Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Guns, Germs and Steel
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at UCLA. It won the Pulitzer Prize for 1998, as well as the Aventis Prize for best science book in the same year. According to the author, "An alternative title would be: A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years." But the book is not merely an account of the past; it attempts on the one hand to explain why Western civilization, as a whole, has survived and conquered others, and on the other hand to refute the common belief that European political and economic power owe to some inherent superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.
Prologue and anticipation of criticisms
The prologue to the book opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term for inventions and manufactured goods, "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?"
Diamond found that he had no good answer. He says that the same sort of question seems to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin ... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, having thrown off colonial domination, lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) He says that, unable to find a satisfactory explanation from the best-known accounts of history, he decided to make his own investigation.
Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (p. 17):
- "If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?" His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. "[Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.
- Doesn't addressing the question "automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of western Europeans ... ?" But, according to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of western European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to western Europe."
- "[D]on't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatheres are miserable,...?" On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes.
The theory outlined
Before anyone developed agriculture, people lived as hunter-gatherers, as some still do.
Diamond argues that European civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is more like a house of cards, each level dependent upon the levels below it. Specifically, the key to civilization is agriculture. The keys to agriculture are domesticable plant and animal species for food and work. The demands for domesticability of an animal species are particularly stringent. Diamond identifies six criteria including the animal being sufficiently docile, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and having a social dominance hierarchy.
GGS argues that cities require an ample supply of food and thus depend on agriculture. As farmers do the work of providing food, others are free to pursue other functions, such as mining and literacy.
Essential to the transition from hunter-gatherer to city-dwelling agrarian societies was the presence of large domesticable animals, raised for meat, work and long-distance communication. Diamond identifies a mere 14 suitable candidate species world wide. The 5 most important (cow, horse, sheep, goat and pig) are all native to Eurasia. Of the remaining 9, only one (the llama of South America) is indigenous to a land outside the temperate region of Eurasia. None of the 14 is native to Africa. The Holocene extinction event eliminated many of the candidate species.
Smaller domesticable animals such as dogs, cats, chickens and guinea pigs may be valuable in various ways to an agricultural society, but will not be adequate in themselves to sustain large-scale agrarian society.
Diamond also explains how geography shaped human migration, not simply by making travel difficult (particularly by longitude), but by how climates affect where domesticable animals can easily travel and where crops can ideally grow.
Modern humans are believed to have developed in the southern region of the African continent, at one time or another (see Out of Africa theory). The Sahara kept people from migrating north to the Fertile Crescent, until later when the Nile river valley became accommodating. Some peoples, such as the Aborigines of Australia, are believed to have been early emigrants from Africa, leaving by boat.
Diamond continues to explain the story of human development up to the modern era, through the rapid development of technology, and its dire consequences on hunter-gathering cultures around the world.
In the later context of the European-American conquest of the Americas, 90 percent of the indigenous populations are believed to have been killed off by diseases unwittingly brought by the Europeans.
How was it then that diseases native to the American continents did not kill off Europeans? Diamond points out that the combined effect of the increased population densities supported by agriculture, and of close human proximity to domesticated animals leading to animal diseases infecting humans, resulted in European societies acquiring a much richer collection of dangerous pathogens to which European peoples had acquired immunity through natural selection (see the Black Death and other epidemics) during a longer time than was the case for Native American hunter-gatherers and farmers.
Some people criticize the argument of the book as derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julien Steward , and Esther Boserup , who analyzed the relationship between agriculture and economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby , who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.
Others have criticized the book as an example of environmental determinism in the service of Eurocentrism. The charge is not that the book claims any essential superiority of European civilization or culture, nor that the book claims any inherent superiority of some European race. These critics assert that the problem with earlier cultural and racial explanations of European superiority (explanations that Diamond rejects) is not just that their explanations are wrong, but that what they are trying to explain -- European superiority -- is itself a Western myth. Although Diamond explicitly argues against European cultural or racial superiority, the charge is that his own argument serves many of the same functions as nineteenth century European claims to cultural or racial superiority, by suggesting that Europeans were destined to rule the globe.
Specifically, some argue that:
- It suggests that European civilization has "won" some competition. This suggestion is implicit; Diamond explicitly compares two Oceanian societies in a natural experiment in order to demonstrate the primacy of environmental factors in explaining why some societies are more developed than others. This is a false analogy, because a comparison is not the same thing as an experiment. Human history is far from over, therefore it is impossible to say that any one society has "won" over another form, as long as both survive. In other words, experiments must have clear endings and the human "experiment" never ends.
- It overlooks or obscures the importance of non-European (especially African) knowledge, technologies, and labor in European development, and the fact that Europeans forcibly appropriated much of this knowledge, technology, and labor. In other words, the "ascendency" in question is one that has primarily benefited Europeans but is not specifically "European" in nature.
- It makes little attempt to explain relatively recent geographic transitions in technology, power and wealth; in particular the rise of Europe and the decline of south-west Asia since about 1500 AD.
- The effect of the above three problems is that Diamond's book suggests the inevitability of European ascendency. Although Diamond's reliance on geography is not "racist" per se, it has the same effect of naturalizing differences.
Instead, these critics argue that European ascendency was far from inevitable; a result of complex political and economic forces that cannot be reduced to environment; and likely a temporary phenomenon.
For a review of these criticisms, see the geographer James M. Blaut 's Eight Eurocentric Historians .
Responses to criticisms
With regard to the question of whether or not there has been some sort of competition that has been "won and lost", Diamond asserts, in the third sentence of the prologue, that "the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies." It is possible that this defines the "competition" that Diamond attempts to explain, and that being conquered is a definite loss, even if not final or absolute.
With regard to the fact that non-European peoples have contributed (often involuntarily) to European society, Diamond does not deny this; he writes that he is in fact concerned with exactly this: explaining facts like why Europeans enslaved Africans and not vice versa.
With regard to changes since 1500 AD in the power of south-west Asia compared with Europe, Diamond does touch on this in his conclusion. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty), and that political homogenity led to stagnation. Indeed, it is a matter of historical record that, circa 1500, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated in a single political decision; in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. In fact, many attempts were made to ban technologies such as firearms, but only in politically unifed and isolated nations (such as Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate) were such bans successful. Still, it is true that the book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about 1500 AD. Furthermore, Diamond's arguments are rather broad, and mostly argue that Eurasia (as opposed to Europe) would inevitably be dominant.
Finally, Diamond's view is undoubtably largely "deterministic" in that it argues that Eurasian dominance was inevitable, or at least very likely. Nevertheless, Diamond explicitly asks (on page 17) whether this inevitability would "justify the domination", and whether it renders futile modern attempts to "change the outcome". He denies that it does because the effects of proven environmental determinism could be easilly nullified by contemporary transport and communication whereas the effects of proven racial determinism would seem to justify genocide.
- Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, March 1997. ISBN 0393038912
- ABC Radio Transcripts: Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond at Princeton University http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/bbing/stories/s707591.htm
- James M. Blaut: Eight Eurocentric Historians. The Guilford Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 1572305916
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