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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Why do white men have more cargo than New Guineans according to Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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The geographic determinism camp argues that a nation's location on earth, its access to oceans, raw materials, certain climates, and physical barriers, impacts how it is able to develop. The Western world has more "cargo" than other parts of the world because of its location.

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In Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he talks about an encounter he had with a Guinean chief named Yali. Yali asks the now famous question, "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?" Before we look into the theory, let's break down the question: what Yali is really asking is why the Western World ("white people"), which includes Western Europe and the United States, has better goods, services, and technologies ("cargo") than the rest of the world, for example, places like Papua New Guinea. This is also a concept known as Western hegemony, or dominance. Why did Europe become dominant over time and not places like Papua New Guinea? Diamond writes Guns, Germs, and Steel in part to answer that question, and the main answer is the concept of geographic determinism.

Geographic determinism, sometimes called environmental determinism, is the idea that the success of a civilization—why it may have more cargo—is contingent on its geography. For an article that discusses this, please check out the link below. Diamond and others in the geographic determinism camp believe that a nation's location on earth, its access to oceans, raw materials, certain climates, and physical barriers, impacts how it is able to develop. In the aforementioned and linked article, "Location, Location, Location and How the West was Won," Professor Ian Morris of Stanford University makes the argument that because Western Europe was situated on the Atlantic Ocean, and once Atlantic trade overtook the Silk Road's trade in the 15th century and beyond, it propelled Europe to dominance. Diamond argues that because Western Europe and the United States enjoy a favorable climate, relatively few natural barriers (there's not a massive mountain chain blocking off the continent like, say, the Himalayas in Asia or the Andes in South America), and an even distribution of plant and animal species, it was able to develop quickly and with interactions between the different populations.

Diamond makes the argument that on island nations, there was less interaction, and on continents that run north-south, there is too much biological diversity and natural boundaries, thus preventing long-distance trade. Proponents of geographic determinism would use the argument that these factors led the West to gain hegemony over the rest of the world once technologies like navigational instruments, gunpowder, steam power, and medicine enabled them to conquer continents.

For more information, or a nice, quick, visual way of understanding geographic determinism, please check out the video linked below, which succinctly summarizes Diamond's theory.

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In this book, Diamond is arguing that geography is the major factor that determines which societies became rich and powerful and which did not.  Therefore, his answer for this is that white men have more "cargo" because of geography.  Diamond argues that it is not race or culture that made white people have so much cargo.  Instead, it is the fact that Eurasia had many geographical advantages.  These advantages allowed farming to arise in Eurasia.  Since farming arose first in Eurasia, Eurasians got the "guns, germs, and steel" that allowed them to gain more cargo than the New Guineans had.  

In short, then, white people have more cargo because they were lucky in terms of their geography.

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