Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, wants to demonstrate that the differential development of human societies is not the result of differences among the intelligence of different people, but the dissimilarities in their environments. In GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES Diamond asserts that changing the environment of a society would change its evolutionary path.
Human history is the transformation of societies from hunter-gatherers to farmer-herders. Farming and herding, which Diamond calls food production, result in food surpluses, which in turn leads to all the characteristics of more advanced societies: large, densely populated, specialized members, technological, literate, and hosts for epidemic diseases.
Diamond argues that the area we call West Asia (the Fertile Crescent), Europe, and North Africa had an immense advantage over the rest of the world in the development of food production. Most of the large-seeded grass species are native to this region, as are thirteen of the fourteen species of large mammals domesticated before 1900. As a result, food productions in Eurasia occurred sooner than in other parts of the world.
Diamond appreciates that he will be accused of geographical or biological determinism. He argues that there is a significant distinction between determinacy and predictability. He introduces the concepts of “cultural idiosyncrasies” and “individual idiosyncrasies.” The former are cultural features which predispose a society towards particular choices. The latter is another way to describe the impact of great men and women upon history. Diamond believes that individual leaders and cultural idiosyncrasies influence the details of the historical process. However, because some environments were more favorable and supportive than others for human inventiveness, human history, in its broadest and most sweeping aspects, is determined.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXLIV, July 19, 1997, p. 4.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, January 15, 1997, p. 113.
Lancet. CCCL, July 5, 1997, p. 75.
Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 159.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 9, 1997, p. 4.
Nature. CCCLXXXVI, March 27, 1997, p. 339.
The New Leader. LXXX, March 10, 1997, p. 19.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, May 15, 1997, p. 48.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 13.
Newsweek. CXXIX, June 16, 1997, p. 47.
The Observer. April 13, 1997, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 13, 1997, p. 60.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Why did Christopher Columbus “discover” America rather than a Native American discovering Europe? In sixteenth century sub-Sahara Africa or nineteenth century Australia, why did the native peoples lack the technology that was commonplace in contemporary Europe? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia farm, herd animals, and build cities earlier or on a grander scale than the inhabitants of the other continents? For many centuries, the answers to these questions were usually cast in racial terms. Whether the cause was a purposeful Almighty or Darwinian evolution, Europeans were innately biologically “superior” to other races, cultures, or societies, had developed “civilization” faster than non-Europeans, and hence were able to conquer them. Such superiority was usually assumed to be in the form of higher intelligence manifested in more sophisticated technology, more complex political systems, and the creation of modern science.
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer who has worked extensively in New Guinea, rejects racially oriented explanations for differential human development. He agrees that the explication for European success is biological, but believes that intelligence had nothing to do with the differential development of societies. Geography had everything to do with it. Differences among environments resulted in dissimilarities among societies. Change its environment and a society would follow a very different evolutionary path. Although...
(The entire section is 3,040 words.)