What is Jared Diamond's thesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond’s thesis is that environmental factors, and not factors like race or culture, determine whether certain societies have become rich and powerful.

Diamond writes this book because he has long been interested in the question of why some societies are so much richer and more powerful than others.  He started thinking about this question when a man in New Guinea asked him why white people were so much richer than people from New Guinea.  Diamond wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel as a way to answer that man’s question.

Many people have tended to think that race or culture caused the differences between various societies’ degrees of wealth and power.  Over history, many people have argued that white people are simply superior to non-white people.  More recently, we have seen people argue that whites are not biologically superior, but that their culture is more adapted to gaining wealth and power than other cultures are.  These types of arguments essentially say that some societies grew richer and more powerful simply because they were in some way better than the poorer and weaker societies.

Diamond’s thesis rejects this.  He argues that some societies got rich simply because they were lucky in terms of where they arose.  He particularly argues that societies got rich if they arose in areas that had many plants and large animals that could be domesticated.  These societies were the first to get agriculture.  This allowed them to build larger and more complex societies.  Because they did so, they were also the first to get technology.  Finally, they became home to infectious diseases to which they developed some immunity (while people in places like the Americas did not).  Their technology, their germs, and their organized societies allowed them to become rich and powerful.

In this book, then, Diamond’s thesis is that the societies that became rich only did so because of geographical luck, not because they were in any way superior to others.

Read the study guide:
Guns, Germs, and Steel

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