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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond
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What is Jared Diamond arguing in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Diamond argues that environmental differences rather than inherent racial differences are responsible for some cultures becoming dominant in the modern world.

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In the Pulitzer-prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond argues that environmental differences rather than inherent differences between races are responsible for some cultures becoming dominant in the modern world. As Diamond explains in his prologue to the book, the...

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In the Pulitzer-prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond argues that environmental differences rather than inherent differences between races are responsible for some cultures becoming dominant in the modern world. As Diamond explains in his prologue to the book, the impetus for his study came while he was walking on a beach in New Guinea with a local politician named Yali, who posed the question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" As Diamond explains:

Although Yali's question concerned only the contrasting lifestyles of New Guineans and of European whites, it can be extended to a larger set of contrasts within the modern world.

To explain why geography was overwhelmingly responsible for the variations in the speed of development of civilizations, Diamond uses arguments from the fields of biology, zoology, social sciences, and microbiology. In order for nomadic hunter-gatherers to develop agrarian societies, the climate needs to be suitable for food cultivation and storage, and the area needs to have wild plants and animals that can be domesticated. The abundance of food through agriculture allows the establishment of large centers of population. This in turn allows the division of labor that facilitates technological progress.

Because Eurasia lies on an east-west axis, civilizations at similar latitudes were able to more easily trade with each other, stimulating further technological growth. Microbiology comes into play because through the domestication of animals, Eurasians developed immunity to certain diseases the animals carried from which other civilizations had no such protection.

Civilizations that did not advance as rapidly as others were hindered by factors such as a lack of sufficient wild plants and animals suitable for domestication, north-south continental axes as well as geographical barriers that hindered expansion and growth through trade, and a lack of immunity to diseases that Eurasians brought with them on their explorations.

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In his 1997 nonfiction work, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that the differences in wealth, power, and levels of technological development between various societies is not due to inherent differences in the people living in those societies. The book makes a very strong case against racism. Diamond mentions that in his own fieldwork, he has met people from many so-called "primitive" cultures who are just as smart and hardworking as those in wealthier countries.

If inherent differences in intelligence, motivation, industriousness, and ability do not explain different levels of material prosperity and technological development, Diamond believes we must search for the ultimate causes of these differences in history. He argues persuasively that geographical and ecological factors meant that the domestication of plants and animals was easier in some areas than others, and this early advantage in making the "neolithic transition," caused by accidents of location, accounts for how Europeans were able to be so successful at developing wealth and technology at a comparatively early period.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond is arguing that Europe (and, by extension, places where Europeans settled like the United States and Australia) became rich and powerful simply because of geographic luck.  He is arguing that there was nothing about European people or European culture that made them better than other people.

In this book, Diamond sets out to answer “Yali’s Question.”  This question asks why “white people” came to have so much more material wealth and power than other people.  Diamond says that many people have answered this question by saying that Europeans are in some way superior.  Some have argued that Europeans are genetically superior to other people.  Others have argued that the Europeans are not genetically superior but that they do have cultures that are superior in that their cultures make them work harder and make them more likely to accept and embrace progress.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond refutes this idea.

In his book, Diamond argues, instead, that the Europeans came to power because they were lucky.  Diamond says that Europeans became powerful because they lived on a landmass where agriculture arose early.  Agriculture, to Diamond, is very important.  It allows people to live together in large groups that do not move around.  Because these groups do not move around, and because they have more than enough to eat, they can have specialists who create technology.  The sooner a group gets agriculture, the longer it has to create the “guns” and “steel” that helped the Europeans become powerful.  Farming communities also create the conditions in which infectious diseases (the “germs” of the title) can arise.

What this means is that whoever got farming first was likely to become powerful.  Diamond then asks why people in Eurasia got farming first.  He concludes that this happened because that landmass was home to more plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.  This was not something that we should give the Europeans credit for.  They did not develop agriculture and civilization because they were better than other people.  Instead, they developed agriculture earlier because they were lucky.  This luck allowed them to get a head start and to, by modern times, dominate the world.  This is the gist of Jared Diamond’s argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

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