Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel is certainly an ambitious book, and a famous and much-praised one. It’s a popular science book that I suppose would fit into the category of anthropology (though Diamond’s degree is in geography).

The aim of the book is to explain why some societies conquered and others were conquered, or more specifically why Europeans in particular subjugated the people of the Americas, Africa, Australia, the Pacific islands, and to a lesser extent Asia. Many people assume, he says, a racial explanation, whether they’re impolite enough to say it or not, i.e., that white folks are just smarter and more capable in general. He offers an alternative explanation, based on environment rather than any intrinsic racial quality.

In order for the development of technology, a written language, politically sophisticated structures, and a lot of what we associate with civilization to really take off, you need a large population with surplus wealth. And that requires agriculture. As long as cave men-types are wandering through the jungle foraging for just enough to stay alive that day, they’ll pretty much remain cave man-types.

So the earlier a group of people settles down into a more sedentary existence living off of food they’ve grown intentionally and livestock they’ve raised, the more of a head start they have in becoming the kind of society that will prevail when they eventually clash with other societies.

But what explains why some societies move beyond hunting and gathering sooner than others? That’s largely a matter of geography. Some climates are more suitable than others. Some areas of the world had plenty of domesticable plants and animals, and others had almost none.

For instance, it’s a huge help to have horses, oxen, water buffaloes, etc.—animals you can ride, hitch to a plow, or otherwise use to get more work done.

Some areas of the globe had no animals like that. Africa, for instance.

On the surface, that claim seems clearly false. What is a zebra anyway, but a striped horse? But in fact it’s not that Africans were too stupid to see the value of domesticating the zebra (or the rhinoceros, or the hippopotamus, or whatever); no one else has since domesticated those animals either, because evidently they cannot be domesticated. (Individual animals of non-domesticable species can occasionally be tamed with a lot of work, like elephants, but being domesticated means you don’t have to start over with each individual member of the species.)

So having plants like wheat or barley or rice, and animals like cows or horses, made it a lot easier to switch from a hunter gatherer mode of life. And that meant you could get enough food to live on more efficiently, leaving you with a lot more spare time than you used to have.

Or more typically what it did was enable hierarchical societies, where the bulk of the people spent every bit as much time obtaining food and the other necessities of life—and if anything had more miserable lives than when everyone was a hunter gatherer and societies were more or less egalitarian—while an elite few were freed up to be kings, or inventors, or soldiers, or clergy, or others who lived off the labor of the many.

Those few who weren’t toiling in the fields all day every day could then do things like come up with an alphabet, devise some fancy new weapon, or develop their minds with philosophical and theological speculations.

Even some short term disadvantages turned out to be long term advantages. For example, because the more advanced societies had denser populations and lived in closer proximity to livestock, devastating diseases spread more easily. They had to deal with smallpox and bubonic plague and the like. But those populations gradually evolved at least some degree of immunity for some of those especially bad diseases. Then when they encountered more primitive societies that hadn’t been exposed to a lot of these germs, those societies were all but wiped out. In modern times as bad as a smallpox epidemic could be when it broke out among, say, Europeans or Chinese, it didn’t have nearly the virulence as when it broke out among some South American Indian tribe that had never been exposed to such viruses and germs before.

A lot of people don’t realize that when the Europeans came to the New World, the genocidal consequences mostly didn’t come about through the intentional use of guns or other weapons, but unintentionally through disease. (Yes, there’s the oft-repeated story of smallpox-infected blankets being purposely distributed amongst Indians, but that turns out to be semi-apocryphal. As I found out mostly through related reading, evidently historians have turned up one letter from the 1700s from a European suggesting doing this, so it’s possible it happened once or a small number of times—or never—but it certainly wasn’t standard operating procedure.)

It also helped speed up the process of development if you were lucky enough to trade with and share influences with others societies at roughly the same stage. So being isolated behind a big mountain range, or being on an island, was not good. (At least an island out in the middle of nowhere. If you were on Britain, Sicily, Crete, Japan, etc., close to a continent, you were probably fine. If you were on Fiji, or even the massive Australia, you were probably screwed.)

But if you interacted with other societies that had maybe domesticated other plants, or invented other things, or developed other ideas, you could adopt some of what they had and they could adopt some of what you had, to the benefit of both.

He also makes the point that east-west influence was more fecund than north-south influence, because then you were more likely dealing with similar climates and soils and such. If you mostly encountered people who had domestic animals that couldn’t thrive where you live anyway, it didn’t help you as much as if you interacted with people who lived in a more similar environment to yours.

So the Eurasian land mass was more likely to produce advanced societies than, say, the Americas, because it runs more east-west and the Americas run more north-south.

(I’m not going to say he’s wrong, but this one didn’t make quite as much intuitive sense to me as most of his other points. For instance, to make the point apply to Africa, he has to categorize it as a north-south continent rather than an east-west continent, whereas in reality it’s very nearly the same width as height, and given the impassability of the Sahara Desert, I would think based on geography alone there was more east-west interaction than north-south interaction in the continent’s history.)

It also helps, he points out in a passage that will make many readers squirm, to have developed religious ideas sophisticated enough to contrive a rationalization for wiping out or enslaving other populations. All else being equal, if you have fewer qualms about raping and pillaging you’re more likely to come out on top than would a more humane society. Something like Christianity or Islam can be a godsend, so to speak, in developing this advantageous bloodthirstiness.

Some people would likely find this all unappealingly deterministic, like the fate of human societies has little or nothing to do with human free-willed decisions, but is all a matter of the luck of physical circumstances.

Being unappealing doesn’t make something untrue, though. Plus, it’s not like Diamond denies any influence from human decisions. But he sees them as more in the nature of temporary flukes. For example, he notes that Japan took a backward step compared to other advanced societies when the Samurai ruling class decided there was something uncouth about firearms compared to their traditional sword-based way of fighting and so largely banished guns for a time. But in the long run something like that is a tiny blip compared to the geographical factors that determined how and at what pace Japan developed.

I did some reading online after finishing this book, focusing especially on criticisms of it. I ended up spending two to three hours reading specifically criticisms that the book is racist.

On the surface at least the book is decidedly not racist (against non-whites). The author bends over backwards to be politically correct. When he attributes some positive trait to a non-white society, he does so straightforwardly, whereas when he attributes some positive trait to a white society, he puts it in scare quotes or otherwise indicates he doesn’t mean it in too literal or flattering a way. And of course the whole theory of his book is presented as an alternative to a racist explanation of global winning and losing.

So how is this racist? As best I can discern—and I don’t find it convincing—the criticism boils down to his not sufficiently condemning white oppressor societies. Some of that comes back to the determinism point: By offering geographical explanations instead of, I guess, attributing the crimes of history to white people’s inherent evil, he’s excusing their wrongdoing.

He’s also criticized as to the accuracy of the factors he cites in the European conquering of the Americas. One piece I came across, for instance, claims that the Europeans didn’t come out on top because of advanced weaponry technology, their greater evolved immunity to certain diseases, or the other things he attributes it to, but to the fact that they exploited conflict among different Indian tribes to get them to fight against each other instead of uniting against the Europeans. So they weren’t more advanced or more geographically lucky; they won by cheating, since, again, they’re the bad guys.

The thing is, I don’t think his analysis is as value-neutral or exculpatory as the criticisms imply. Indeed, because the winners so often do horrible things in order to win when societies clash, I didn’t interpret the book as explaining what enabled the winners to be better than the losers, but more as explaining what perverted them and made them the types of societies that would behave egregiously enough to win.

Consider his point about how religion can assist a society in conquering and enslaving people by providing an ideology to justify doing so, in effect by warping any kind of moral sensibility that might cause them to refrain from doing so. I don’t think of that as an endorsement of the conquerors or even a neutral assessment of them. I think of it as a way of trying to figure out what went so wrong with them.

Heck, maybe at some level we’d be better off as hunter-gatherers. I doubt it, since it was probably a pretty awful life, but if the author is to be believed a lot of the hierarchical nonsense, the exploitation, the oppression, the aggression toward other groups, etc. didn’t really get going until societies moved past the hunter-gatherer stage.

On the whole Guns, Germs, and Steel is a well-written, intelligent book whose main points are plausible and probably roughly true, even if there’s room to quibble with some of the details. I did find it somewhat repetitious, and I came across one philosophical howler (he thinks social contract theory is intended as a literal account of the formation of societies), but these flaws aren’t enough for me to hold off recommending the book.


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