Book Review on Jared Diamond’s
Guns, Germs and Steel
Why is it that Europeans ended up conquering so much of the world? Or as Yali puts it in the far beginning of the book, “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”? Despite all the contrary evidence from anthropology and human biology, many persist in attributing the differing political and economic successes of the world’s peoples to historical contingency. On the other hand though, the author sees the fundamental causes as environmental, resting ultimately on ecological differences between the continents and as he well puts it on page 25: “Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: ‘History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological difference among peoples themselves.”
The complex and integrated argument unfolds in four parts, strategically constructed by questions: why have different continents and regions developed so differently like the Maori killing the Moriori, and why did Pizzaro capture Inca emperor Atahuallpa. The first part, “from Eden to Cajamarca,” sketches developments on all the continents before 11000 BC. In the second part, the author gives approximate dates on the early production of food and explains why certain peoples developed food production whereas others did not. Followed by the studies of why some peoples chose not to farm, why some did not domesticate animals, and why production spread on different rates at different continents. In part three the author argues that the settled communities made possible by production of plant and animal food allowed diseases to leap from domesticated animals to humans. He also links success in food production to the inventions of writing and of technology. These he relates also to government and religion, which he characterizes as “kleptocracy”. After all this research and explanation the author returns to reconsider the course of human development on each continent. Starting first with Australia and New Guinea, then with China, Polynesia, Eurasia and the Americas and finally Africa.
Jared Diamond sees food production, or the domestication of plants and animals, as the central key to human history. In a relatively short display (part two), the author outlines the origins of agriculture. He describes when and where food production originated, how it spread from the Fertile Crescent to other parts of the world and why. There is a deep explanation about the types of crops around the world, and a thorough description why the large seeded wild plants in Eurasia were easy to domesticate. Eurasia had the same climate over its long east-west axis whereas the Americas and Africa had a huge variation and thus could not grow those kinds of plants. The characteristics of these crops are extensively discussed, driving us, the readers, to the conclusion that food production indeed played a major role in a material sense, mental sense, as an agent of civilization and as a source of power.
Firstly, the author argues that ancient farmers had to develop more advanced tools for producing more amounts of food and had the opportunity to support people that did not work in the fields, such as politicians, warriors, priests and so on. As a result of that, farmers became materialistically richer than hunter-gatherers who stayed in relatively small groups, because hunters could not support people that were not able to hunt and kill wild animals. More food available meant, and still does, more people. More people to feed requires better technology and also soldiers to guard, politicians to make laws, priests to have as spiritual leaders and so on. Through this argument we can see that new techniques were being invented and new levels of hierarchy as well. So, in a nutshell, with food as basis the farmers were able to first build the materials, then establish some sort of a hierarchical system, which led to the invention of the alphabet and the rise of major civilizations.
A similar analysis is carried out for the domestication of large mammals. Here, again, Eurasia was favored with almost all the suitable species. The author in this particular section gives modern examples of modern animal breeders that were not able to domesticate some wild large mammals of Africa and justifies why ancient Africans and other peoples could not domesticate them either. Then, he continues on to demonstrate that when large animals such as horses became available to some of those peoples, such as the Native Americans, they adopted them and made use of them.
Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating synthesis that brings together history, archaeology, agriculture, linguistics, medicine, evolution and many other fields. We can see that the writer starts off the book with a notable amount of frustration about the mistaken ideas our society has come to believe: “ … objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong. …evidence for the existence of human differences in intelligence… is lacking. …modern “Stone Age” people are probably more intelligent … than industrial peoples” (page 19). Through these strong words we can see that he will try to convince people that there was something else holding people back and there is not such a thing as a superior race.
There are a lot of rock solid clever arguments in this book about writing, language and how people came about to where we stand today. Studying extensively the history of World War II, I’ve attained the belief of cause and effect and the writer describes almost all of his arguments giving out a strong case. The only thing that I did not quite grasp, was the quick description of the Spaniards’ conquest of Mesoamerica; what exactly caused the Spaniards to capture the natives, since the natives were not a thread to them?
Besides that, I believe Guns, Germs and Steel was a very well structured, extensively researched and superbly presented book. Reading this was actually a different experience, because it covers and explains in a nutshell how, when and why we are here today.
Word Count: 1033