Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Guns, Germs, and Steel
Ggas human soc.jpg
Dust jacket cover of the first edition, featuring the painting Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru by John Everett Millais
Author Jared Diamond
Country United States
Language English
Subject Geography, social evolution, history of civilization, ethnology, cultural diffusion
Published 1997 (W. W. Norton)
Media type Hardcover, Paperback, Audio CD, Audio Cassette, Audio Download
Pages 480 pages (1st edition, hardcover)
ISBN ISBN 0-393-03891-2 (1st edition, hardcover)
OCLC 35792200
303.4 21
LC Class HM206 .D48 1997

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 transdisciplinary nonfiction book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1998, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book, and produced by the National Geographic Society, was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.[1]

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations (including North Africa) have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority.

Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. When cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example, written language or the development among Eurasians of resistance to endemic diseases), he asserts that these advantages occurred because of the influence of geography on societies and cultures, and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes.

Synopsis[edit]

The prologue opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any genetic superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term "cargo" for inventions and manufactured goods, "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?" (p. 14)

Diamond realized the same question seemed to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, after having thrown off colonial domination, still lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15)

The peoples of other continents (Sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, and the original inhabitants of tropical Southeast Asia) have been largely conquered, displaced and in some extreme cases – referring to Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and South Africa's indigenous Khoisan peoples – largely exterminated by farm-based societies such as Eurasians and Bantu. He believes this is due to these societies' technologic and immunologic advantages, stemming from the early rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age.

Title[edit]

The book's title is a reference to the means by which farm-based societies conquered populations of other areas and maintained dominance, despite sometimes being vastly out-numbered – superior weapons provided immediate military superiority (guns); Eurasian diseases weakened and reduced local populations, who had no immunity, making it easier to maintain control over them (germs); and durable means of transport enabled imperialism (steel).

Diamond argues geographic, climatic and environmental characteristics which favored early development of stable agricultural societies ultimately led to immunity to diseases endemic in agricultural animals and the development of powerful, organized states capable of dominating others.

The theory outlined[edit]

Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of superior intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.

The first step towards civilization is the move from nomadic hunter-gatherer to rooted agrarian. Several conditions are necessary for this transition to occur: 1) access to high protein vegetation that endures storage; 2) a climate dry enough to allow storage; 3) access to animals docile enough for domestication and versatile enough to survive captivity. Control of crops and livestock leads to food surpluses. Surplus frees people up to specialize in activities other than sustenance and supports population growth. The combination of specialization and population growth leads to the accumulation of social and technologic innovations which build on each other. Large societies develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which in turn lead to the organization of nation states and empires.[2]

Although agriculture arose in several parts of the world, Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. In particular, Eurasia has barley, two varieties of wheat and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; goats, sheep and cattle. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow and easier to store than American maize or tropical bananas.

As early Middle Eastern civilizations began to trade, they found additional useful animals in adjacent territories, most notably horses and donkeys for use in transport. Diamond identifies 13 species of large animals (over 100 lb / 44 kg) domesticated in Eurasia, compared with just one in South America (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species) and none at all in the rest of the world. Australia and North America suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, probably by human hunting, shortly after the end of the Pleistocene, whilst the only domesticated animals in New Guinea came from the East Asian mainland during the Austronesian settlement some 4,000–5,000 years ago. Sub-Saharan biological relatives of the horse including zebras and onagers proved untameable; and although African elephants can be tamed, it is very difficult to breed them in captivity;[2][3] Diamond describes the small number of domesticated species (14 out of 148 "candidates") as an instance of the Anna Karenina principle: many promising species have just one of several significant difficulties that prevent domestication.

Eurasians domesticated goats and sheep for hides, clothing, and cheese; cows for milk; bullocks for tilling fields and transport; and benign animals such as pigs and chickens. Large domestic animals like horses and camels offered the considerable military and economic advantages of mobile transport.

A crucial and unintended product of animal domestication was the transmutation of viruses from livestock to humans. Smallpox, measles and influenza were the result of close proximity between dense populations of animals and humans. Through chronic exposure and centuries of intermittent, but non-decimating, epidemics, Europeans developed significant resistance to these viruses. Though malaria is often considered the most dangerous micro-organism to humans, it is geographically limited. Smallpox is geographically unlimited, and Europeans took it with them wherever they went.

Eurasia's large landmass and long east-west distance increased these advantages. Its large area provided it with more plant and animal species suitable for domestication, and allowed its people to exchange both innovations and diseases. Its East-West orientation allowed breeds domesticated in one part of the continent to be used elsewhere through similarities in climate and the cycle of seasons. The Americas had difficulty adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at other latitudes (and, in North America, adapting crops from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other). Similarly, Africa was fragmented by its extreme variations in climate from North to South: crops and animals that flourished in one area never reached other areas where they could have flourished, because they could not survive the intervening environment. Europe was the ultimate beneficiary of Eurasia's East-West orientation: in the first millennium BC, the Mediterranean areas of Europe adopted the Middle East's animals, plants, and agricultural techniques; in the first millennium AD, the rest of Europe followed suit.[2][3]

The plentiful supply of food and the dense populations that it supported made division of labor possible. The rise of non-farming specialists such as craftsmen and scribes accelerated economic growth and technological progress. These economic and technological advantages eventually enabled Europeans to conquer the peoples of the other continents in recent centuries by using the "Guns" and "Steel" of the book's title.

Eurasia's dense populations, high levels of trade, and living in close proximity to livestock resulted in widespread transmission of diseases, including from animals to humans. Natural selection forced Eurasians to develop immunity to a wide range of pathogens. When Europeans made contact with America, European diseases (to which they had no immunity) ravaged the indigenous American population, rather than the other way around (the "trade" in diseases was a little more balanced in Africa and southern Asia: endemic malaria and yellow fever made these regions notorious as the "white man's grave";[4] and syphilis may have spread in the opposite direction[5]). The European diseases – the "Germs" of the book's title – decimated indigenous populations so that relatively small numbers of Europeans could maintain their dominance.[2][3]

Diamond also proposes geographical explanations for why western European societies, rather than other Eurasian powers such as China, have been the dominant colonizers,[2][6] claiming Europe's geography favored balkanization into smaller, closer, nation-states, bordered by natural barriers of mountains, rivers and coastline. Threats posed by immediate neighbours ensured governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly, such as the counter-progressive Polish regime, whilst the region's leading powers changed over time. Other advanced cultures developed in areas whose geography was conducive to large, monolithic, isolated empires, without competitors that might have forced the nation to reverse mistaken policies such as China banning the building of ocean-going ships. Western Europe also benefited from a more temperate climate than Southwest Asia where intense agriculture ultimately damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility.

Intellectual background[edit]

In the 1930s, the Annales School in France undertook the study of long-term historical structures by using a synthesis of geography, history, and sociology. Scholars examined the impact of geography, climate and land use. Although geography had been nearly eliminated as an academic discipline in the United States after the 1960s, several geographically based historical theories were published in the 1990s.[7]

Reception[edit]

Guns, Germs and Steel won the 1997 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science.[8] In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, in recognition of its powerful synthesis of many disciplines, and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books.[9][10] The National Geographic Society produced a documentary of the same title based on the book that was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.[1]

Academic reviews[edit]

In a review of Guns, Germs, and Steel that ultimately commended the book, historian Tom Tomlinson wrote that, "Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamond uses very broad brush-strokes to fill in his argument." [11] Another historian, professor J. R. McNeill, was on the whole complimentary but thought Diamond oversold geography as an explanation for history and underemphasized cultural autonomy.[3][12] In his last book published in 2000, the anthropologist and geographer James Morris Blaut criticized Guns, Germs, and Steel for reviving the theory of environmental determinism, and described Diamond as an example of a modern Eurocentric historian.[13] Blaut criticizes Diamond's loose use of the terms "Eurasia" and "innovative", which he believes misleads the reader into presuming that Western Europe is responsible for technological inventions that arose in the Middle East and Asia. [14]

Publication[edit]

Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published by W. W. Norton in March 1997. It was subsequently published in Great Britain under the title Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years by Vintage in 1998.[15] It was a selection of Book of the Month Club, History Book Club, Quality Paperback Book Club and Newbridge Book Club.[16]

See also[edit]

General:

Books and television:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Lovgren, Stefan (2005-07-06). ""Guns, Germs and Steel": Jared Diamond on Geography as Power". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2011-11-16. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2. 
  3. ^ a b c d McNeill, J.R. (February 2001). "The World According to Jared Diamond". The History Teacher 34 (2). 
  4. ^ Ross, R., and MacGregor, W. (January 1903). "The Fight against Malaria: An Industrial Necessity for Our African Colonies". Journal of the Royal African Society (Oxford University Press) 2 (6): 149–160. JSTOR 714548. 
  5. ^ The origin of syphilis is still debated. Some researchers think it was known to Hippocrates: Keys, David (2007). "English syphilis epidemic pre-dated European outbreaks by 150 years". Independent News and Media Limited. Retrieved 2007-09-22.  Others think it was brought from the Americas by Columbus and his successors: MacKenzie, D. (January 2008). "Columbus blamed for spread of syphilis". NewScientist.com news service. 
  6. ^ Diamond, J. (July 1999). "How to get rich". 
  7. ^ Cohen, P. (March 21, 1998). "Geography Redux: Where You Live Is What You Are". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  8. ^ "1997 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award". Phi Beta Kappa. Retrieved February 16, 2014. 
  9. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes for 1998". Columbia University. Retrieved 15 February 2014. 
  10. ^ "Prizes for Science Books previous winners and shortlists". The Royal Society. 
  11. ^ Tom Tomlinson (May 1998). "Review:Guns, Germs and Steer: The Fates of Human Societies". Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  12. ^ Jared Diamond; Reply by William H. McNeill (June 26, 1997). "Guns, Germs, and Steel". The New York Review of Books 44 (11). 
  13. ^ James M. Blaut (2000). Eight Eurocentric Historians (August 10, 2000 ed.). The Guilford Press. p. 228. ISBN 1-57230-591-6. Retrieved 2008-08-05. 
  14. ^ Blaut, J.M. (1999). "Environmentalism and Eurocentrism". The Geographical Review (American Geographical Society) 89 (3): 391. doi:10.2307/216157. JSTOR 216157. Retrieved 2008-07-09.  full text
  15. ^ Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London: Vintage, 2005 [1997], ISBN 0-09-930278-0
  16. ^ "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies", Publishers Weekly, December 30, 1998, retrieved October 7, 2012 

External links[edit]