Study Guide

Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel Summary

Introduction

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, somewhat surprisingly, a national best-seller. At a time when other popular nonfiction topics centered on personal relationships and diets, Diamond caught the attention of the reading public with a fascinating account of more than 13,000 years of human evolution and societal development.

Although the book has raised a few points of controversy among scientists, it also has gained widespread praise. Some scientists argue against Diamond’s thesis that geography and environment are the most important factors in shaping the world as modern humans know it. But most critics praise Diamond for the task he successfully took upon himself, which was to answer a very complex question. In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts how he became intrigued when his New Guinean friend Yali asked, “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?” The cargo that Yali refers to is technology—tools as simple as axes; accessories such as umbrellas; and more complicated inventions such as computers, cell phones, and the Internet. After all, Diamond points out, a mere two centuries prior to his meeting Yali, New Guineans were still using stone tools. What factors caused this gap between the development of one culture and another?

Diamond searched for an answer by examining millions of years of history, mapping out the migrations of early humans from Africa to Eurasia, from eastern Asia to the Pacific Ocean islands, and from Siberia to the North and South American continents. He follows humans as they evolve biologically, and then he concentrates on specific representative societies to illustrate his findings.

To define the differences between developing cultures, Diamond emphasizes the effects of food production, writing, technology, government, and religion. Then he demonstrates, in his opinion, why the differences among various cultures occurred. More important (and one of the reasons for some of the controversy surrounding this book), Diamond concludes that it is ultimately geography, not biology or race as some other studies have tried to prove, that produced the cultural disparities his friend Yali had pointed out.

Guns, Germs, and Steel Summary

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel opens with a prologue in which the author presents a question from a New Guinean politician and friend named Yali: why were Europeans able to conquer so many other societies around the world? This question, in the past, has often been answered in terms of genetics, a belief that Diamond sets out to disprove. People are not born superior to another group, Diamond contends. To provide a background for, as well as an argument to support, his own explanation, Diamond then briefly sketches millions of years of human evolution. When Diamond reaches the last 13,000 years, he slows down to focus on specific societies and historical events. In the process, Diamond’s theory becomes apparent. He believes that the success of a society is not based on intelligence and ingenuity but instead on geography, food production, germs and immunity, the domestication of animals, and the discovery and use of steel.

Societies become more stable as they move from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and raising domestic animals. What then inevitably follows is the development of specialized labor groups as well as the establishment of hierarchies in ruling parties. Populations thrive under these conditions, and in time empires rise. The stability provides farming societies with powerful advantages over nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, which are forced to roam the countryside in search of food. One major advantage of farming societies is that some members are eased from the burden of producing food and are then able to devote their time to making weapons and perfecting the art of using them.

Major portions of the Eurasian area, Diamond points out, had a natural advantage in agriculture because of the presence of plants and animals that were easily domesticated. Not only did this allow food surpluses to develop, but it also enabled crops such as cotton, flax, and hemp to be easily processed into clothing, blankets, nets, and ropes....

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Guns, Germs, and Steel Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

According to Diamond, the ancestors of human beings broke off as a separate lineage from other animals about 7 million years ago in Africa. Human ancestors began walking upright around 4 million years ago, and they moved to Eurasia around 1 or 2 million years ago. Sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, not long after human fossils began to resemble modern homo sapiens, our race created an explosion of new technological and artistic innovations that far surpassed anything previously created. Archaeologists call this period the Great Leap Forward.

Shortly after the Great Leap Forward, between 50,000 and 35,000 years ago, the human race expanded its territory. Although human ancestors had remained in Africa and Eurasia for millions of years, people now moved outward to Australia, the South Pacific, and the coldest northern regions of Eurasia. The precise dates of human arrival in the Americas are harder to determine, but the colonization happened at least 12,000 or 13,000 years ago. Diamond thinks it is remarkable that human beings moved into all habitable areas of the globe in a few tens of thousands of years without the benefit of modern technology.

Diamond begins his consideration of the fates of human societies around 11,000 B.C., or 13,000 years ago, because during this period all the habitable continents were populated with hunter-gatherers, and no society had advanced technologically to become farmers or city dwellers. Diamond asks whether a modern archaeologist, transported back 13,000 years, could determine which continent’s people would have the best chances for developing advanced technologies. Considering each continent in turn, he lists the qualities one might consider to be advantages.

In 11,000 B.C.E., Africa had been populated for the longest time, which would have allowed its people to develop the most expansive knowledge of their landscape and environment. Africa’s people were also more...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

To defend his theory that environmental factors can determine the fate of a continent, Diamond considers examples from Polynesia. He claims that Polynesia, which is made up of many islands, provides many examples of societies that developed in isolation from each other. Also, because islands are smaller than whole continents are, the environmental factors that affect their inhabitants are somewhat simpler to explain.

In 1835, 500 Maori warriors sailed to the Chatham Islands, an archipelago inhabited by the Moriori people. The Maori came from a warlike agricultural society on the large, densely populated island of New Zealand. They were armed with both modern and traditional weapons. The Moriori were a peaceful and less organized hunter-gatherer people who occupied a more isolated, less densely populated archipelago. Over the course of just a few weeks, the Maori warriors slaughtered nearly all the Moriori and took possession of the islands.

Diamond proposes that the tragic events on the Chatham Islands played out in a predictable way: the technologically advanced society won. He points out that no genetic differences could have existed between the Maori and Moriori because the two cultures had diverged from a common source just 1,000 years before. Factors other than genetic superiority had to have determined the differences between the two peoples. Diamond sets out to examine what those factors were.

According to archaeologists, the Chatham Islands were colonized by ancestral Maori people from New Zealand about 1,000 years before the massacre. The colonizers who became the Moriori were most likely farmers when they arrived. However, the crops they brought with them could not grow in the Chathams’ cold climate, so they abandoned farming and turned to hunting and gathering. This left them unable to produce surplus food to support people who were employed in occupations other than finding food. The Moriori had little space...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Diamond turns to a subject more familiar to most of his readership: the collision between the Incas and the Spanish in South America in 1532. In that encounter, Francisco Pizarro and 168 soldiers captured King Atahuallpa, who was supported by an army of 80,000 men.

Before his encounter with Atahuallpa, Pizarro stationed groups of men with guns and trumpets in strategic positions around a square. He even put rattles on his men’s horses so they would make more noise. When Atahuallpa and his entourage arrived, Pizarro presented the king with a Bible and a message about its contents. Atahuallpa, unable to read Spanish and offended by Pizarro’s manners, threw the Bible to the ground. The Spaniards attacked, killing Incan...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

In Part Two of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues that superior food production was the root cause beneath the ability of Eurasia’s people to develop the guns, germs, and steel that conquered the rest of the world. He promises to discuss in a future section the particular ways food production techniques had this effect around the world, but first he devotes Chapter 4 to explaining why food production had this effect at all.

First, a population that can produce more food can also produce more people. Of the plant and animal matter our planet produces naturally, the vast majority is inedible, poisonous, or too inefficient for humans to bother eating. When people control what the land produces, they can...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

In prehistoric times, agriculture developed spontaneously in several different parts of the world, then it spread outward from there to many other regions. The places that developed agriculture are not the most fertile; indeed, some extremely fertile areas like California never encountered farming or herding until after Europe’s colonialist period began.

After noting these facts, Diamond asks a series of questions: Why did farming and herding techniques arise at different times in different places? Why did they take longer to spread to some areas than to others? Why did the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies sometimes involve the violent replacement of one group of people by another?

...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

To begin his discussion about why agriculture took longer to arise in some places than in others, Diamond compares the five areas of the world that have particularly fertile climates: southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent, southwestern Europe, California, southwestern Australia, and South Africa’s Cape. Agriculture arose independently in the Fertile Crescent in 8500 B.C. and spread to southwestern Europe around 5500 B.C. In the other three places, agriculture was absent until after 1500 A.D., when colonists from Europe began carrying their crops and food-production techniques to other continents.

Diamond explains that food production techniques evolved slowly over time. The lives of early farmers were not much different...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

All domestic plants today are descended from plants that were once wild. Some domestic plants are descended from poisonous plants or from plants that look much different from their domesticated cousins. Farmers managed to grow some plants much earlier than others, and even today a few prized food plants have never been successfully farmed. Diamond the questions, how did the domestication of plants happen before modern, scientific techniques were developed? Why was it possible for people to domesticate some plants in the Stone Age, whereas others are still undomesticated today?

Plants spread their seeds by any means necessary. Many are dispersed by animals either in...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Food production arose where there were many domesticable plants and animals in the natural environment and not where such plants and animals were absent. Diamond points out that hunter-gatherers would not have put aside their lifestyles and taken up full-time farming unless they had access to a package of plants and animals that would, in combination, make food production a better lifestyle than hunting and gathering. In some places, the package of available plants and animals was simply less viable for farmers. To prove this point, Diamond contrasts Southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent with two regions that developed agriculture later: New Guinea and the eastern United States.

The Fertile Crescent was probably the...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

Many qualities must be present in an animal species before people can domesticate it. If any problem exists, domestication will almost certainly fail. This explains why many animals, like zebras, have never been domesticated.

People domesticated fourteen large mammals before A.D. 1900. Diamond calls these animals the Ancient Fourteen, and he considers them the most important domestic animals because many of them pulled plows, provided transport, gave milk, and so on. Various small animals, including mammals, birds, and even insects, were domesticated by ancient people as well....

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Diamond proposes that Eurasia has yet another advantage, in addition to its larger variety of domesticable plant and animal species: its geographic size and orientation. Eurasia covers the largest East–West area of any continent, whereas the Americas and Africa span greater North–South distances. Diamond hypothesizes that this orientation gave Eurasia another advantage over the other continents.

The Fertile Crescent’s package of plants and animals spread quickly and, in many cases, completely into Europe and North Africa. Most of this area had adopted a substantial number of the Fertile Crescent’s plants, animals, and food productions techniques within just a few thousand years of the dawn of agriculture. Other...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

In Part Three of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the ways food production led to the development of the guns, germs, and steel that enabled Eurasians to conquer so many people around the world. One of the most important results of human domestication of farm animals was a transfer of diseases between animals and people. Smallpox, flu, plague, and many other diseases stem originally from infections in farm animals. This is significant because, according to Diamond:

The winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies.

Among germs, as among...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

European explorers could read and write, which gave them a clear advantage over the mostly illiterate societies they conquered. Literacy allowed for maps, written sailing directions, detailed study of accounts by previous explorers, and so on. Diamond next discusses why Europeans had writing when the people of most other cultures did not, and he describes the origins of writing.

There are three basic strategies for representing language in written symbols: alphabetic, logographic, and syllabic. Alphabetic systems display individual sounds as written signs. Logographic systems display words as signs. Syllabic systems display syllables as signs. Today, virtually all developed writing systems use a combination of these...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

In 1908, a clay disk bearing writing was excavated on the Greek island Phaistos. The disk bears forty-five symbols, probably of a syllabary, which were stamped into the clay. Nobody has yet deciphered this writing. Archaeologists believe it may have been the first printing system in the world but that it dropped out of use. A similar printing system did not emerge elsewhere until 2,500 years later and 3,100 years later in Europe.

Some inventions happen because people need a technology and set out to create it. Other inventions come about because people tinker and experiment and create something for which they only later find a use. Diamond argues that this latter process is more common in history. He also believes that...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Diamond turns to government and religion, exploring how they arose in different ways around the world. He begins by dividing societies into four categories: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.

Bands are small groups of up to eighty people related by family ties. They live and work together without much connection to anyone outside their group. Bands tend to be egalitarian, without class structure and with informal leadership. Very few people still live in bands today.

Tribes form the second smallest kind of society. For the purposes of the political discussion in this book, a tribe is defined as a group made up of hundreds of settled people organized into political units at the level of a village or...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

In the final section of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond reviews the histories of five geographic areas, exploring the question of why they developed to the points they did—and no further—by A.D. 1500. He begins with Australia, the continent that had the least complex technology, the lowest population density, and perhaps the most distinctive societies of all.

Australia was inhabited by modern humans very early, perhaps even before Europe. Its people had some of the earliest stone tools, the earliest hafted blades, and the earliest boats. However, Australia’s people did not develop as much technology from that point as one might expect. Even more perplexing, Australia’s society did not develop the food...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Most of the world’s largest countries are extremely multicultural. China is a great exception. The vast majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin or a similar language, and most Chinese families have considered themselves Chinese for millennia. Diamond theorizes that China was once as linguistically and culturally diverse as Russia or Brazil, but that China began its process of unification far earlier.

To support this point, Diamond turns first to Chinese languages. Mandarin and its seven close relatives, all Sino-Tibetan languages, are collectively spoken by 1.1 billion Chinese people. These languages exist alongside 130 other languages, each of which is spoken by a much smaller population. China’s languages fall...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Long before Columbus sailed to America, people traveled long distances to colonize new places. One of these movements was the Austronesian expansion, a movement of southeast Asians into Indonesia and the Philippines. Diamond believes that the Austronesians were originally South Chinese or Southeast Asians. Linguistic evidence suggests that the expansion originated in Taiwan.

Archaeological records corroborate the linguistic evidence. The archaeology indicates that people making artifacts similar to those of South China replaced hunter-gatherers in Taiwan in the fourth millennium B.C. Artifacts show that these new Taiwanese had ocean-going watercraft suitable for an outward expansion. Over the next several thousand...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

An in-depth comparison of Eurasian and Native American societies in A.D. 1492, when Columbus sailed to the New World, shows why Eurasians were able to come close to replacing Native Americans on the American continents. The biggest difference was in large domestic animal species, which were so much more numerous in Eurasia. Plant domestication was less widespread in the Americas for a variety of reasons, as is discussed in earlier chapters. Even where agriculture was well-developed, the available plant species were less advantageous in the Americas. Corn, which is low in protein, was the main cereal crop. People had to plant their crops by hand rather than using animals to plow.

These differences in food production led...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

The population of Africa is far more diverse than most Americans imagine. Before Europeans arrived, Africa was already home to five major racial groups. Additionally, in millennia before A.D. 1500, Africa experienced two dramatic, little-known population shifts: the Bantu expansion and the Indonesian colonization of Madagascar.

For the purposes of his book, Diamond lumps Africa’s people into five heterogeneous categories: whites in North Africa, Indonesians on Madagascar, Pygmies in the Central African rainforest, Khoisan in southern Africa, and blacks in sub-Saharan Africa—including in areas that overlap with some other races of Africans. Diamond does not go into detail about the history of white people in northern...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

Preface/Prologue Summary

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond sets out to explain why people from Eurasia, and not people from other continents, conquered much of the rest of the world. At the outset of the book, Diamond rejects the idea that any moral, intellectual, or genetic factor could have produced a race of inherently superior people. Instead, he argues that environmental and geographical factors allowed Eurasians to advance faster than their counterparts elsewhere.

Diamond explains that he became interested in exploring the historical inequalities between human societies in July 1972, when he was studying bird evolution in New Guinea. One day, he was walking along a beach, and he struck up a conversation with a charismatic...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear