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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Analysis and Evaluation of Jared Diamond's Arguments, Evidence, and Explanations in Guns, Germs, and Steel

Summary:

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel argues that environmental and geographical factors shaped the modern world. His evidence includes comparative studies of different societies and historical examples that support his explanations of agricultural development, domestication of animals, and the spread of diseases. Diamond's work is praised for its interdisciplinary approach but also critiqued for its determinism and underestimation of human agency.

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What aspects of Diamond's arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel are valuable compared to conventional explanations?

One of the aspects of this great work of non-fiction that struck me when I first read it was Diamond's insistence throughout his argument that different levels of development are not the result of genetic or cultural factors. He even argues that people emerging from less developed nations such as Papua New Guinea are in some ways more resourceful and adaptable than people from more developed nations. This is a helpful point to remember for those who are keen to explain away differences between cultures as being the result of cultural factors such as laziness or lack of intellligence.

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What aspects of Diamond's arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel are valuable compared to conventional explanations?

One conventional explanation that Diamond's theories shed light upon is the demise of non-Eurasian communities through the introduction of germs from Eurasian communities. His theory is of value in understanding this because he details how Eurasian immunity was built up originally over time, thus strengthening the communities, while non-Eurasian communities did not experience this immunological build-up and strengthening in the way Eurasian communities did.

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What aspects of Diamond's arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel are valuable compared to conventional explanations?

I think the greatest value we get from Diamond's arguments is that he addresses old, accepted explanations and brings new light to them.  We tend to view the world from an imperialistic standpoint still, whether we realize it or not.  Diamond turns that idea on its head. 

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What aspects of Diamond's arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel are valuable compared to conventional explanations?

The most valuable part of Diamond's arguments with relation to conventional arguments is his focus on geographical factors.

Conventional explanations for European dominance do not focus on geography.  Instead, they focus on more value-laden factors.  They focus on racial superiority or, more often, cultural superiority.  In other words, they say that societies that became dominant are simply better than others.

Diamond's geographical argument is meant to destroy this conventional argument.  It is meant to persuade us that the societies that came to dominate the world were simply luckier, geographically, than those that did not.

Diamond's geograpical arguments, then, are of value in relation to conventional arguments because Diamond gives us a value-free, non-racist way to understand why Europeans have come to dominate the world.

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What is the main argument Diamond presents in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

You can find the answer to this question in the Prologue.  There, we can see that Diamond is trying to prove that some human societies have come to dominate others simply because of geographical luck.

The book is based on "Yali's question," which is, essentially, a question about why Europeans have come to dominate the world.  Diamond dislikes the answers that are typically given to explain this phenomenon.  These answers tend to focus either on racial characteristics or on culture.  Diamond feels that these explanations are wrong and that they unfairly denigrate "primitive" cultures.  In the book, Diamond tries to prove that geography is the answer to Yali's question.  He is trying to prove that Europeans came to dominate the world because they were lucky, not because their race or their culture was superior.

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What examples from Guns, Germs, and Steel support Diamond's argument on civilization advancement?

There are many examples from the book that are meant to prove Diamond's point.  Let me briefly discuss two of them.

First, there is the example of the Polynesia societies that is discussed in Chapter 2.  In that chapter, Diamond establishes that some Polynesian cultures were more advanced than others.  He also shows that the more advanced societies were those that were on islands that could support more agriculture.  This proves that environmental conditions lead to agriculture (or lack thereof) which determines which societies become advanced.

Second, there is the example of the Aboriginal Australians, discussed in Chapter 15.  There, Diamond notes that the Aborigines were one of the most primitive societies in the world.  He goes on to prove that this was due to their isolation and the lack of resources that were native to their homeland.  This, too, works to defend Diamond's overall thesis.

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What evidence does Diamond explain for lay readers in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In this book, Diamond does what I think is a very good job of explaining all of his evidence.  That is, however, not the same thing as saying that he proves it.

Some of Diamond's evidence is of the sort that can easily be proved.  For example, when Diamond says that various animals like zebras have never been domesticated, that is a claim that is quite easily proved.  Other aspects of Diamond's evidence are well explained but are not proved because they simply cannot be proved.  For example, it is not possible to prove that Aboriginal Australians would ever have domesticated plants if they had had the chance.  Diamond argues that they would have and he presents good points to support that argument.  But that is not the same as proof.  The very nature of this sort of argument (that a group of human beings would have acted differently in different circumstances) makes them impossible to ever prove.

So, Diamond explains all of his evidence, but not all of his explanations constitute proof.

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What are some weak arguments or easily disputed ideas presented by Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

One of Diamond's arguments that I find least convincing is his argument (as at the end of Chapter 6) that farming societies will always defeat nomadic societies.

Perhaps the clearest example that could be used to try to refute this argument is the example of the Mongols.  The Mongols were a nomadic people who essentially did not farm.  Even so, they were somehow able to use their mobility and their political organization (which Diamond says should not be very advanced in hunter-gatherer societies) to conquer a major empire within relatively modern times.

Of course, the Mongols did have domesticated animals, but they were not a sedentary society and did not raise crops.  This should have disadvantaged them according to Diamond.  The fact that they were so successful seems to indicate that there may be a problem with this aspect of Diamond's argument.

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Find two pieces of evidence from each chapter (Chapter 10 and on) of Guns, Germs, and Steel that support Diamond's thesis.

On this site, we are only allowed to answer one question at a time.  Therefore, I will give you two pieces of evidence from Chapter 10 and will try to give you hints about how to find evidence in other chapters.

To begin with, you need to understand what Diamond’s thesis is.  In this book, Diamond is trying to prove that Europeans came to dominate the world because of geographic luck.  Geography allowed some peoples to develop agriculture sooner.  This gave them the ability to become civilized first.  Being civilized first made them more powerful.  Thus, we need to find evidence that will tend to support this theory.

The basic idea of Chapter 10 is that it is easier for crops to diffuse from one part of a continent to another if the continent has an east-west axis.  This means that people living on such continents do not all have to domesticate plants on their own.  This makes it easier for them to all have food production and, thereby, civilization.  One piece of evidence for this can be found on p. 179 of the paperback edition of the book.  There, Diamond tells us that genetic analysis proves that important domesticated crops in the Americas were domesticated independently in different areas of the land mass.  The crops were not able to diffuse because of the north-south axis of the Americas.  By contrast (this is the second piece of evidence), pp. 182-3 tell us that the “founder crops” from the Fertile Crescent were only domesticated once and then spread from that region across Eurasia.

To find evidence in other chapters, ask yourself what things in those chapters would tend to prove that geographic luck led to agriculture which led to civilization and power.  Look for evidence that shows how agriculture allowed societies to develop things like writing or technology.

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How does Diamond respond to the first objection in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

As the book opens, New Guinean Yali asks Jarod Diamond why the West has so much more "cargo"—material abundance in terms of goods—than the people of New Guinea. Diamond reformulates the question slightly to wonder how the West became so much more powerful and dominant than other parts of the world.

Diamond begins by raising objections in his prologue that he anticipates people will make to posing such a question. The first objection he cites is that people may say that explaining domination is a way to justify it. He responds by saying that this objection confuses explanation with justification. The two are not one and the same.

Explanation, Diamond asserts, is often sought not to justify what has already happened, but to make sure it doesn't happen again. That is why professionals study and try to understand and explain such phenomena as murder, rape, genocide, and disease. The goal is not to replicate these problems but to learn how to intervene and prevent them from recurring.

Diamond says his attempt to explain Western dominance in the last five hundred years of human history is likewise not an attempt to show this is right or just, but simply to understand how it occurred.

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How does Diamond address the issues in the final pages of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In the last few pages of the book, Diamond proposes that historians should treat their subject like a science.  He says that many sciences, like geology and climate science, rely on "natural experiments" where scientists have to try to compare things that have already happened with one another and infer rules from the differences in what happened.  Scientists have to do that because they cannot simply change some factor in the earth's atmosphere, for example, and see what happens.  Diamond says historians should do the same with human history.

In the rest of the book, Diamond tries to do this.  He does it most clearly in Chapter 2.  There, he looks at Polynesian societies.  He asks why various Polynesian societies turned out so differently.  He comes to the conclusion that their differences were caused by the environments in which they arose.  Another example of how Diamond does this is found in Chapter 15.  There, Diamond looks at the differences between Aboriginal Australian societies and European societies in Australia.  From the way they turned out, he concludes that Aborigines were not culturally inclined to reject farming and technology.  Instead, he says that geography was behind the changes.

In ways like these, Diamond conducts "natural experiments" throughout his book.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, is Diamond justifying or explaining inequality?

Diamond’s mandate in Guns, Germs and Steel is to explain inequality on a global scale, certainly not to justify it. His entire book is making the case that inequality among different peoples in unjust. He examines the different advantages and disadvantages of various societies to form a well reasoned argument based around how societies form, build and adapt. However, the existence of these advantages, and the history of different nations as he lays them out, makes a persuasive case that no group of people is “superior” to any other. Inequality is not only unjustified, it is ridiculous and fails to see the bigger picture of how civilizations form.

One of the reasons Guns, Germs and Steel has proven such a seminal book is because, in an indirect way, it is taking the idea of superior ethnicities head on. The idea of one group of people being naturally more talented than another is an attractive notion, and at first glance it seems to make sense given the discrepancies between societies on the world stage. Diamond seems to have been interested, however, in disproving racism through the most logical way possible. The theories he puts forth provide a different context through which to understand the growth of civilization.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, is Diamond justifying or explaining inequality?

Given that this is a question that has often been asked of Jared Diamond’s 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, it is not surprising that he takes it up on his website (cited below). In his own words, he is trying to explain rather than justify inequality throughout world societies.

He contends that the purpose of his book is to answer the question of why Eurasian peoples developed what he calls “the ingredients of power,” meaning guns, germs, and steel, and why they were able to use these ingredients to expand around and conquer the world. He notes that the peoples of other continents certainly also possessed advantages that could have aided their expansion:

"Africans enjoyed a huge head start, because Africa is the continent with by far the longest history of human occupation. North America is a big fertile continent, with the result that it supports the richest and most productive nation today. Australia provides by far the earliest evidence for human ability to cross wide water gaps, and some of the earliest widespread evidence for behaviorally modern humans.”

Although many historians have disagreed with his assertion that they ignore the question of why Eurasian peoples expanded and conquered most successfully (“Although every lay person sees that this is a question crying out for answer, historians have mostly ignored this question”), he does note that this is part of the reason why he decided to provide an explanation in the form of this book. Simply put, the average person desperately wants the answer that historians are not providing. He laments the fact that this has resulted in that

lay people often fall back on the transparent interpretation of supposed racial superiority of Eurasian people themselves, despite the lack of evidence for that interpretation.

In other words, Diamond sees his book as an attempt to explain inequality rather than justify it through baseless claims of racial superiority. He acknowledges this when he writes,

As for the charge of racism, Guns, Germs, and Steel’s conclusion is that history’s broad pattern has nothing to do with human racial characteristics and everything to do with plant and animal biology, so that the vast majority of readers see Guns, Germs, and Steel as refuting rather than promoting racist explanations.

If you are interested in more of his thoughts on the subject, particularly on his book being labeled Eurocentric, which certainly relates to your question, I would recommend visiting his website. You can read more about his thoughts on this and other criticisms, and you can check out the criticisms themselves. A variety of perspectives will help you form your own thoughts on the book.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, is Diamond justifying or explaining inequality?

In this book, Jared Diamond is most definitely trying to explain why inequality exists between various peoples of the world.  He is trying to explain why Europeans ended up dominating the world, but he is not trying to justify it.

The word “justify” has moral connotations.  In other words, it is about what should be, not what is.  When you justify something, you explain why it is morally right that that thing should have happened.  In this case, if Diamond were justifying inequality, he would be saying why it was morally right for Europeans to dominate the world. 

But Diamond explicitly rejects this idea.  Justifications of European domination tend to go along racial or cultural lines.  They claim that Europeans deserve to dominate because they are racially or culturally better than other people.  Diamond rejects this.  He says that we need to have a really good way to explain why Europeans have dominated.  If we do not, he says (on p. 25 in the paperback edition),

...most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all.  That seems to me the strongest argument for writing this book.

By saying this, Diamond is disavowing the idea that Europeans deserved to conquer and dominate. 

Instead, Diamond is explaining.  He is showing why Europeans came to dominate, but he is doing so without saying that their domination was morally justified.  He is simply saying that it came about because of geographical chance.  This is an explanation, not a justification.

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In Guns, Germs and Steel, how does Diamond explain racial inequalities and their role?

In this book, Diamond seeks to explain that racial inequalities are not caused by race.  Race, therefore, does not play any role in causing the inequalities that are observed among people of different races.

As Diamond answers Yali's question, he emphasizes that race is not important.  Societies did not become strong or weak because of their cultures or because of the race of their people.  Instead, their fates were determined largely by their geographic luck.

Therefore, Diamond would say that racial inequality came about because white people were lucky enough to arise on a continent where it was easy for farming to arise and spread.  Africans, Native Americans, and other non-whites were less lucky because they did not live on such a continent.

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Are the sources supporting Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel valid?

Yes, his sources are valid. Diamond cites scholarly journals and books published by university presses. He includes a thirty-page "further reading" section at the back of the book to point readers to each of his sources and invite anyone to track his sources to challenge or verify his conclusions. He also includes a section in the book where he presents major counterarguments and openly discusses topics beyond the scope of his book that could be investigated further. These are just a few examples of the extreme thoroughness that characterizes Diamond's scholarly style.

When answering this question, it might be worth it to review what makes a source valid. When evaluating scholarly sources, it's important to consider when the book or journal article was published (if it is too old, newer research on the topic may have rendered it invalid), who published the source, and whether the publisher has any known bias. If you want to review what makes a source valid, a good resource from the Purdue OWL is included in the links to Further Reading.

As the previous educator wrote in their answer, there is no real way to argue that Diamond does not use valid sources, but you can disagree with the conclusions Diamond comes to from those sources. Although Guns, Germs, and Steel continues to be extremely well received, there have been some scholars in the twenty years since it was published who have challenged some of Diamond's claims. For example, some have said that in Diamond's attempt to explain the differences in the wealth and prosperity of different areas of the world in a way that discredits arguments based on racist logic and ideas of racial superiority, Diamond may have actually excluded important discussions about racism and its effects on certain parts of the world. Others have said that Diamond perhaps overgeneralizes about the success or lack thereof of certain geographical regions without expanding on the nuances of wealth and poverty within those regions. If you are interested in learning more about scholars who have challenged Diamond, I have included an article about this in the Further Reading links. Still, keep in mind that Diamond uses scholarly sources well, and Guns, Germs, and Steel remains an influential and well-received work.
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Are the sources supporting Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel valid?

The sources used in this book are absolutely valid.  There is no real way to argue that they are not.  Diamond uses articles from well-respected journals such as Science and books published by reputable academic publishers such as the University of Chicago.  These sources can be found in the "Further Readings" section at the back of the book.

While we cannot argue with the validity of Diamond's sources, we can argue with the validity of the conclusions he draws from those sources.  For example, Chapter 2 draws on a number of books about Polynesian societies.  The books are reputable.  Diamond uses them to argue that the differences in Polynesian societies were caused by geography and nothing else.  This is his own conclusion and people may wish to argue with it.

Overall, Diamond's sources are indisputably valid.  What can be disputed is the way in which he uses those sources.

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What are the three main arguments Diamond makes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and what evidence does he provide?

I would argue that we cannot really give you Diamond’s three main arguments in the context of this question because his three main arguments (to the extent that we can identify three of them) are not evenly spread throughout the book.  There is not one main argument in each third of the book the way the question implies.  Instead, Diamond has one main argument.  This argument is that geographic luck allowed the people of some regions to develop farming earlier than others and those who were lucky ended up having wealth and power in the world.  However, it should be possible to at least pick one major argument from each third of the book. 

From the first third of the book, I will look at Diamond’s claim that geography, and not culture, makes some societies richer and more powerful than others.  The most important evidence for this comes from Chapter 2.  There, we are shown that two Polynesian cultures, the Maori and the Moriori, became much different because of their geography.  The Moriori lived on islands where farming was impossible.  They became weaker and poorer and were conquered by the Maori, who lived on New Zealand, where they were able to farm and become richer and more powerful.

From the second third of the book, I will discuss Diamond’s argument that geographic luck is what caused some societies, and not others, to domesticate animals.  In Chapter 9, Diamond argues that only a very few large mammal species are susceptible to domestication.  He shows that no major new species have been domesticated in modern times.  This shows that all the species that could be domesticated were domesticated in previous times.  That proves that societies did or did not domesticate animals based on whether any domesticable animals were available to them, not based on the quality of their cultures.

From the last third of the book, I will take Diamond’s claim that farmers are more powerful than hunter-gatherers and are therefore able to dominate them.  Diamond shows evidence for this in Chapter 19.  For example, he uses linguistic evidence to show that speakers of Khoisan languages (who tend to be hunter-gatherers) were once widespread across Southern Africa.  However, they were conquered by Bantu-speaking farmers who pushed them into areas where the Bantus could not farm.

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What are the three main arguments Diamond makes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and what evidence does he provide?

In this answer, I will present three main arguments that Diamond makes in Guns, Germs, and Steel that are all pieces of support for his main overall argument.  In other words, these three arguments are not the main thing that Diamond is trying to prove in his book.  Instead, they are pieces of evidence to prove that main argument.

One argument that Diamond makes is that culture does not determine which groups of people become wealthy and powerful.  He says, for example, that Europeans did not conquer Native Americans because the Europeans had a better culture.  One piece of evidence for this is found in Chapter 2 of the book.  There, Diamond shows that the Maori and the Moriori were both Polynesian people who shared the same original culture.  The two groups then split as the Maori ended up in New Zealand and the Moriori in the Chatham Islands.  He argues that the Maori became much more powerful and had a different kind of society than the Moriori because the two groups ended up in different environments.

A second argument is that the people who started to farm were those who lived in places with the most domesticable plant species.  In other words, people in the Fertile Crescent started to farm before those in North America because they had more plants that they could potentially grow, not because they were culturally superior.  One of Diamond’s major pieces of evidence for this is found on p. 140 where there is a table that shows more than half the best grain species in the world were found in the Fertile Crescent.  This shows that people there had a much better chance to start farming than people elsewhere.

Finally, Diamond argues that luck explains why some people domesticated animals and others did not.  In other words, we cannot say that Europeans domesticated horses because they were better than Africans, who did not domesticate zebras.  Instead, Diamond argues in Chapter 9 that the vast majority of animals cannot be domesticated.  One piece of evidence is that even Europeans who went to Africa were never able to domesticate zebras.  Again, then, it was simply luck that put some people in places where there were animals that could be domesticated.

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