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

What are some strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's arguments?

Diamond argues that the spread of farming around the world and the concomitant development of complex societies did not happen by chance but rather was the result of a series of environmental accidents that favored farming. For instance, plants native to Eurasia (the Fertile Crescent, China) were more productive than those elsewhere in the world. In effect, land had been "farmed" for millions of years before human beings began to do it on a regular basis. Similarly, Eurasia's large land mass meant that it had many different climates and ecological zones, which fostered diversity among its inhabitants.

Expert Answers

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

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a work of synthesis. Diamond tries to bring together the work of scholars in such disciplines as anthropology, evolutionary biology (his own field), and history in order to craft an argument. He is trying to explain why societies developed at different rates and the consequences...

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

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a work of synthesis. Diamond tries to bring together the work of scholars in such disciplines as anthropology, evolutionary biology (his own field), and history in order to craft an argument. He is trying to explain why societies developed at different rates and the consequences of this fact. It is the breadth of the book, along with the staggering amount of research it entails, that is its greatest strength, but it also opens Diamond to criticism from specialists. Many readers will struggle with his characterization of, for example, historical theories of social development. He does not engage, for example, with the historical theory of the "Great Divergence" developed by historian Kenneth Pomerzntz, which puts the Industrial Revolution at the forefront as opposed to the much earlier development of agriculture. This is related to another often-cited criticism of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Many critics found the book overly deterministic in its claims that biological and ecological factors essentially mapped out the future of societal and technological development. They think he understates the role of human action (called "agency" by scholars) in the development of societies. This is an especially pertinent critique because it seems to ignore the fact that imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation would then in some ways be natural and unavoidable consequences of the biologically determined process of human development. Diamond actually addresses this second critique directly in the next popular book he published, titled Collapse. Other critics argue that by focusing on the inequality between human societies, Diamond ignores the importance of the inequalities within them. They claim that he ignores the diversity of peoples that he categorizes into races. Still, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a rare example of a work of popular scholarship that prompted serious and important debate within the scholarly community, and even its critics have credited Diamond's ability to present complex scholarly debate in an accessible way. While very broad and sweeping, Guns, Germs and Steel is remarkably focused and "readable." Its rejection of the concept that one culture or society is inherently superior to others is one that all scholars, and hopefully a wider readership, can accept.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, tries to answer Yali's question about why Europeans have so much more "cargo" (material goods) than  the natives of Papua New Guinea. The major strength of the book is the manner in which Diamond avoids racist and ethnocentric arguments. Arguing that people from all over the world are equally intelligent, work equally hard, and are equally creative, he suggests instead that geographical and environmental factors play a key role in the disparity of technology and development. His sensitivity to geographical factors, including the existence of specifically domesticable crops and animals in particular regions, is innovative and interesting as is his effort to discredit racism.

The major weaknesses of the book are twofold. First, covering such a broad sweep of history, he can overgeneralize and sometimes relies too much on striking anecdotes. Second, he has a degree of tunnel vision, focusing on geographical determinism and not looking at the effects of cultural and political factors. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team