Guns, Germs, and Steel Summary

Guns, Germs, and Steel summary

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, anthropologist Jared Diamond explains why some societies are more materially successful than others. He attributes societal success to geography, immunity to germs, food production, the domestication of animals, and use of steel.

Guns, Germs, and Steel summary key points:

  • Farming and domesticating animals provide social stability that is lacking in hunter-gatherer societies. Labor specialization enables certain groups to develop weapons.

  • Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals because of geography and the presence of plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.

  • The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, and ideas. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse various climate zones and geographic boundaries that discourage trade.

  • The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs that would later wipe out the more isolated populations of the Americas.


Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, somewhat surprisingly, a national best-seller. At a time when other popular nonfiction topics centered on personal relationships and diets, Diamond caught the attention of the reading public with a fascinating account of more than 13,000 years of human evolution and societal development.

Although the book has raised a few points of controversy among scientists, it also has gained widespread praise. Some scientists argue against Diamond’s thesis that geography and environment are the most important factors in shaping the world as modern humans know it. But most critics praise Diamond for the task he successfully took upon himself, which was to answer a very complex question. In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts how he became intrigued when his New Guinean friend Yali asked, “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?” The cargo that Yali refers to is technology—tools as simple as axes; accessories such as umbrellas; and more complicated inventions such as computers, cell phones, and the Internet. After all, Diamond points out, a mere two centuries prior to his meeting Yali, New Guineans were still using stone tools. What factors caused this gap between the development of one culture and another?

Diamond searched for an answer by examining millions of years of history, mapping out the migrations of early humans from Africa to Eurasia, from eastern Asia to the Pacific Ocean islands, and from Siberia to the North and South American continents. He follows humans as they evolve biologically, and then he concentrates on specific representative societies to illustrate his findings.

To define the differences between developing cultures, Diamond emphasizes the effects of food production, writing, technology, government, and religion. Then he demonstrates, in his opinion, why the differences among various cultures occurred. More important (and one of the reasons for some of the controversy surrounding this book), Diamond concludes that it is ultimately geography, not biology or race as some other studies have tried to prove, that produced the cultural disparities his friend Yali had pointed out.

Guns, Germs, and Steel Summary

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel opens with a prologue in which the author presents a question from a New Guinean politician and friend named Yali: why were Europeans able to conquer so many other societies around the world? This question, in the past, has often been answered in terms of genetics, a belief that Diamond sets out to disprove. People are not born superior to another group, Diamond contends. To provide a background for, as well as an argument to support, his own explanation, Diamond then briefly sketches millions of years of human evolution. When Diamond reaches the last 13,000 years, he slows down to focus on specific societies and historical events. In the process, Diamond’s theory becomes apparent. He believes that the success of a society is not based on intelligence and ingenuity but instead on geography, food production, germs and immunity, the domestication of animals, and the discovery and use of steel.

Societies become more stable as they move from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and raising domestic animals. What then inevitably follows is the development of specialized labor groups as well as the establishment of hierarchies in ruling parties. Populations thrive under these conditions, and in time empires rise. The stability provides farming societies with powerful advantages over nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, which are forced to roam the countryside in search of food. One major advantage of farming societies is that some members are eased from the burden of producing food and are then able to devote their time to making weapons and perfecting the art of using them.

Major portions of the Eurasian area, Diamond points out, had a natural advantage in agriculture because of the presence of plants and animals that were easily domesticated. Not only did this allow food surpluses to develop, but it also enabled crops such as cotton, flax, and hemp to be easily processed into clothing, blankets, nets, and ropes....

(The entire section is 806 words.)