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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton, 1997/2003, 494 pp.

Guns, Germs, and Steel continues to inspire academic debate. Diamond bases his premise on a question asked him in 1972 by a young politician in New Guinea named Yali: “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?” Yali’s term cargo denotes material goods like “steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas” (pp. 13–14). In other words, why is the West, specifically Europe and America, much more advanced than the rest of the world?

Diamond's work is highly accessible, which is unique for a science-based historical study. This book is clearly one of the most influential in recent years. It has received lavish praise from many quarters, as one would expect for a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece of scholarship. Clearly, it has resonated beyond the classical scientific circles into the social sciences, political realm, and business.

His study of 13,000 years of human history led Diamond to the conclusion that societies developed along different tracks based on the geographical environments they inhabited, not human biology, genetics, or culture. He attempts to answer Yali's question by examining trends in agriculture and geography, a thesis which flies in the face of traditional scholarship that posits cultural explanations for European and Western superiority. He argues that the rise of agriculture and the abundance of food surpluses were the key impetus to societal evolution because they spurred technological advancement, economic development, and solidification of political units to manage resources. Diamond’s 19 chapters take the reader on a journey through the ancient world to prove his thesis and range from case studies in the Middle East to the Americas.

Diamond’s core thesis is that the success of societies and human beings around the globe had more to do with luck than intellect, genetics, or culture: where you settled determined your destiny because it is directly related to the arability of the land, presence of agricultural and animal species that can be domesticated, and the geography as it pertains to resources such as minerals. In short, societies that were unable to amass reliable food stocks through farming and domestication of livestock were at a disadvantage because they spent all of their time foraging and hunting merely to survive, which prevented them from innovating, inventing technology, and making societal progress. Therefore, societies who “gained a head start" in agriculture and animal husbandry, "gained a head start toward developing guns, germs, and steel” and became “dominant in the ancient and modern world” (pp. 426–27).

This "head start" inevitably led to the harvest of raw materials and to metallurgy, which gave advanced societies the edge in weaponry like spears, swords, and eventually, cannons and rifles. Additionally, advanced societies grew more immune to animal-borne disease by living in close proximity with livestock. These advances allowed Europeans to conquer less-advanced societies because of their advanced weaponry, domesticated animals such as horses, and their immunity from disease. The germs brought by Westerners and their animals essentially added another element to European conquest: unintentional germ warfare. European-borne diseases ravaged less-developed societies, making them easier to conquer.

The weakest component of Diamond’s analysis, one that contradicts his core thesis, is his examination of China. From his own criteria, China should have been the dominant power and bound for worldly conquests given its many advantages. He states that “we can say that China was one of the world’s first centers of plant and animal domestication” and that “China’s head start in food production, technology, writing, and state formation had the consequence that Chinese innovations also contributed heavily to developments in neighboring regions.” His explanation for China’s fall is less than satisfying: China’s geography lent itself to a more unified political unit, which made it more vulnerable to singularly bad decisions by its leaders, which resulted in an internal focus and diminished technological invention and world exploration.

Conversely, he credits Europe's rise with “geographic balkanization” that insulated a wide variety of states and people who acted as competing centers of innovation. Therefore, geography, not culture or individuals, acts as the ultimate determinant for success. In his 2003 afterword, he still is grappling with the question, “Why Europe, not China?” and admits, “Historians have subsequently pointed out to me that Europe’s fragmentation, China’s unity, and their relative strengths were all more complex than depicted in my account” (pp. 430–31). While breaking 13,000 years of history is no small feat, some historians have criticized his approach as oversimplifying history to meet the needs of his thesis.

Some facts of historical significance are worth contemplating. Before the rise of European society, China was the leading civilization for centuries, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts, sciences, population, and manufacturing. Despite all of these advantages, its leaders chose not to conquer the world and focused inward. Westerners often forget that in the mid eighteenth century, China manufactured nearly one-third of the world’s goods compared to less than one-fourth for all of Europe during the same period. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China was beset by societal and civil unrest, major famines, military defeats, and foreign occupation. The Chinese endured what many nationalists call its “national humiliation” at the hands of the Western powers and later by Japan in World War II. These events are clearly more than a geographical explanation, and Chinese culture clearly plays a role. In 2010, China reclaimed the mantle as top manufacturer with 19.8 percent of global goods production, thus ending the United States’ 110-year run. It seems China's detour from destiny is over—a puzzle Diamond simply cannot answer in his narrow explanation for societal development based on geography.

Political systems, religious influences, or individual political leaders play very little to no role in Diamond’s explanation for European empire or the success of a fledgling United States. Critics claim he is asserting a kind of determinism that denies free will and understates cultural variables. If he is to be believed, any society with an abundance of food and mineral resources would develop social and political systems supporting the spread of science, ideas, and openness—the elements of Europe’s rapid growth. Are liberal democracy and capitalism a predetermined outcome of resource abundance? It is hard to imagine this as a scientifically provable fact. The great debate among scholars is between Diamond's claim of geographical determinism and cultural development, the fault lines of which embody his most ardent critics. For instance, Diamond and historian William H. McNeill engaged in some public discourse on McNeill's June 1997 review of Guns, Germs, and Steel:

How can he [Diamond] claim that “over the hundreds of generations of post–Ice Age human history, and over a large continent’s thousands of societies, cultural differences become sifted to approach limits imposed by environmental constraints”? Much more powerfully than any other species, we change the environment around us; and have done so ever since our ancestors began to control fire and to use tools. Learned behavior, channeled along innumerable different paths by divergent cultures, is what allows us to do so (New York Book Review).

In the 2003 revision of his book, Diamond includes an afterword which reexamines his work in light of six years of reflection, new scholarship, and scholarly criticism of his thesis. He claims that the “discoveries in the last half-dozen years, by archaeologists, geneticists, linguists, and other specialists, have enriched our understanding of this story [his thesis] without changing its main outlines” (p. 427). In other words, in his estimation, his theory is still valid. His work continues to have relevance beyond academia and even surfaced as newsworthy during the 2012 presidential campaign when candidate Mitt Romney invoked Diamond's book during a visit to Israel.

In summary, Diamond adds a significant piece of scholarship to debate about the determinants of human history and societal success. This book is essential for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how human civilization has developed over the past 13,000 years. In the epilogue, Diamond adds, “I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments” (p. 405). His work provides a compelling thesis for why the world’s power structure has evolved to the present day. Balanced with cultural readings, this book should be a staple for anyone interested in the evolution of human societies and the world order.

Lt Col Shannon W. Caudill, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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