Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Guns, Germs and Steel
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

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 alternate 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 (a belief with racist implications). 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.

Table of contents
1 Synopsis
2 Transition
3 Geography
4 Germs
5 Criticisms
6 See also
7 References

Synopsis

Before anyone developed agriculture, people lived as hunter-gatherers, as some to this day 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.

Transition

GGS explains 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.

Geography

Diamond also explains how geography shapes 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.

Germs

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 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.

Criticisms

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 (and Diamond) are trying to explain -- European superiority -- is itself a Western myth. In other words, the charge is that although Diamond explicitly argues against European cultural or racial superiority, his own argument serves many of the same functions as nineteenth century European claims to cultural or racial superiority. Specifically, his argument still accepts the claim that Europeans are superior.

Specifically, some argue that:

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.

With regard to many of these criticisms, such as the question whether or not there has been some sort of competition that has been "won", it may be noted that Diamond asserts (in the third sentence of the prologue), "...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, without its being necessary to invoke any idea of absolute superiority or inferiority.

For a review of these criticisms, see the geographer James M. Blaut's Eight Eurocentric Historians.

See also

Marvin Harris' cultural materialism

References