Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1997
ISBN 0-393-03891

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — August 8, 1998 6:00pm

Not long after Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, other Europeans sail to the New World and conquered the peoples there. The various Native American tribes, the Aztecs, the Incas — all eventually submitted to people from countries far across the waters. Most students of history can identify the immediate cause for the triumph of the victors: the Europeans had guns, they brought germs to which the natives were not immune, and they made use of steel, a material unknown in the Americas at that time. But, looking back in time even further, why is it that those in the peoples of the Americas did not have these fateful possessions, and why did they not instead conquer Europeans? That is the fundamental question that Jared Diamond wants to answer in Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book in which he presents a general theory which he believes he solves the puzzle.

It’s not really a theory; rather, it’s more of a story of different overarching fundamental forces that guide the development of societies. To summarize: All societies started out as small groups ("bands") which hunted animals and gathered food, making them "hunter-gatherers." Due to geographical happenstance, several areas of the world had a higher distribution of plants which could more easily be domesticated. When these plants were domesticated in these areas, the people settled down and tended crops.

These areas, again effectively through sheer luck, also had a higher distribution of animals that could be domesticated. Once they were domesticated, the animals could assist with cultivation and labor. These two main factors, domesticated plants and domesticated animals, set the scene for hunter-gatherers to become "food producers."

Food producers, versus hunter-gatherers, were not nomadic, but lived and worked in a small area. They could have children more often, because they could stay in one place and raise them. Their crops, especially with the assistance of the domesticated animals, could feed a larger population. Hence, these bands of people at this point grew into "tribes", then into "chiefdoms," and eventually into "states," the form of government most familiar today.

These larger societies, by their very nature, could (and inevitably did) evolve job specialization and a hierarchy of government. Some could be leaders, while others could be workers — the workers could produce food, which they would give to the leaders for them to redistribute. Large populations also have a bigger chance of inventions being created, and the structured labor system of these larger societies made a more receptive environment of these inventions to be accepted and put to use. The inventions of guns and steel were ready to take place.

This hierarchy of government and specialization of duty made it possible for soldiers and armies to exist. These larger populations could afford to send specially-trained soldiers, under command of their leaders, to conquer other societies who, through geographic bad luck, had never domesticated animals, never grown crops, and had no leaders, soldiers, or inventions to fight back with.

As with guns and steel, Diamond believes that germs, the third element in his book’s title, was also a result of animal domestication and food production. He explains that many diseases evolve from similar varieties found in animals, and only societies with domesticated animals will be likely to allow such a disease to make the crossover to humans. Furthermore, many diseases require large, concentrated populations to actually allow these diseases to reproduce, evolve, and spread without being quickly wiped out through natural processes. The same societies that had the social structure necessary to conquer other peoples also created the inventions (read, "weapons") needed to do so, and also harbored (and in many cases, were immune to) weapons unknown to societies which were not so lucky.

That’s my summary. The closest thing to a summary that Jared Diamond presents might be, " production led to high population densities, germs, technology, political organization, and other ingredients of power. Peoples who, by accident of their geographical location, inherited or developed food production thereby became able to engulf geographically less endowed people" (386).

This overall view of history becomes quite clear a little over 3/4 of the way through the book, and the last few chapters become almost repetitious. But that’s fine, because Guns, Germs, and Steel is such an interesting, apparently well-researched book that at times I forgot exactly why I was reading it — that is, I forgot that there was some question to which we were searching the answer. In explaining his answer, Diamond must explain multitudes of other concepts, bringing to light facts that could be stories in themselves: did you know, for example, that wild almonds are poisonous, or that strawberries and pecans are recent domestications?

From the start, Diamond explains that such and undertaking as Guns, Germs, and Steel requires a person with very diverse areas of expertise, a fact that is really not appreciable until you have read the entire book. Diamond claims he is up to the task, though, and I certainly am in no position to contradict him. Even if a couple of explanations seem at first glance slightly dubious, such as the affect of the orientation of the axes of the continents (Chapter 10, "Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes"), on second thought his explanation sounds quite plausible, and it would seem quite difficult to tear holes in so much of his theory as to force one to discard its basis.

Indeed, at the end of the book Diamond’s "theory" does not seem like a theory, but more of a layperson’s explanation of what seems almost evident by all the sciences, if only one were intimately familiar with all of them. It seems so simple and obvious at times, one wonders if everyone else has simply not taken the time to write it all down. But that only goes to show what a good job Diamond has done here, in taking years of research and piles of materials and assembling a work that seems both simple and obvious. Guns, Germs, and Steel is thus something of a reading requirement that will give one an overall view, of the evolution of populations, the development of societies, and the history of conquests.

One interesting thing I found throughout the book is Diamond’s reference to humans killing other humans, as though that were the natural result of humans interacting. He seems to assert that governments and relations have but one purpose: to prevent people from killing one another. Diamond thus seems to have quite a pessimistic view of innate human morality, but in light of history I would have to contemplate this much more before attempting any disagreements.

Jared Diamond has spent many years among the peoples of New Guinea (his friend Yali’s question helped spark the idea for the book) and much of his study has been concerning this area of the world; this becomes evident by the high occurrence of such related information in the book. Diamond nevertheless gives a comprehensive treatment of not only all the world, but also most of relevant (for humans, anyway) history and prehistory. His book will give you a broad overview of the evolution of societies on Earth that seems very plausible. Even if the reasons he give for the disproportionate distribution of guns, germs, and steel are completely incorrect, the information found in Guns, Germs, and Steel would ensure that it be no less required reading.