June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Review by Anjana Nair
15th June 2022

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a ground-breaking book that interjects a geographic framework using scientific methodologies in the study of human societies.  It is a book that validates the accepted interpretation of European global conquest.

Author Jared Diamond argues that the geographic factors of the Eurasian continent were the root cause of European conquest, allowing for the transfer of technologies, knowledge, and diseases that gave western Eurasian peoples an advantage over the native peoples of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific islands. Diamond argues that conquest was not the result of biological, genetic, or racial differences, but of a long process of geographic advantage benefiting the peoples of western Eurasia.

The author claims that there are three major factors that allowed for the conquest of much of the world by western Eurasian people and contributed to ongoing global inequality. The superior weapons made conquest possible, immunity to diseases decimated indigenous populations, and technological prowess allowed for transoceanic travel. All these factors, Diamond argues, were made possible through environmental and geographic sources, particularly east-west migration on the Eurasian continent that brought new technologies, peoples, and diseases into contact with one another.

Diamond’s subtitle – A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years – suggests Diamond is thinking about the course of human societies and civilizations. The book seeks to answer fundamental questions about the shape of the world today as it sprang from its developmental process. To begin with, it ponders upon the following:

“What caused European societies to gain the advantage and the ingredients of power that allowed for global conquest in the age of discovery and have continued into the present era?”

This question sparked in Diamond a decades-long quest to develop a satisfactory answer.

The Summary:

The book can be divided into three parts. The first part of the book has three chapters. It covers 12,000 years of human history, taking us from “the Great Leap Forward” – the development of modern humans and their societies – to the conquest of the Incas by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1532. Diamond analyses the history of human evolution throughout his first chapter. Evolving from apes, modern humans originated in Africa and then migrated to other parts of the world about half a million years ago. However, it is impossible to say for sure when the evolution process and the migration started. Diamond supports the view that humans were the reason why some species went extinct. As humans colonized a new continent, mass extinctions would occur on that continent. The extinction of large wild animals is notable especially in the Americas, Australia, and New Guinea, where it could explain why native peoples did not have domestic animals and therefore did not develop agriculture. Diamond points out that the earliest humans were in Africa, which should have given this continent an advantage. However, Africa, today remains less developed than North America.

Part 2 of the book argues about how and why food and animal domestication happened most extensively on the Eurasian continent. It explores how and why some societies developed and utilized agricultural food production over hunter-gatherer subsistence. Diamond picks up with the question:  What gave the Spanish such an advantage over the Incas?

Part 3 explores how domesticated food and animal production, over millennia, exposed people to germs that eventually, through the process of natural selection, granted peoples a degree of immunity. Large, sedentary populations that produced food were also able to develop writing, advanced technologies, and state-based political systems. Diseases were a crucial proximate cause of domination by one society over another; in the majority of wars, most deaths were caused not by warfare itself but by the spread of diseases. Diamond also considers why some microbes make us sick and others don’t, why many diseases run in epidemics, and how diseases pass from humans to animals.

The Verdict:

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a book that holds its entire story covering three chief substantial factors – geography, food production, and the biology of immunity, those that dramatically influenced the content of human societies throughout the course of history. His vision in the book is that geography and its impact on human culture are fundamental, an ultimate factor, in explaining the causalities caused in human societies. In one example, he also clearly mentions that humans developed immunological defences against infection over millennia based on their exposure to domesticated animals. This factor alone gave western people a tremendous immunological advantage over people for whom widespread domestication of animals had not been possible.

The major theme of the book, however, is the development of an argument explaining the European conquest of much of the globe without relying on the sheer thought of European supremacy. At the outset, Diamond wanted to develop a convincing argument that ultimately does not rest on the notion that European people were simply more ingenious, inventive, sophisticated, or advanced. The title of his book perhaps reflects this anti-racist agenda. The most ascribed causes of their conquest were their immunity to diseases, advanced technology of writing and navigation, and their weapons (swords and guns), all of which aided Europeans in their quest for world domination.

For this insight alone and the related idea that these developments were tied to geographic factors rather than human ingenuity, the book accomplishes its major objective. And for this astute finding, Diamond receives all the kudos!