Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel, published by W.W Norton & Company in 1997, contains ample evidence and thorough explanations for Jared Diamond’s theory that a combination of geography, natural environmental factors, and science caused the inequalities present in the world today instead of racial or ethnic differences.

He asserts that the success of different populations has nothing to do with their brain capacity or the color of their skin. Diamond attempts to answer a difficult, complicated and complex question that he compares to peeling back the layers of an onion. His goal is to find an alternative answer to the age-old theory that the western world dominated its third world counterparts. In the introduction, he describes an old New Guinean man named Yali who asks, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (4). This simple inquiry planted the seed for Guns, Germs, and Steel in Diamond’s head.

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Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at the University of California researched extensively in order to write Guns, Germs, and Steel. He completed field work in Papua New Guinea, and used sources that taught about human gene frequencies, books about early human evolution, accounts of the early human history, examinations of cultural differences in Papua New Guinea, eyewitness accounts of Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, books addressing hunting and gathering lifestyles, books about the impact of disease on human population, and books covering the domestication of animals. Jared Diamond has written several other books, including The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The combination of fieldwork and broad research across other fields leads to an innovative theory that spans scientific disciplines to discover the roots of inequality throughout the course of human history. The author, Jared Diamond, suggests that geography and lines of latitude are the “ultimate factors underlying the broadest pattern of history” (87).

Geographical factors such as the climate, geological features, marine resources, area, terrain fragmentation, and isolation affect the types of farming practiced in a society, which affects the levels of inequality between civilizations. His theory is that continents lying on an east west axis allow better transfers of crops and animals. He suggests that continents lying on north-south axes cannot transfer techniques for farming and the domestication of animals throughout the continent. He asserts that localities distributed east and west of each other share exactly the same day length and seasonal variations. Diamond also notes that they tend to share similar diseases, temperature ranges, amount of rainfall, and types of vegetation. The continent of Eurasia sits on an east west axis 10,000 miles long.

Diamond contends that there are no major barriers to prevent the spread of crops. He suggests that this creates a natural advantage for technology, domesticated animals, and domesticated crops. For example, after the invention of the wheel in China, the new technology rapidly spread throughout Eurasia. Likewise, alphabetical writing was invented in the Fertile Crescent and promptly expanded across all of Eurasia. Finally, crop technology and knowledge diffused throughout Eurasia at an average rate of 3.2 miles per year.

In comparison, the continent of South America is placed on a north-south longitude line, spanning 9,000 miles to the south and north, but only 3,000 miles at its widest on the east west latitude lines. This natural disadvantage hindered the spread of technology, crops, and animals. The Great Plains created an ecological barrier in the north, while the Andes Mountains proved almost insurmountable in the south. For example, the wheel was also invented in Mesoamerica, but its invention never reached the Andes just 3000 miles away. The Mayans invented a system of alphabetic writing, but it did not reach the Andean peoples living only 2,500 miles away.

Likewise, the domesticated llama traveled from Peru to Mexico at a rate of only 0.2 miles per year. Diamond relates geographical barriers to the patriotic song, America the Beautiful. He suggests that “America’s patriotic song… reverses geographic realities” (190). He comments that “no waves of native grain ever stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of North America, from Canada to Patagonia, or from Egypt to South Africa, while amber waves of wheat and barley came to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the spacious skies of Eurasia” (191).

Animals have many different uses, and ancient civilizations used every aspect of their bodies for food and tools. Diamond suggests that societies possessing animals feed more people, and therefore he points to animals as the second variable affecting inequalities in the world today. Animals furnish milk, provide meat, and act as fertilizers. Societies possessing animals also have a higher population growth. Hunter-gatherer societies are constantly looking for food and never have a stable source of food, so their birth intervals are longer. Sedentary societies have stable food sources and are able to have shorter birth intervals and produce more children.

Sedentary societies can feed more people, can take care of young children without trekking across long distances looking for food, and have stable sources of nutrition. Animals have direct advantages as well. They provide natural fibers for textiles, their hides produce leather, and their bones shape into tools. Animals also served as a major source of transportation. Societies possessing animals could move large quantities of heavy goods over expansive areas.

Domestication of animals played an important role in creating inequalities. Continents with more domesticable animals proved more likely to succeed. For example, Eurasia had 72 animals native to its lands that could be domesticated, and 18% of those animals were successfully domesticated. Australia had only 1 native animal suitable for domestication, but it did not successfully domesticate any animals in the end. A final example was Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 51 native animals sufficient for domestication, but out of those, none proved apt enough.

Domestication depends on many different factors, including the animal’s growth rate, capacity for breeding in captivity, an appropriate disposition around humans, no tendency to panic, and their social structures. Diamond points out that “the explanation for the lack of native mammal domestication outside of Eurasia lay with the locally available wild animals themselves, not with the local peoples” (164), highlighting his view that inequalities were not because of the people themselves, but the native animals living in the area. Out of 148 potential candidates for domestication in the world, only 14 were successfully domesticated. To illustrate the effect of animals on the inequalities of the world today, Diamond points out that Southwest Asia, China, Mesoamerica, the Andes and Amazonia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley have large native animals capable of domestication, and these areas are major powers of the world today. In contrast, Tropical West Africa, Australia, and New Guinea have none, and they are not the major powers of the world today.

Diamond identifies crops grown in different areas of the world as the third variable directly related to inequality in the world today. Diamond hypothesizes that the availability of more consumable calories results in a larger population. Only small portions of the many plant species in the world today are edible or worth growing because they are indigestible, poisonous, low in nutritional value, or difficult to gather or grow. Diamond proposes that the types of crops available and able to be grown directly relate to the success rate of a society. For example, crops native to New Guinea included taro, the nut tree, yams, and sugarcane.

Hunting and gathering proved an effective way of life because there were no readily available cereal crops to harvest. The few native crops available had little or no calories, starch, or protein. In comparison, wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, flax, and mushrooms grew natively in the Fertile Crescent. Easy domestication of the crops led to sedentary lifestyles. These native crops also provided nutritious sources of protein, calories, and starch. After making the switch from hunting and gathering to sedentism and farming, food availability increased.

Instead of consuming the food immediately, sedentary societies stored the food until later use. Food storage and food surplus led to larger, denser, stratified societies. Diamond identifies germs and infectious diseases as the fourth variable that created inequalities. Almost all infectious diseases and germs, including smallpox, measles, and the flu, originated from animals. Humans who domesticated animals developed these diseases quickly and soon became immune.

“Survival of the fittest” played a role in selecting healthy antibodies to pass on to the next generation. Eventually, these societies became immune to the diseases animals living around them brought. However, in societies without large mammals to transmit diseases, the people had no exposure to infectious diseases. For example, when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes invaded and conquered the Aztecs, he and his men brought with them many animal-borne diseases. Hernan Cortes and his men were already immune to the diseases, but because the Aztecs had no previous exposure to the animals and their diseases, they had no immunity against the diseases. As a result, Hernan Cortes and his 600 men conquered the 20 million Aztecs.

The population of the Aztecs decreased from 20 million to 1.2 million people within just a few years. Germs also played decisive roles in European conquest of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders. Diamond concludes that European victory over other peoples with weaponry, technology, and political organization “might not have happened without Europe’s sinister gift to the other continents: the germs evolving from Eurasia’s long intimacy with domestic animals” (214). Diamond identifies the development of technology as the fifth and final variable forming the basis for inequality in the world today.

Steel and writing were two essential ingredients in the race for domination, wealth, and power. Throughout early history, steel assisted conquest, colonization, and the Industrial Revolution. In order to produce steel, a society needed access to fast flowing water for transport and power, iron ore resources, carbon-rich forests, specialized ironmongers, and dry environments to keep a fire going for days. Europe proved lucky in their geography and the placement of their resources and as a result became the major producer of steel. For example, in the Fertile Crescent, the dry environment provided an ideal setting for steel production. Fires needed to be tended for days until they reached a temperature sufficient for melting limestone into plaster.

In comparison, Papua New Guinea’s wet and tropical environment could not sustain an open fire for more than a few hours. Steel production also required specialization, and the hunter-gatherer New Guineans did not have specialized jobs and knowledge. The New Guinean way of life could not support ironmongers and steel smiths, while the advanced, sedentary Fertile Crescent societies could support them. Diamond attributes steel with the success and creation of the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and German empires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing developed 5,000 years ago, in Sumer in the Fertile Crescent region.

Originally a means of recording agricultural surpluses, writing developed into a means of gathering and telling information, communicating, recording history, and expressing social, cultural, political, and private thoughts. Writing evolved in three separate regions as cuneiform in the Fertile Crescent, Mayan hieroglyphs of Mesoamerica, and symbols and characters in China. Mayan hieroglyphs remained local only to Central America because of their geographical location, but cuneiform and Chinese characters spread throughout Eurasia, becoming the basis for writing today. After creating systems of writing and transferring the systems to other cultures through conquest, trade, and religion, there needed to be a way to record the writing. Movable type developed in central Europe. Its invention acted as an agent of conquest, increased literacy, caused social change, and gave the people access to knowledge.

Writing allowed conquerors to learn from the past, brought knowledge and power, and assisted in the conquest of the Americas, Siberia, and Australia. In battles and arguments between non-literate and literate societies, the literate societies traditionally win because of their access to the past to know how to approach the future. Diamond concludes that writing and printing served as major technological advancements that increased the division of inequality across the world. Jared Diamond begins the book in prehistory, and tries to address where racism came from and why. He explains that the true reason for inequality is not people’s biological roots or their brains, but the differences in their environmental setting.

Diamond offers a concise and detailed examination of the variables that are the roots of inequality in the world today in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. This book distances itself from other historical texts because of its vast number of specific examples and the theories that Diamond puts forth. He disregards the age-old theories that the Western world automatically had a head start. Those that regard people of the Western world as smarter and better than the “uncivilized” civilizations in Africa and Asia are proven wrong in this comprehensive, sweeping overview of history. I think that this book, although lengthy, gave more reasonable and believable reasons for the European and American original dominance in the world.

Diamond’s thesis was realistic and concise for the most part, but I found a few minor gaps in his research and conclusions. First, Diamond explains his theory for European dominance, but he fails to explain why Europe dominated the world in the first place, and not India, China, or the Middle East. Second, Diamond explains that geographical barriers such as the Sahara desert blocked the transfer of crops in Africa, forming the basis for inequality. However, the Sahara desert did not form through desertification until 5000 to 2000 years ago, after the continent of Africa had already formed and developed. This left time for crops to spread throughout the continent.

Finally, Diamond argues that crops in Eurasia were able to spread easily east to west, and this explained Eurasia’s dominance. However, Diamond fails to account for large geographical barriers in Eurasia, including the Carpathians, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Kazakh semi-desert, the Ural Mountains, and the Kirgiz steppe. Diamond does not include these major geographical landforms and fails to explain how crops avoided these areas yet still spread throughout Eurasia. Critics generally praised the book, and it received several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. Overall, Jared Diamond’s blend of geography, anthropology, sociology, archaeology, history, ethnology, ecology, physiology, biology, environmental science and linguistics offers a unique blend that combines to create a comprehensive answer to Yali’s question.