Summarize and explain the main the idea of Chapter One of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Cite two pieces of evidence from that chapter that support the main ideas.

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Chapter One of Jaren Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, follows a lengthy prologue in which the author describes his background and interest in archeology and history and, most importantly, how he came to dedicate his life to understanding human evolution and the distinctions between peoples across the vast expanse of the planet.  Titled “UP TO THE STARTING LINE: What happened on all the continents before 11,000 B.C.,” Diamond begins his opening chapter with an explanation for his focus on the time frame specified: 11,000 B.C.:

“This date corresponds approximately to the beginnings of village life in a few parts of the world, the first undisputed peopling of the Americas, the end of the Pleistocene Era and last Ice Age, and the start of what geologists term the Recent Era. Plant and animal domestication began in at least one part of the world within a few thousand years of that date. As of then, did the people of some continents already have a head start or a clear advantage over peoples of other continents?”

Diamond is intensely interested in why certain civilizations developed the way did, while others developed differently. The main component of this discussion is the development of technologies, particularly those used in advancing beyond primitive hunter-gatherer societies into more established farming communities.  As noted in the quote above, he chose to begin Chapter One during this particular era because it marked the convergence of so many key developments, particularly the formation of societies.  Chapter One does not, however, limit itself to the time period of 11,000 B.C.  On the contrary, he covers millions of years of world history in order to identify key dates and developments that might help explain why certain civilizations developed technologically while others did not.  Diamond emphasizes that the question of why some societies developed faster and to a greater extent than others cannot be limited to the last 13,000 years.  On the contrary, he notes that archeological expeditions have enabled scientists to conclude that one of the most significant periods in human evolution began much earlier.  As he writes in this chapter,

“Human history at last took off around 50,000 years ago, at the time of what I have termed our Great Leap Forward. The earliest definite signs of that leap come from East African sites with standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry (ostrich-shell beads).”

Diamond proceeds to describe similar developments in other regions of the world, particularly in Europe and Asia.  As he observes the growth of civilizations around the world, however, he determines that it was not by chance, and not due to any physiological distinctions, that Eurasia developed so much faster and farther than other continents and regions.  His central thesis throughout the book, of course, is that geography and environmental factors are the most important indicators of societal evolution.  Chapter One, being an introductory section for the chapters that follow, only provides an opening to this broader generalization.  As he concludes this chapter, he writes the following:

“Thus, an observer transported back in time to 11,000 B.C. could not have predicted on which continent human societies would develop most quickly, but could have made a strong case for any of the continents. With hindsight, of course, we know that Eurasia was the one. But it turns out that the actual reasons behind the more rapid development of Eurasian societies were not at all the straightforward ones that our imaginary archaeologist of 11,000 B.C. guessed. The remainder of this book consists of a quest to discover those real reasons.”

Because he tracks the flow of human migrations over thousands of years, and studies the technological states of each of the civilizations that resulted from those migrations, he concludes that the age of each civilization is not determinative of its level of evolution.  In other words, if earliest man migrated from Africa, and if the relatively recent settlement of the Americas is any indication, than certain factors had to account for relative rates of technological evolution, and it was those factors that had to be discovered.  As Diamond notes in Chapter One, the origins of mankind in Africa did not translate into any kind of developmental advantages:

“Our archaeologist might have considered the possible advantages of a head start. If that counted for anything, then Africa enjoyed an enormous advantage: at least 5 million more years of separate protohuman existence than on any other continent. In addition, if it is true that modern humans arose in Africa around 100,000 years ago and spread to other continents, that would have wiped out any advantages accumulated elsewhere in the meantime and given Africans a new head start. Furthermore, human genetic diversity is highest in Africa; perhaps more-diverse humans would collectively produce more-diverse inventions.”

In this opening chapter, Diamond does not arrive at conclusions.  Rather, he presents the inconsistencies that invalidate preconceived notions of racial or ethnic distinctions that could account for vast disparities in rates of economic growth and technological innovation.  There has to be other explanations for why, to answer his friend Yali’s question, certain civilizations developed when others didn’t.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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