the year of Columbus’s first voyage, and it’s the differences that stand out. In Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, and much of the Americas, hunter-gatherers were still the norm. But the Eurasian landmass between Portugal and Japan was now home to civilizations with state governments, writing, iron tools, firearms, and standing armies. These advances allowed Eurasian – and especially European – states to conquer the rest of the world.
Why did history play out this way? Why did human societies diverge so radically? Why did Eurasians conquer Australians, Americans, and Africans – and not vice versa?
Those are the questions Diamond sets out to answer in Guns, Germs, and Steel. We can’t cover every facet of his argument here. In this very short summary we’ll focus on what he identifies as the root cause of humanity’s divergence: agriculture.
Eurasia’s unique geography gave it a historic head start.
Food surpluses make complex human societies possible. Civilization is calorific – it’s what happens when you grow enough food to feed people who don’t work the land.
In other words, it all starts with a warehouse full of grain. That’s how you feed an urban settlement – the civitas as it’s called in Latin, a language in which the word for “city” is etymologically related to “civilization.” Crowding lots of people together in cities is a recipe for disease, but that’s a good thing (evolutionarily speaking, anyway). Exposing populations to germs is how they develop immunity against diseases like smallpox. The city is also a hothouse for innovation. For one, it’s home to artisans and tinkerers as well as the wealthy patrons who sponsor their work. Then there’s the political factor. Cities compete with one another, and few things drive technological development like an arms race with a geopolitical rival.
Add all that together and you get a technologically advanced, disease-resistant society that’s armed to the teeth. It’s a lethal combination – and a good description of the Spanish conquistadors who colonized the Americas. Guns and steel gave them an advantage on the battlefield; the diseases they brought with them decimated indigenous societies off it.
Why, though, did Europeans like the Spanish have guns, germs, and steel while, say, the Incas of Peru didn’t? To answer that question, we need to turn to the origins of agriculture.
The heartland of human agriculture is the Fertile Crescent – a curve of valleys and floodplains that arcs through eastern Turkey into the Levant and down the Euphrates river into Iraq.
Some 12,000 years ago, foragers in this area began deliberately planting wild grasses with large, nutritious seed heads – the ancestors of wheat and barley. Without knowing it, they had sown humanity’s first crops. Lentils, olives, figs, almonds, and chickpeas followed. Next up were animals. Wild cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats were all domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. When the first cities began popping up after 7,500 BCE, their inhabitants relied on these foods.
There were other centers of agricultural innovation and other bases for cuisines and cultures. China, for example, had rice and soy; Mexico had maize, beans, tomatoes, and squash. Other parts of the world weren’t blessed with such abundance. Sub-Saharan Africa had millet, sorghum, yams, and groundnuts – but these plants didn’t grow in the same places. Large African mammals, meanwhile, resisted domestication. The real problem, though, were geographical barriers preventing the diffusion of crops. Let’s break that down.
The Eurasian landmass falls along an east-west axis. Pretty much every fertile region lies at roughly the same latitude, meaning there are few seasonal differences and the days are similarly long or short. The upshot is that crops which thrive in one region tend to also do well in others. Buckwheat, for instance, grows just as happily on the Breton coast as it does in the Alpine foothills of northern Italy and on the plains of Ukraine or the islands of Japan. This geographical quirk meant that Eurasian societies could rapidly exchange crops, enlarge their food supplies, and accelerate the growth of large and complex civilizations.
The Americas and Africa, by contrast, fall on north-south axes that cover many different degrees of latitude. Exchanging crops between fertile regions in, say, Mexico and Peru is tricky since these areas have significantly different day lengths and seasonal patterns. The diffusion of agricultural practices along this axis is thus much slower than it is along the east-west axis. A plant that thrives in Mexico – maize is a good historical example – has to undergo a huge amount of genetic adaptation before it’s of any use to farmers in the Andes.
The speed at which societies developed toward ever greater complexity was largely determined by agricultural capacities. The emergence of farming in Eurasia around 8,000 BCE led to a series of breakthroughs that other societies simply didn’t have the food surpluses to support. Metal tools, centralized states, and writing were well established in the Fertile Crescent by 2,500 BCE. In Africa and the Americas, such developments came much, much later.
So Eurasia had a multi-millennium head start on other regions, and that advantage compounded down the centuries. By the time agricultural revolutions were reshaping societies in Africa and the Americas, Eurasian states had already developed ships capable of circumnavigating continents – not to mention muskets and cannons. That’s ultimately why Eurasians were able to conquer Australians, Americans, and Africans.
Food surpluses are a prerequisite for the development of politically centralized, economically complex, and technologically innovative societies. Eurasian geography is unique among the world’s continents in supporting, rather than hindering, the rapid spread of farming practices capable of creating such surpluses.
Jared Diamond is professor of geography at UCLA and author of the best-selling Collapse and The Third Chimpanzee. He is a MacArthur Fellow and was awarded the National Medal of Science.
Science, History, Nature and the Environment, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, Anthropology, Sociology, Politics, Economics, World History, Human Geography, History of Civilization and Culture
Table of Contents
Preface to the Paperback Edition: Why Is World History Like an Onion? 9
Prologue Yali’s Question The regionally differing courses of history 13
Part 1 From Eden To Cajamarca
Chapter 1 Up to the Starting Line What happened on all the continents before 11,000 B.C.? 35
Chapter 2 A Natural Experiment of History How geography molded societies on Polynesian islands 52
Chapter 3 Collision at Cajamarca Why the lnca emperor Atahuallpa did not capture King Charles I of Spain 65
Part 2 The Rise and Spread of Food Production
Chapter 4 Farmer Power The roots of guns, germs, and steel 81
Chapter 5 History’s Haves and Have-Nots Geographic differences in the onset of food production 89
Chapter 6 To Farm or Not to Farm Causes of the spread of food production 100
Chapter 7 How to Make an Almond The unconscious development of ancient crops 109
Chapter 8 Apples Or Indians Why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate plants? 126
Chapter 9 Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle Why were most big wild mammal species never domesticated? 151
Chapter 10 Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes Why did food production spread at different rates on different continents? 169
Part 3 From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel
Chapter 11 Lethal Gift of Livestock The evolution of germs 187
Chapter 12 Blueprints and Borrowed Letters The evolution of writing 206
Chapter 13 Necessity’s Mother The evolution of technology 229
Chapter 14 From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy The evolution of government and religion 254
Part 4 Around the World in Six Chapters
Chapter 15 Yali’s People The histories of Australia and New Guinea 283
Chapter 16 How China Became Chinese The history of East Asia 308
Chapter 17 Speedboat to Polynesia The history of the Austronesian expansion 320
Chapter 18 Hemispheres Colliding The histories of Eurasia and the Americas compared 339
Chapter 19 How Africa Became Black The history of Africa 361
Chapter 20 Who Are the Japanese? The history of Japan 386
Epilogue The Future of Human History as a Science 40
2017 Afterword: Rich and Poor Countries in Light of Guns, Germs, and Steel 433
Further Readings 447
“Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond is a remarkable work of non-fiction that explores the complex interplay of factors that have shaped the course of human history. Diamond’s central thesis is that the differences in the development and success of human societies can be largely attributed to environmental, geographic, and ecological factors rather than inherent racial or cultural superiority.
Diamond begins his exploration by examining the advantages that certain societies had in terms of domesticated plants and animals. He argues that regions with fertile soil and a greater variety of potential crops and livestock were more likely to develop advanced agriculture. This allowed for larger populations, specialization of labor, and the eventual emergence of complex civilizations.
The book also delves into the role of geography in determining the fate of societies. Diamond explains how the orientation of continents and the availability of domesticable plants and animals influenced the spread of technologies, diseases, and cultural diffusion. The book makes a compelling case for how geography played a pivotal role in shaping human societies, from the development of farming and food production to the spread of technology and trade.
Furthermore, Diamond addresses the impact of epidemic diseases, germs, and the immunity of societies. He argues that societies with a long history of exposure to infectious diseases developed stronger immunities, while isolated populations were more vulnerable to devastating epidemics introduced by European explorers.
“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a groundbreaking book that challenges conventional thinking about human history. Jared Diamond provides a compelling and well-researched argument that helps us understand why some societies thrived while others lagged behind. His approach is refreshingly rooted in environmental factors rather than racial or cultural determinism.
One of the strengths of this book is its accessibility. Diamond presents complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner, making it suitable for both scholars and general readers. He draws on a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, biology, and geography, to support his arguments, making for a multidisciplinary and comprehensive analysis.
While the book is thorough and thought-provoking, some critics have pointed out that it oversimplifies certain historical events and may not account for all the nuances of human history. However, this does not diminish the overall value of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” as a thought-provoking exploration of the forces that have shaped our world.
In conclusion, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is an eye-opening examination of the deep-seated reasons behind the divergent paths of human societies. It challenges us to think beyond traditional explanations and consider the powerful role of geography, agriculture, and disease in shaping our world.