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

Overview

Jared Diamond said an alternative title would be A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years. The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations, as a whole, have survived and conquered others, while attempting to refute the belief 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 Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), these advantages were only created due to the influence of geography and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes.

Diamond points out that nearly all of humanity's achievements (scientific, artistic, architectural, political, etc.) have occurred on the Eurasian continent. The peoples of other continents (Sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, and Aboriginal Australians/New Guineans) have been largely conquered, displaced, and in some extreme cases – referring to Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and South Africa's indigenous Khoisan peoples – exterminated by Eurasian military and political advantages stemming from the early rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age. He proposes explanations to account for such disproportionate and lopsided distributions of power and achievements in history.

The book's title is a reference to the means by which European nations happened to conquer populations of other areas and maintained their dominance, often despite being vastly out-numbered – superior weapons provided immediate military superiority (guns); Eurasian diseases weakened and reduced local populations, making it easier to maintain control over them (germs); and centralized governmental systems promoted nationalism and powerful military organizations (steel). The book uses geographical factors to show how Europeans developed such superior military technology and why diseases to which Europeans and Asians had some natural immunity devastated populations in the Americas.

Diamond highlights two major environmental advantages of Eurasia over other areas in which farming apparently developed independently. The various Eurasian inventors of farming, and especially those in "South West Asia" (roughly Mesopotamia and Turkeymarker), had by far the best natural endowment of crop and of domesticable animals in the size range from goats or dogs upwards. The superiority in domesticable animals was the more notable, as other areas had at most two and often no such animals. Eurasia's other big advantage is that its mainly East-West axis provides a huge area with similar latitudes and therefore climates. As a result, it was far easier for migrating Eurasian populations to adapt those plants and animals to which they had become accustomed to new areas. By contrast the Americas' North-South axis forced migrating Native American to adopt new crops and, where available, animals as they migrated from North to South, because of the wide variation in climates.

Native Americans, for instance, had access to corn. But corn provides few nutrients and must be planted one by one – an extremely cumbersome task. It should be noted that as they developed agricultural surpluses, for instance, in the Mississippian culture about 1000 CE, they created more dense and specialized settlements. On the other hand, Eurasians had wheat and barley, which are high in fiber and nutrients and can be sowed en masse with just a toss of the hand. They generated massive food surpluses, which supported exponential population growth. Such growth led to larger workforces, and more numerous inventors, artisans, etc. Grains are not only easily planted, but can also be stored for longer periods of time, unlike such tropical crops as bananas.

In another example, Sub-Saharan Africans had access to mostly wild mammals, whereas Eurasians had access to the most docile animals on the planet: horses and camels that are easily tamed for human transportation; goats and sheep for hides, clothing, and cheese; cows for milk; bullock for tilling fields and transportation; and benign animals such as pigs and chickens. Africans, through geographic happenstance, had to deal with lions, leopards, etc. So Eurasia was the beneficiary of geographic, climatic, and environmental happenstance that favored the people after the last Ice Age about 13,000-15,000 years ago. Diamond points out that the only animals useful for human survival and purposes in New Guineamarker came from the East Asian mainland, when they were transplanted during the Austronesian invasion some 4,000-5,000 years ago.

Diamond also touches briefly on why the dominant powers of the last 500 years have been West European rather than East Asian (especially Chinamarker). The Asian areas in which major civilizations arose had geographical features conducive to the formation of large, stable, isolated empires which faced no external pressure to correct policies, which led to stagnation. By contrast, Europe's many natural barriers allowed the development of many competing nation-states. Such competition forced the European nations to encourage innovation and avoid technological stagnation.

Synopsis

Prologue

The prologue to the book opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guineanmarker 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 do white people have so much cargo and but we New Guineans/ have so little?"(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) Unable to find a satisfactory explanation from the best-known accounts of history, he decided to make his own investigation to seek the root causes of Eurasian dominance.

The theory outlined

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation.

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 sheer will or intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.

In our earliest societies, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The first step towards civilization is the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, with the domestication and farming of wild crops and animals. Agricultural production leads to food surpluses, which supports sedentary societies, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which leads in turn to the organization of empires.

Although agriculture arose in several parts of the world, Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. In particular, the Middle East had by far the best collection of plants and animals suitable for domestication – barley, two varieties of wheat and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; goats, sheep and cattle provided meat, leather, glue (by boiling the hooves and bones) and, in the case of sheep, wool. 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.

In contrast, Native American farmers had to struggle to develop maize as a useful food from its probable wild ancestor, teosinte. Eurasia as a whole domesticated 13 species of large animals (over 100lb / 44 kg); South America just one (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species); the rest of the world none at all. 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. For example, horses are easily domesticated, but their biological relatives zebras and onagers are untameable; and although Asian elephants are tameable, it is very difficult to breed them in captivity.

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. In contrast, Australia suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, probably by human hunting, shortly after the end of the Pleistocene. 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). Africa was fragmented by its extreme variations in climate from North to South: plants 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 Mediterraneanmarker areas of Europe adopted the Middle East's animals, plants, and agricultural techniques; in the first millennium AD, the rest of Europe followed suit.

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"; and syphilis may have spread in the opposite direction). The European diseases – the "Germs" of the book's title – decimated indigenous populations so that relatively small numbers of Europeans could maintain their dominance.

Guns, Germs, and Steel also offers a very brief explanation of why western European societies, rather than other powers such as Chinamarker, have been the dominant colonizers.
  • Other advanced cultures developed in areas whose geography was conducive to large, monolithic, isolated empires. In these conditions policies of technological and social stagnation could persist – until Europeans arrived. China was a very notable example, for example in 1432 a new Emperor outlawed the building of ocean-going ships, in which China was the world leader at the time.
  • Europe's geography favored balkanization into smaller, closer, nation-states, as its many natural barriers (mountains, rivers) provide defensible borders. As a result, governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly. As an example of this national Darwinism, Diamond offers the disappearance of the counter-progressive Polish regime. He argues that geographical factors created the conditions for more rapid internal superpower change (Spain succeeded by France and then by England) than was possible elsewhere in Eurasia.
Diamond examined European dominance in more detail with further examples in a later article.

Intellectual background

Diamond was not the first to argue that environmental factors had a decisive influence on human history. In the late 1850s Henry Thomas Buckle sought to discover laws that governed history, and wrote that favorable climate and soils, and the plentiful food they produced, were important contributors to a population's accumulation of wealth. He believed that freedom from natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods made people less prone to superstition and therefore more likely to make rapid intellectual progress.

In the 1930s, the Annales School in Francemarker 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 USA after the 1960s, several geographically-based historical theories were published in the 1990s. In addition, environmental history has arisen as a field taking account of man's activities in nature.

Reception

Guns, Germs and Steel met with a wide range of response, ranging from generally favorable to outright rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July 2005, produced by the National Geographic Societymarker.

Criticism

Some critics of the book argue that it is derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julian Steward, and Ester Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.

Criticism can be grouped into three main lines of reasoning, as follows:

Eurocentrist determinism

James Blaut has criticized Guns, Germs, and Steel for reviving the theory of environmental determinism, and described Diamond as an example of a modern Eurocentric historian. Blaut also 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 actually arose in the Middle East and Asia. Blaut states that Diamond ignored or underestimated the nutritional value of several staple crops that grow naturally outside the temperate parts of Eurasia, overestimated the difficulty of adapting crops to new conditions by selective breeding, and ignored the separation of agriculturally productive regions within Eurasia's temperate belt by deserts and mountains. Blaut pointed out examples of North-South diffusion of crops, notably the cultivation of maize in both Perumarker and North America. He stated that in Europe, the major economic and technological developments of the last 500-600 years took place in Northern and Western Europe, which is generally flat, casting doubt on Diamond's suggestion that Europe benefitted by competition among societies that developed separately due to geographic barriers, such as mountains.

Political factors

Military historian and conservative political columnist Victor Davis Hanson agrees with Diamond in that he rejects a racial explanation for Western dominance. But Hanson argues that certain fundamental aspects of Western culture are responsible, specifically political freedom, capitalism, individualism, republicanism, rationalism, and open debate. Hanson has written that Diamond seems "terribly confused" about history, and that environment was "almost irrelevant" to Western success. Supporters of Diamond, however, have argued that these cultural aspects were created because of the environment and resources at Europe's disposal. In fact, Diamond specifically cites the evolution of complex socio-political structures as a yield of the increased resources and environment which benefitted western Europeans.

Clifford Pickover pointed out that in the 15th century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes between the Orient and Europe. Merchants responded by developing new routes, primarily by sea, to restore trade with the Orient. This process accelerated the development of cartographic and navigational technologies, which allowed Europeans to dominate the globe in less than a century.

Weaknesses in arguments

There are also critics who, while not rejecting the thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel, believe that Diamond's underlying arguments are weak. Even admirers of the book point out some weaknesses.

Diamond’s "law of history" regarding the dominance of agricultural societies over their non-agricultural neighbors does not always hold true, such as the spread of the hunting and gathering Inuit in Greenlandmarker at the expense of the agricultural Norse. Diamond notes this point and specific example in his book. While agricultural societies have dominated and dispossessed hunter gatherers in history and prehistory, Diamond's "law" highlights an oversimplification of the past. Diamond is careful to point out that many of his generalizations only apply to larger areas incorporating many groups of people. (Diamond's specific comment refers to the American Indians.)

His argument about how the Inuit survived while the Norse in Greenland starved was out of date when he wrote it. Far from having had any taboos about fish eating or not exploiting the maritime wealth around them, "from the 1300s the Greenland Norse had 50-80% of their diet from the marine food chain" , the Norse were able to adapt to a changing environment. In his subsequent book Collapse, Diamond noted that examination of Greenland middens shows that the primary food source was seal meat, which is from the marine environment but not fish.

In a review of Guns, Germs, and Steel that ultimately commended the book, historian Professor Tom Tomlinson wrote that, "Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamond uses very broad brush-stokes to fill in his argument," but regarded Diamond's sketchy coverage of social, political and intellectual history (a handful of pages), especially in the last 500 years, as a notable weakness. He stated that Diamond's approach ignored "much of the current literature on cultural interactions in modern history" and Diamond omitted "almost all of the standard literature on the history of imperialism and post-colonialism, world-systems, underdevelopment or socio-economic change over the last five hundred years." Tomlinson also stated that, "The European empires of conquest in Asia, especially those of the British in India and the Dutch in Javamarker, were not based on clear technological superiority in armaments, nor on the spread of disease."

Another historian, Professor J. R. McNeill, was on the whole complimentary but nevertheless found weaknesses:
  • In a sense Diamond may have been trying to explain something that was rather simple. Eurasia has accounted for the great majority of the human population for at least the last 3,000 years, and pure chance would make it extremely likely that at any particular time the world's most powerful and advanced civilization would be somewhere in Eurasia.
  • Logically it is questionable to try to explain the temporary dominance of particular societies by "permanent" features such as geography (permanent relative to historical timescales; on geological times scales geography is not permanent).
  • Political fragmentation has been a disadvantage, for example in West Africa, at least as often as it has been an advantage.
  • For over 5,000 years Egyptmarker maintained high populations and a complex society, yet its fortunes varied enormously from one period to another. Diamond's analysis fails to explain this.
  • Diamond's emphasis on the advantage of an "East-West axis" over a "North-South axis" is at best an over-simplification: parts of Eurasia at similar latitudes have very different climates.
  • The spread of useful crops and animals was determined at least as much by human activities, notably trade and migration, as by purely geographical factors.
  • People can alter their environments for the worse; for example Mesopotamia, which Diamond presents as the cradle of Western civilization, "committed ecological suicide" by using irrigation techniques that caused the soil to become salty and infertile.


This review was followed by a pair of short articles in The New York Review of Books. Diamond emphasized that Guns, Germs, and Steel had a much longer time-scale than most histories. He was trying to explain why, for example, in 1492 Eurasia was almost entirely populated by settled societies with governments, literacy, iron technology and standing armies, while the other continents were almost entirely populated by stone age tribes of hunter-gatherers. On this time scale, he wrote, the factors historians usually examine are inadequate. For example, Australia had hundreds of independent Aboriginal tribes, with very different cultures; some built villages with canals and fish farming; but none developed agriculture, armies, or metal tools. Therefore, Diamond argued, one must look at environmental factors, and failure to do so would leave a gap that might be filled by racist assumptions. He admitted that cultural factors were usually very relevant to issues over shorter time-scales, such as the causes of World War II. McNeill replied that some historians were trying to "explain history's broadest patterns," "with more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history."

Responses to criticism

Anticipation of criticism

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (page 17):
"If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?"
His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. "[Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.
Doesn't addressing the question "automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of Europeans ..."?
But, according to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to Europe." And Diamond specifically and repeatedly states that the advantages that Eurasians had in development were primarily due to a fortuitous mixture of climate, crops, and animals, and not due to any inherent advantages of the people themselves. Given time (without exposure to Eurasian culture), he posits that other societies would have eventually made the same technological leaps, they just didn't get to the starting line at the same time due to the above factors.
"Don't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, ...?"
On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes. In addition any preconceived semantic boundaries of the words civilization and the spatial to mental apprehension of the meaning rise will all be individually encountered.


Response to criticism of Eurocentrism and determinism

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond frequently anticipates some of the criticism received. In the third sentence of the prologue, he notes that "the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies." But he almost immediately says that most accounts of world history focus too much on Eurasia, too much on western Eurasia and too much on the tiny fraction of human history that follows the invention of writing. In particular, he says, "a history focused on Western Eurasian societies completely bypasses the obvious big question. Why were those societies the first that became disproportionately powerful and innovative? ... Why did those ingredients of conquest arise in western Eurasia, and arise elsewhere only to a lesser degree or not at all? ... Why didn't capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in Sub-Saharan Africa, scientific enquiry in China, ... and nasty germs in Aboriginal Australia?"

Later in the book Diamond briefly examines why some of the "founder" civilizations that discovered agriculture, and became specialized and urbanized did not become dominant on a world scale. He says, for example, that Southwest Asia's intense agriculture damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty). He suggested that political homogeneity led to stagnation, particularly because there were no external competitors that might have forced the nation to reverse mistaken policies. As the book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about AD 1500, it understandably does not dwell on colonialism, post-colonialism, or other developments in the modern period. Furthermore, Diamond argues that Eurasia (as opposed to Europe alone) would inevitably be dominant.

In a later article, Diamond notes that circa 1500, during the Ming Dynastymarker, China's naval superiority over what Europeans could field was terminated by a single political decision, the hai jin ("ocean forbidden"); in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. Similarly Japanmarker learned about guns from Portuguese explorers in 1543 and by 1600 had the world's best guns; but as these threatened the power of the Samurai class, it restricted and finally banned their production. Diamond concludes that such bans could be imposed only in politically unified and isolated nations, such as Japanmarker under the Tokugawa shogunate. He also says that India, on the other hand, may have been too fragmented for a monumental rise in power similar to Europe's.

Diamond has answered the critique of historical counterexamples (in differing growth rates unrelated to material endowments) by claiming that these cases represent short-term growth over (at most) fifty-year time windows. In the case of rapidly expanding economies (such as the "East Asian Tigers"), the rapid growth is usually explained (in economics) as one country "catching-up" to the rest (cf. endogenous growth theory), through trade and technological transfer (which would have been difficult between continents in the pre-1500 period on which the book concentrates.) Instances of civilizations' stagnating or being conquered despite having access to resources superior to their neighbors are mentioned several times in this book; in Diamond’s view, such reversals of fortune support his thesis, as they provide a mechanism for the spread of cultural dynamism and technology within continents but not, until the "Age of Exploration", between them. (His later work, Collapse, tied environment and the fate of individual civilizations together more closely, but in Guns, Germs, and Steel his argument is made at the continental level, rather than the level of specific societies.)

Diamond's view is largely "deterministic", in that Guns, Germs and Steel argues that Eurasian dominance was inevitable, or at least very likely (sometimes called geographical determinism). Although Diamond later cites the effects of specific decisions by governments, he suggests that geographical isolation was what made their effects so long-lasting (for example Ming China's ban on ocean-going ships). Nevertheless, Diamond explicitly asks (on page 17) whether this inevitability would "justify the domination", and whether it renders futile modern attempts to "change the outcome." He denies that it does. Today the effects of proven environmental determinism can be easily nullified by contemporary transport and communication. The effects of racial determinism might be used to justify genocide, but such racial determinism has not been proven.

See also



References

  1. The origin of syphilis is still debated. Some researchers think it was known to Hippocrates: Others think it was brought from the Americas by Columbus and his successors:
  2. full text
  3. Decline and Fall, National Review, March 28 2005.


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