Discuss how Polynesia offers a good comparative test of Diamond’s argument from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerning the relationship between environment and societal development. Incorporate specific examples from different islands.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond calls Polynesia a “natural experiment.” He says this because it allows him to determine how much of the variation in human society is due to environmental factors and how much is due to cultural factors.
In this book, one of the things Diamond wants to debunk is the idea that some societies remain economically backwards because their culture causes them to be this way. This is a common argument that is made and Diamond appears to feel that it is somewhat racist and that it tends to blame the weak/poor for their fate. Diamond also believes that it is factually wrong. Polynesia helps him to make this case.
If human development were an experimental science, this question would be easy to solve. You would take human beings from the same culture and put them in different environmental circumstances. You would then monitor their societies’ growth and development over generations and you would see how they ended up. This is, of course, not possible because we cannot manipulate humans’ lives in this way. This is where Polynesia comes in. Thousands of years ago, the people who became Polynesian all had the same culture and lived in the same place in (Diamond says) the Bismarck Archipelago. But then they spread out across what is now Polynesia. They all carried the same culture and the same economic resources, but they landed on many different types of islands.
The difference that Diamond highlights is between the Maori, who landed in New Zealand, and the Moriori, who landed on the Chatham Islands. New Zealand was a large place with ample resources. Polynesian agriculture could thrive there because of the soil and the climate. By contrast, the Chathams were small and remote. Diamond says they could only support about 2,000 people. Agriculture was not possible because the Chathams were too cold. Because agriculture was not possible and there was no one with whom to trade, the Moriori reverted to being hunter-gatherers. Meanwhile, the Maori on New Zealand could have large populations with specialized craftsmen and chiefs. These things gave them huge advantages over the Moriori. When a few hundred Maori came to the Chathams in the 1830s, they easily defeated the Moriori.
Diamond argues that this (and other examples from Polynesia) shows that environment is more important than culture. The settling of Polynesia acts as a natural experiment because it takes people from the same culture and puts them in different environments. The fact that their societies become much different depending on their environment proves to Diamond that environment is more important than culture.