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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Eurasia's abundance of domesticated animals supports Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel

Summary:

Eurasia's abundance of domesticated animals supports Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel by providing a significant advantage in food production, transportation, and disease resistance. These factors contributed to the development of complex societies and technological advancements, which allowed Eurasian civilizations to dominate other regions.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

As Diamond points out, the Americas are home to over a thousand native wild mammal species. We might think, then, that there was plenty of scope for domestication. And yet, in actual fact, there are far more domesticated animals in Eurasia than in the Americas or anywhere else in the world.

This is partly because the vast Eurasian landmass was, by far, the largest on the planet. That being the case, it was somewhat inevitable that Eurasia would have the largest number of wild species. With a greater number and variety of wild species came a greater scope for domestication.

The large gap between Eurasia and the Americas in terms of wild species was further widened at the end of the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago. At this time, most of the large mammal species of the Americas became extinct. Among other things, this meant that Indigenous tribes had fewer species to hunt, let alone domesticate.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

There are two basic reasons for this fact.  First, Eurasia had a greater number of large wild mammal species than any other continent did.  Second, fewer large animal species were made extinct in Eurasia than elsewhere.  Finally, Eurasia was just lucky to have "good" animals.

In my copy of the book (paperback edition) the first of these facts can be found on p. 162.  The second is on p. 163.  The third idea is the main point of the whole chapter, but is also on p. 174, which is the next to last page of the chapter.

What Diamond is arguing is that it is much more likely that an animal species will be poorly suited for domestication than that it will be well suited.  (There are more ways for a "marriage" to be unhappy than happy.)  Eurasia happened to be lucky enough to have a lot of species, many of which were suited for domestication.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

The answer to this question can be found in Chapter Nine, entitled, rather intriguingly, "Zebras and Unhappy Marriages." In this chapter, Diamond looks at the number of animals that can be domesticated and how they are scattered over the globe, and also explores reasons why a number of animals can be tamed but can never be domesticated, such as zebras and elephants. Note what Diamond concludes in answer to your question:

Eurasian peoples happened to inherit many more species of domesticable large wild mammalian herbivores than did peoples of the continents. that outcome, with all of its momentous advantages for Eurasian societies, stemmed from three basic facts of mammalian geography, history, and biology.

Firstly, Diamond argues, Eurasia was the geographical location with most diversity, and thus had most candidates for domestication. Secondly, Australia and the Americas actually killed a number of large mammals during their late-Pleistocene extinctions. Lastly, chance decreed that a higher percentage of the animals proved suitable for domestication in Eurasia than in other continents. Thus, Diamond concludes, the combination of these three factors left Eurasia with more domesticable animals than other continents, and thus a massive advantage.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

The answer to this can be found in Chapter 8, on pages 171 and 172 in the paperback edition of the book.  In this chapter, Diamond argues that the reason that animals like zebras were not domesticated is that they were not really suited for it.  He rejects the idea that Africans were not smart enough or not motivated enough to domesticate zebras.  Instead, he says that zebras were simply not domesticable (which he supports by noting that they still have not been domesticated).

Diamond says that there are six factors that can make an animal impossible to domesticate.  They are:

  • Diet.  You can only really feed herbivores so carnivores can’t be domesticated very well.
  • Growth rate.  An animal has to grow fast to make it worth keeping around.
  • Problems of captive breeding.  Some animals will not breed very well in captivity.
  • Disposition.  Some animals are simply too mean.
  • Tendency to panic.  If animals are easily panicked, it will be hard to keep them confined.
  • Social structure.  Herd animals are the easiest to domesticate.

Of these factors, the only one that is really a problem with zebras is disposition.  Diamond says that zebras tend to bite and not let go.  He says that they injure more American zookeepers than tigers do.  Zebras also cannot be lassoed because they can watch the rope and dodge it.

For these reasons, zebras are not good for domestication.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

The answer to this question can be found in Chapter 9.  There, Diamond tells us that the people of Eurasia domesticated more animal species simply because they were lucky.  They had more kinds of animals that could be domesticated.  This was not due to any virtue on their part; it was simply due to luck.

Diamond’s main argument in this book is that it was geographical luck that made some regions of the world successful and others weaker and less powerful.  It was not that the people of Eurasia were racially or culturally better.  Instead, they were simply luckier.

One aspect of this luck was that they had more animals that could be domesticated.  Diamond argues that there are very few large animals in the world that can really be domesticated effectively.  Too many animals have something “wrong” with them.  For example, they are too mean or they are carnivorous or they grow too slowly.   Diamond points out that Europeans and their descendants have not been able to domesticate animals like kangaroos or zebras any more than the natives of Australia and Africa were.  This means that those animals were simply not domesticable and the people of Australia and Africa were unlucky.  By contrast, there were many large, domesticable animals in Eurasia.

Thus, Diamond argues that the people of Eurasia domesticated more species of large animals simply because they were lucky enough to have many suitable animals available to them.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did Eurasia have the most domesticated animals?

The answer to this question can be found in Chapter 9.  Specifically, the answer begins on p. 161 of the paperback edition of the book.

In this book, Diamond’s major thesis is that some regions of the world became more powerful than others simply because of luck.  The Europeans, he says, were able to conquer people in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere because they were lucky in terms of their geography.  One of the ways in which the Europeans were lucky is in the fact that they lived in a place with many animals that could be domesticated. 

Diamond says that there were fourteen big, herbivorous mammals that were domesticated in ancient times.  Of these, thirteen were from Eurasia.  On p. 162, he says that the main reason for this was that

Eurasia has the largest number of big terrestrial wild mammal species, whether or not ancestral to a domesticated species.

In Table 9.2, he points out that Eurasia had 72 species that could possibly have been domesticated.  This is almost as many as all of the rest of the world combined.  He then goes on to argue that almost all of the animals in other parts of the world were (and still are) impossible to domesticate.

Thus, Eurasians domesticated so many more animals than other people because they had more animal species to begin with and their species were more amenable to domestication.

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How does Eurasians domesticating more animals support Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

This supports Diamond's theory in two ways.  

First, it supports the theory because Diamond argues that having domesticated animals helps a people dominate others.  In particular, domesticated animals supply the "germs" that the title refers to.  Because the Eurasians had more domesticated animals, they had more infectious diseases that helped to decimate the people (like the Native Americans) they came in contact with.

Second, it supports Diamond's contention that dominance comes from geographic accident.  Eurasians domesticated more animals because they had more species of animals that could be domesticated.  This shows that it was geography and not anything like race or culture that helped Eurasians dominate the world.

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