What are the main points of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond?

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Diamond’s book is meant to answer a simple question put to him by a politician from Papua New Guinea: given than Europeans and New Guineans are equally smart, why is it that Europeans have so much more stuff? Diamond’s answer avoids the commonplace assertions about culture or race (for instance, that science did not rise in China because Confucianism did not value scientific inquiry) and instead focuses on geography and environment as determining factors.

For Diamond, the rise of technologically sophisticated civilizations in Eurasia can be traced to conditions that made the evolution of agriculture possible—factors such as climate and the availability of native plants that could be domesticated. Agriculture made possible the development of cities, and urbanization in turn affected the genetic make up of the people that lived in the cities—making them more resistant to disease, for example. 

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Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond attempts to answer Yali's question about why Europeans have so much "cargo" (material wealth and technology) and Papua New Guineans so little. Diamond notes that people from many different regions and cultures are equally intelligent and work equally hard, making this disparity puzzling.

In his book, Diamond argues that there are geographic and environmental factors that led to to variation in wealth and technological development. Among the main factors were those that affected the agricultural transition. Regions with domesticable plants and animals and appropriate rainfall and soils can generate surplus food by farming, leading to specialization of labor, which is an essential precondition for development of advanced technology. This meant that when Europeans encountered other cultures, their more advanced military technology led to conquest. He also argues that the resistance to epidemic diseases resulting from early urbanization also was a major factor in colonialism, as European diseases decimated many indigenous populations.

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The main point of this book is that geography, and not things like race or culture, is the main factor that determines which societies have become powerful and have not.  In support of this main point, there are some other major points.  They include:

  • Societies are powerful if they have "guns, germs, and steel."
  • Societies get "guns, germs, and steel" only if they can become large, agricultural societies.
  • Agriculture can develop in some areas and not in others.  
  • Geographical factors (like the availability of plants and animals that can be domesticated), rather than race or culture, determine which areas become agricultural and which do not.

In this way, the less important points build up to a proof (in Diamond's mind) of the main point of the book.

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