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

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Chapter 2 Summary

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To defend his theory that environmental factors can determine the fate of a continent, Diamond considers examples from Polynesia. He claims that Polynesia, which is made up of many islands, provides many examples of societies that developed in isolation from each other. Also, because islands are smaller than whole continents are, the environmental factors that affect their inhabitants are somewhat simpler to explain.

In 1835, 500 Maori warriors sailed to the Chatham Islands, an archipelago inhabited by the Moriori people. The Maori came from a warlike agricultural society on the large, densely populated island of New Zealand. They were armed with both modern and traditional weapons. The Moriori were a peaceful and less organized hunter-gatherer people who occupied a more isolated, less densely populated archipelago. Over the course of just a few weeks, the Maori warriors slaughtered nearly all the Moriori and took possession of the islands.

Diamond proposes that the tragic events on the Chatham Islands played out in a predictable way: the technologically advanced society won. He points out that no genetic differences could have existed between the Maori and Moriori because the two cultures had diverged from a common source just 1,000 years before. Factors other than genetic superiority had to have determined the differences between the two peoples. Diamond sets out to examine what those factors were.

According to archaeologists, the Chatham Islands were colonized by ancestral Maori people from New Zealand about 1,000 years before the massacre. The colonizers who became the Moriori were most likely farmers when they arrived. However, the crops they brought with them could not grow in the Chathams’ cold climate, so they abandoned farming and turned to hunting and gathering. This left them unable to produce surplus food to support people who were employed in occupations other than finding food. The Moriori had little space in which to expand, so they did not develop a large society with a complex political organization. They were distant from other islands, so they had no need to develop strong, warlike defenses before the arrival of the Maori.

The Maoris of northern New Zealand, in contrast, had a large area that was suitable for growing the crops available in Polynesia. Their farmers could grow and store surplus food to support denser populations that included warriors and craftspeople. Moreover, they had neighbors who sometimes fought with them, so they needed to organize armies, build forts, and make tools of war. Thus the Maoris became comparatively technologically advanced because of their environment. This supports Diamond’s belief that environmental factors can provide strong pressures on a society’s development.

Next Diamond takes a step back to consider Polynesia as a whole. Because Polynesia contains so many different islands and environmental units, prehistoric and early historic peoples developed into a wide variety of different cultural groups. The technology levels, economies, politics, and social structures of the various islands arrayed themselves into one of the most diverse sets of societies in the world.

Diamond argues that the variations between Polynesian societies can be attributed to environmental factors. He shows how each island’s climate, geology, resources, size, relative fragmentation, and relative isolation played a role in the type of human society that grew on it. As Diamond has already shown, warmer climates supported the cultivation of the crops available in the region, such as taro and yams, whereas colder climates did not. Geologic factors determined the amount of fresh water, the frequency of rainfall, and the availability of stone and minerals for tools on each island. Some islands had more seafood and more robust natural game than others did. Some islands could support the available domestic animals—pigs, chickens, and dogs—whereas others did not. Size, geographical arrangement, and relative isolation determined a given society’s ability to communicate over long distances as well as its need (or lack thereof) to interact with other cultures.

All these factors helped determine the population density an island could support, which in turn affected whether the island needed to develop complex political organizations and economies. Where density required more complex organizations, societies were more stratified and individual people were more likely to specialize in particular jobs. All this affected the level of egalitarianism of stratification, the roles and responsibilities of chiefs and kings, and the types of technologies the societies produced.

Diamond concludes that environmental factors created a huge diversification in the technological advancement of societies in Polynesia. However, he notes that this only proves that an environment can have such an effect. He has yet to prove that such factors did affect social development on the world’s large continents.

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Chapter 1 Summary


Chapter 3 Summary