How do the institutions of society change over time and how are these changes related to the "agents of conquest", guns, germs, and steel?This is in regards to the book Guns, Germs and Steel by...

How do the institutions of society change over time and how are these changes related to the "agents of conquest", guns, germs, and steel?

This is in regards to the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

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thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Diamond classified societies into four groups which were band, tribe, chiefdom and state, predominantly determined by their population size. Bands which are the smallest of the groups are established by people who share family bonds. The leadership is mainly informal and the members participate collectively in communal activities. Tribes are larger than bands and are formed by a collection of smaller social units or different family groups to establish a single central authority. Chiefdoms are larger than tribes and establish a more sophisticated political system with clear class structures. The state is the most popular social classification existing currently. It is the largest of the groups and has established formal political structures. The state established laws to govern the people under its jurisdiction.

Changes and developments of these institutions were necessitated by the need to protect their territories and expand the same. Diamond also asserted that states were established naturally given the population expansion and the subsequent need for sophisticated leadership. Diamond ties these developments to food production which brings about growth in population and eventually the establishment of states. These societies develop better weaponry (guns) in order to expand and protect their territories. They later come into contact with people from different areas leading to the exchange of germs among them. The larger groups with a centralized government would then seek to diversify into steel making for purposes of trade both internally and externally. All these activities depend on food production, population growth and the establishment of complex governments.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Change is a fact of life. Kingdoms rise and fall. There is death and life. Anyone who studies history knows this. We see the death of religions, the rise of new ones, the fall of nations or even the complete destruction of civilizations, and the creation of new ones. Even if a nation lasts for a very long time, such as the Roman civilization, there are countless changes. Usually these changes take place through an exertion of force. Conquest, we can say, is one of the most effective agents of change. Let me offer an example from Roman history. At first, the Romans had kings, but when these kings became increasing more despotic, they were expelled by force. The Roman Republic was established. The Republic lasted for nearly 500 years, but when there were a sequence of civil wars, Rome became unstable. At this juncture in history, the rule of one reemerged, and the Empire began.

Even with the Empire, there were numerous changes. There was an Eastern and Western Empire, and they even spoke different languages. Their political system differed as well. How did these things take place? Usually through the exertion of power. In a word, we can say conquest.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For a detailed answer to this, you would need to read Chapter 14 since that is where Diamond lays out his theory on this.  All I can give you here is a very brief answer.

The brief answer is that the institutions of society change as food production occurs.  Food production allows for bigger and more dense populations.  These denser, larger populations require more formalized types of government.   So the basic idea is food production leads to change in institutions -- change that leads to more centralized and formal government.

These changes allow governments to exist that can efficiently take wealth from people (by taxing).  The governments can use this money to make the guns and steel.  The increase in population also allows for the germs to come into existence through the close contact between people and farm animals.


pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You can answer this by reading in Chapter 14.  There, beginning on page 281 in the paperback edition, Diamond gives two major reasons why societies that have institutions have "agents of conquest" and are better at using them. 

First, there is the fact that societies with institutions generally have centralized decision makers.  These leaders can order their subjects to do more things than chiefs or the leaders of bands can.  In addition, the institutions of society (such as religion) make people more willing to sacrifice for their societies.  Diamond says that only large societies create institutions that make people willing to fight and die for them.  In bands, there is no such thing as the kind of patriotism that leads people to die for their society.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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