illustrated profile of a man spitting in the same direction that a pistol and three steel bars are pointing

Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond
Start Free Trial

How does Guns, Germs, and Steel's concept of "co-evolution" explain why Africa did not get a head-start in terms of economic development?

The concept of co-evolution in Guns, Germs, and Steel explains Africa's delayed economic development as a consequence of the lack of resources in their environment. Western natural resources allowed them to create a culture of surplus, while Africa's environment only allowed a minimal, survival-based existence.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jared Diamond argues that the growth and development of human civilization is fundamentally tied to the ecological milieu in which it is enmeshed. “Co-evolution,” in this sense, means the evolution of society along with and besides the environmentsphysical, ecological, social, etc. that surround it. In turn, those...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Jared Diamond argues that the growth and development of human civilization is fundamentally tied to the ecological milieu in which it is enmeshed. “Co-evolution,” in this sense, means the evolution of society along with and besides the environmentsphysical, ecological, social, etc.that surround it. In turn, those civilizations that have access to an abundance of natural resources at their disposal will use them in order to expand at an extraordinary rate. This can give them a “head start” relative to people living in other, less ecologically rich parts of the world.

Diamond argues that this was exactly the situation in post-agricultural Africa. Humans enjoyed a separate, protohuman existence for more than 5 million years in Africa before their dispersal to other continents. Furthermore, around 100,000 years ago humans fanned out from Africa to populate the rest of the world, and this would have eliminated any head-start advantages shared by humans in other world regions. but Diamond contests that this is a narrow way of conceiving of a head start, and simply having a larger human aggregate early on is not sufficient to give a civilization an economic advantage.

Rather, that advantage comes from a rich environment and early access to critical natural resources. From the Agricultural Revolution to the present day, this richness was to be found in the Western Hemisphere. As Diamond says,

Our archaeologists might therefore look at the Americas and conclude that Africans, despite their apparently enormous head start, would have been overtaken by the earliest Americans within at most a millennium. Thereafter, the Americas’ greater area (50 percent greater than Africa’s) and much greater environmental diversity would have given the advantage to Native Americans over Africans.

Africa, the author maintains, is permeated by enormous swaths of uninhabitable desert and other ecologies that permit only a subsistence existence. The natural resources needed for creating a stable and complex civilization large reserves of timber, coal and other heavy metals, arboreal and temperate climes, etc.were more diffused throughout the Americas. Thus, as Natives co-evolved with their environment, they eventually overtook the Africans and enjoyed a greater head start.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team