Guns, germs, and steel (Jared Diamond)

Winners and losers

Human history consists of a grim series of annihilations and displacements of one group by another. The losers are Neanderthals, Aboriginees, Native Americans, and many others lost beyond naming. The winners, it seems, are us, the readers of Jared Diamond's book. Many of us are genetically Europeans, almost all of us live in cultures that are fundamentally European, or are rapidly becoming dominated by Euro-American culture. Our predecessors did something that left us ruling the world, and asking ourselves a lot of questions. What was special about the winners? What was wrong with the losers? What does it mean about us? Jared Diamond gives answers, but also clarifies the context so that it no longer seems sensible to ask the questions in such terms.

The race to world dominance

The phrase "Guns, germs, and steel" sums up the obvious factors that brought European people and culture from obscurity to world domination. Jared Diamond sets out to explain why the guns, germs, and steel were all on the European side; why the age of global colonialism consisted of European rather than African, American, or Australian expansion. The answer, almost too clear and believable, is the luck of the draw of natural resources. The Eurasian continental landmass was the winner of the biological draw in two crucial ways.

  1. Most domesticable crops and animals
  2. Largest contiguous size of similar climate

With the largest number of domesticatible species, Eurasians developed agriculture first. Because of the size and East-West orientation of the continent, agricultural and then technological innovations made in one part were able to spread through bands of similar climate to the rest of the continent. Eurasians developed into organized countries and empires, and achieved rapid technological progress---metal tools, writing, transportation. Meanwhile, Eurasian germs followed a similar fast track: with a large and diverse population of animals in close contact with humans, many dangerous diseases arose and spread to become part of the microbe background with which Eurasians were infested, and to which they were, by natural selection, resistant.

When Eurasians arrived, in their high-tech ships, on the shores of the Americas, or Australia, they almost did not need to use their high-tech swords and guns. They unknowingly carried microbes that had killed millions in successive plagues in Eurasia over the millennia, leaving only the immune behind, and these were unleashed on a virgin population. Diamond illustrates this unequal battle with an account of how Francisco Pizarro with less than 200 soldiers was able to capture the Inca emperor in the face of his 80,000 strong army, and bring the Inca empire to an end. More moving, perhaps, is the casually mentioned fact that whole civilizations in the Mississippi basin were wiped out by smallpox, decades before the Europeans carriers of the disease arrived there and wondered at the cities that were left deserted.

Everyone's a winner

Diamond stresses the scientific nature of these large-scale historical trends. Through the book, he discusses the many other occasions where similar geographical and ecological factors have led to the same sort of conquest.

The earliest example is the peopling of Australia and America themselves, where the arriving human migrants found a rich set of large, tame, animal species, and proceeded to annihilate them. These were the very species that could have been the springboard for later development of agriculture and technology. From an eco-romantic point of view it is tempting to see the resultant late development of a stunted agriculture, and vulnerability to Eurasian invaders, as poetic justice for the first human abuse of the environment.

Diamond also describes the genocide of the Moriori of the Chatham Islands at the hands of Maori invaders from New Zealand in the 19th century. This reemphasizes the fact that those colonized by Europeans in the Americas and elsewhere had, up to that time, been successful dominators of their neighbors and environment, for very much the same reasons. He discusses the Austronesian expansion into the Pacific, the Chinese expansion into Southeast Asia, and the Bantu expansion into sub-Saharan Africa, engulfing the pygmy and Koisan peoples. In each case the story involves a group of people who from a later point of view seem aggressive, conquering large areas of land and subjugating the previous inhabitants, if any. In each case, Diamond tries to show us that the same factors were at work: a superior set of crops and land-use techniques, leading to population growth and territorial expansion.

Europe, not Eurasia

Towards the end of the book, Diamond at last addresses an obvious question. His arguments for expecting Eurasian dominance over Africa, America, and Australasia leave us asking why Europe and not China, India, or the middle East, has ended up dominating the world. Here his reasoning becomes less convincing. He suggests that China was too integrated, that its geographical connectedness made it too easily unified under stultifying dictatorships, whereas Europe had just the right amount of geographical fragmentation (Britain, Spain, and Italy are all walled off by mountains or seas) to keep power divided among competing regions of roughly equal strength, while allowing ideas to flow freely among them.

This seems like a stretch, since Taiwan, Japan and Korea are similarly geographically separated from China. Also, these finer geographical features only become important after the development of organized states, at which point one would expect cultural factors to play some role as well. As we zoom in on specific areas in recent times, we have to abandon Diamond's large-scale scientific explanations, which discard cultural factors by averaging them out over large areas or long times. More specific historical events require more specific explanations, such as those advanced by Thomas Sowell.

The starting gun

Another obvious question, that Diamond does not address at all, is why literate civilizations, when they emerged, all appeared at very much the same time (3000 BC to 0 BC), in places that had little or no communication with each other, and that had contained Homo Sapiens for very different lengths of time. Apparently a starting gun was fired around 7000BC, and echoed across the continents. Who fired it?

Copyright © Mark Alford (2001)


Mark Alford's home page