Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA. In 1998 it won a Pulitzer Prize and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July 2005, produced by the National Geographic Society.
According to the author, an alternative title would be A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years. But the book is not merely an account of the past; it 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 amplified by various positive feedback loops; and that, if cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), it is only so because of the influence of geography.
The book's title is a reference to the means by which European nations conquered populations of other areas and maintained their dominance, often despite being vastly out-numbered - superior weapons provided immediate military superiority, and European diseases weakened the local populations and thus made it easier to maintain control over them. Hence the book attempts to explain, mainly by geographical factors, why Europeans had such superior military technology and why diseases to which Europeans were immune devastated conquered populations.
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 Turkey) had by far the best natural endowment of crops and of domesticable animals in the size range from goats or dogs upwards - the superiority in domesticable animals was the more extreme, as other areas had at most two and often none. 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 use in their new homes the plants and animals to which they had become accustomed; by contrast the Americas' North-South axis forced migrating Native Americans to adopt new crops and, where available, animals because they found a wide variation in climates as they migrated from North to South.
Diamond also touches very briefly on why the dominant powers of the last 500 years have been West European rather than East Asian (especially China). 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 that led to stagnation. On the other hand Europe's many natural barriers divided it into competing nation-states and this competition forced the European nations to encourage innovation and avoid technological stagnation.
The book has met with several criticisms, even from reviewers who are sympathetic to its aims and approach. Diamond attempted to anticipate some of these in the book and has answered some of them more recently.
He says that the same sort of question seems to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, having thrown off colonial domination, lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) He says that, 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.
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 and this in turn 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 / 44kg); 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); and 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 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.
The plentiful supply of food and the dense populations that it supported made division of labor possible, and 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 - 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 also made the transmission of diseases easy, and so natural selection forced Eurasians to develop immunity to a wide range of pathogens. When Europeans made contact with America, European diseases 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: 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 have been the dominant colonizers, and not other Eurasian powers (especially China):
Diamond examined European dominance in more detail with further examples in a later article. > > > > > > > > >
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, for example examining 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.
Criticism can be grouped into three main lines of reasoning, as follows.
Clifford Pickover pointed out that in the 15th century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes between the Orient to 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.
Some researchers point out that Diamond’s "law of history" regarding the dominance of agricultural societies over their non-agricultural neighbours does not always hold true, such as the spread of hunting and gathering Inuits in Greenland at the expense of the agricultural Norse; in fact Diamond himself raises this point and this specific example in his book. While it has historically and prehistorically been the case that agricultural societies dispossess hunter gatherers, Diamond's "law" highlights his oversimplification of the past. However, 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.)
In fact his argument about Inuit survival while the Norse in Greenland starved was out of date when he wrote it. Far from having 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--although, as Diamond notes in his subsequent book Collapse, 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 admitted 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 very sketchy coverage of social, political and intellectual history (a handful of pages), especially in the last 500 years, as a notable weakness: 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 Java, 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:
This review was followed by a pair of short articles in The New York Review of Books. Diamond's emphasized that Guns, Germs, and Steel had a much longer time-scale than most histories and was trying into 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 and patterns," "with more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history.
Later in the book Diamond very briefly examines why some of the "founder" civilizations that discovered agriculture, specialization and urbanization did not become dominant on a world scale. He says for example that SW 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), and that political homogeneity led to stagnation, particularly because there were no external competitors that might have forced it to reverse mistaken policies. The book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about AD 1500, and understandably does not dwell on colonialism, post-colonialism, or other developments in the modern period. Furthermore, Diamond's arguments are that Eurasia (as opposed to Europe) would inevitably be dominant.
In a later article Diamond notes that circa 1500, during the Ming Dynasty, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated by a single political decision (the hai jin, which means "ocean forbidden"); in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. Similarly Japan learned about guns from Portuguese explorers in 1543 and by 1600 had the world's best guns; but these threatened the power of the Samurai class, which restricted and finally banned their production. Diamond concludes that such bans could be imposed only in politically unified and isolated nations such as Japan 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 very difficult between continents in the pre-1500 period the book concentrates on). Instances of civilizations stagnating or being conquered despite having access to superior resources than their neighbours are mentioned several times in this book; in Professor Diamond’s view these reversals of fortune support his thesis, providing 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 because the effects of proven environmental determinism could be easily nullified by contemporary transport and communication, whereas the effects of proven racial determinism might be used to justify genocide.