Discuss how Polynesia offers a good comparative test of Jared Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel concerning the relationship between environment and societal development. Incorporate...

Discuss how Polynesia offers a good comparative test of Jared Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel concerning the relationship between environment and societal development. Incorporate specific examples from different island groups. 

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In this response, I will give a brief answer at the beginning, and then go on to expand on that answer.  The brief answer is that Polynesia offers a good test of Diamond’s argument because it is populated by people who started out with the same culture and economy and then colonized many islands with different environments.  This allows Diamond to conduct a “natural experiment” using Polynesia.

To see how this is so, let us first look at what Diamond believes about environment and society.  Diamond believes that societal development is strongly influenced by the environment.  He believes that some societies become rich and powerful because they are in favorable environments.  He does not believe, as some people do, that societies become rich and powerful because they have good cultures that are conducive to development. 

But how can Diamond prove this?  With human beings, it is not easy to do experiments.  Diamond cannot take a large group of people from a given society and force them to go live in various environments.  He cannot watch them as they develop different societies in those different environments.  This is what makes Polynesia so useful for Diamond.  It allows him to look at people from the same society who put themselves in different environments and then developed over centuries.  He gets to look at the societies that they developed.  If he is right, societies that develop in a certain kind of environment will all be similar to one another and they will all be different from societies that developed in a different kind of environment.

This is, in fact, what Diamond finds when he looks at Polynesia.  We can find his conclusions in Chapter 2 of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  He tells us that societies that developed on small islands with few resources end up looking very different than those that developed on large islands with relatively plentiful resources.  For example, he tells us that societies that developed on atolls (small islands with few resources) ended up having lower population densities than those that developed on high islands such as the Hawaiian islands.   He also points out that the small islands like the Chathams remained as hunter-gatherer societies while places like Hawaii and Tonga had relatively complex economies with specialists in various areas.    Diamond also says that political organization was different.  He says that the Chathams had relatively consensual and non-hierarchical societies while Hawaii and Tonga had strong hereditary chiefs who were given much more power than anyone else in society.

In these ways, Polynesia is very helpful to Diamond.  It lets him look at people from the same culture who are put in different environments.  This allows him to see that culture affects societal development less than the environment does.  This is proven by the fact that the different societies, all starting from the same point, developed so differently depending on their environments.

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