Guns, Germs, and Steel (Magill Book Reviews)
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, wants to demonstrate that the differential development of human societies is not the result of differences among the intelligence of different people, but the dissimilarities in their environments. In GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES Diamond asserts that changing the environment of a society would change its evolutionary path.
Human history is the transformation of societies from hunter-gatherers to farmer-herders. Farming and herding, which Diamond calls food production, result in food surpluses, which in turn leads to all the characteristics of more advanced societies: large, densely populated, specialized members, technological, literate, and hosts for epidemic diseases.
Diamond argues that the area we call West Asia (the Fertile Crescent), Europe, and North Africa had an immense advantage over the rest of the world in the development of food production. Most of the large-seeded grass species are native to this region, as are thirteen of the fourteen species of large mammals domesticated before 1900. As a result, food productions in Eurasia occurred sooner than in other parts of the world.
Diamond appreciates that he will be accused of geographical or biological determinism. He argues that there is a significant distinction between determinacy and predictability. He introduces the concepts of “cultural idiosyncrasies” and “individual idiosyncrasies.” The former are cultural features which predispose a society towards particular choices. The latter is another way to describe the impact of great men and women upon history. Diamond believes that individual leaders and cultural idiosyncrasies influence the details of the historical process. However, because some environments were more favorable and supportive than others for human inventiveness, human history, in its broadest and most sweeping aspects, is determined.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXLIV, July 19, 1997, p. 4.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, January 15, 1997, p. 113.
Lancet. CCCL, July 5, 1997, p. 75.
Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 159.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 9, 1997, p. 4.
Nature. CCCLXXXVI, March 27, 1997, p. 339.
The New Leader. LXXX, March 10, 1997, p. 19.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, May 15, 1997, p. 48.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 13.
Newsweek. CXXIX, June 16, 1997, p. 47.
The Observer. April 13, 1997, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 13, 1997, p. 60.
Guns, Germs, and Steel (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Why did Christopher Columbus “discover” America rather than a Native American discovering Europe? In sixteenth century sub-Sahara Africa or nineteenth century Australia, why did the native peoples lack the technology that was commonplace in contemporary Europe? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia farm, herd animals, and build cities earlier or on a grander scale than the inhabitants of the other continents? For many centuries, the answers to these questions were usually cast in racial terms. Whether the cause was a purposeful Almighty or Darwinian evolution, Europeans were innately biologically “superior” to other races, cultures, or societies, had developed “civilization” faster than non-Europeans, and hence were able to conquer them. Such superiority was usually assumed to be in the form of higher intelligence manifested in more sophisticated technology, more complex political systems, and the creation of modern science.
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer who has worked extensively in New Guinea, rejects racially oriented explanations for differential human development. He agrees that the explication for European success is biological, but believes that intelligence had nothing to do with the differential development of societies. Geography had everything to do with it. Differences among environments resulted in dissimilarities among societies. Change its environment and a society would follow a very different evolutionary path. Although human history was not determined in detail by biology, the ultimate causes of the grand sweeps of human history were environmental and geographical. In taking this approach to human history, Diamond hopes to make the discipline more akin to the historical sciences (ecology, paleontology, evolutionary biology) and less a humanities or social science field.
For Diamond to demonstrate how environment and geography influence the development of societies, he must first explain how humans obtain food. According to him, human societies can be divided into either hunter-gatherers, who hunt wild animals and/or gather wild plants, or farmer-herders, who domesticate plants and animals and eat the resulting livestock and crops. The latter ultimately have an advantage over the former. Farming and herding, which Diamond calls food production, result in food surpluses, which in turn lead to larger populations and sedentary, stratified societies with specialized members (such as warriors). These larger and more densely populated societies create technology, invent writing, and serve as hosts for epidemic diseases, the three significant factors in the ability of one society to conquer another.
The key factor that determines the relative state of one society versus another, then, is when those societies made the transformation from hunter-gatherers to food producers. Some societies never do, at least not in the time allotted to them by history before their conquest by other societies. Hence, the fate of Native Americans and the aboriginal Australians was sealed when they came into contact with the food producers of Europe. Others made the transformation relatively late or only partially. As a result, not all food-producing societies turned out to be equal. Again, the food producers of Europe easily conquered the food producers of Mesoamerica and South America because they had more of the benefits of food production than the Aztecs or Incas. Specifically, they had superior technology and domesticated animals in abundance. The most important point that Diamond wants to make is that the ultimate cause of differences between food producing societies, or the reason why some societies never make the transformation, is geographical rather than racial.
For a society to make the transformation from hunter-gatherers to food producers, it must learn either independently or from other societies to domesticate plants and large mammals. The probability of learning to domesticate is dependent upon the availability of potential candidates. It is here that the area called West Asia (the Fertile Crescent), Europe, and North Africa had an immense advantage over the rest of the world. Of the fifty-six large-seeded grass species, thirty-three are native to this region. Thirty-nine of the fifty-six are native to Eurasia (Diamond’s term includes North Africa, which is environmentally much more like the rest of the Mediterranean than sub-Sahara Africa). These grass species include wheat, barley, and rice. Moreover, many of the Eurasian grass species were easier to cultivate. As a result, food production in Eurasia occurred sooner than in...
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The journey of primitive humans began somewhere in Africa around 7 million B.C. Bands of what are called Homo erectus migrated throughout what is now southern Eurasia during 1 million B.C. Another group, Homo neanderthalis, migrated to what is now modern Europe somewhere around 500,000 B.C. Then, according to Diamond, the Great Leap Forward occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. The Great Leap Forward was signaled by the development of tools. Archeologists have found and dated primitive tools attributed to this time period, the age of the Cro-Magnons, the ancestors of modern humans. In their garbage heaps were found items such as needles and fishhooks, spears, and bows and arrows—signs that Cro-Magnons were improving their technology and as a result improving their diet because the new weapons allowed them to bring down larger animals. During this time period, our ancestors migrated across the sea and landed in places such as Australia and New Zealand. Only 18,000 years ago, there were people in northern Eurasia, near present-day Siberia. And some scientists believe that in 12,000 B.C., people referred to as the Clovis entered what is now North America, then spread south into South America, reaching what is now southern Chile. The latter part of that journey, the last 13,000 years, provides the timeline and the setting for the bulk of Diamond’s book.
One of the first places that Diamond stops to reflect on how societies formed is New Zealand. The country is home to two somewhat-related groups of people who live in very dissimilar settings. While the Maori settled in New Zealand, the Moriori colonized the nearby Chatham Islands. The hospitable environment in New Zealand allowed for the cultivation of crops. The soil was better; there was plenty of rain and fresh water; and the weather provided a profitable growing season. The Moriori on the Chatham Islands did not fare as well. They could not get the plants they were used to growing...
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Anonymous. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Earth First 19 (4): 27. This article is more summation than critical response, but it provides an easy-to-follow review of the book.
Balaut, James M. 1999. “Environmentalism and Eurocentrism.” Geographical Review 89 (3): 431-48. This is a long article, and although it praises Diamond’s book, it also offers an argument against defining Diamond’s premise as being scientific. This argument has been stated in other reviews, so it is important to understand it.
Clark, Robert P. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Journal of World History 10 (1): 203-5. Arguments abound concerning this book, especially in the...
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