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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Why, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel, did Europeans colonize the western hemisphere instead of Native Americans colonizing Europe?

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Jared Diamond posits a variety of reasons in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for why Eurasians colonized the remainder of the world (including the western hemisphere) instead of being colonized themselves. As the title hints, he writes that Eurasian peoples were able to develop “the ingredients of power”— these ingredients being guns, germs, and steel—and use them to expand outwards and colonize other parts of the world. Why were they able to develop these ingredients?

One key reason is that Eurasia had the geography and climate most conducive to surplus food production. Eurasia was located on an east-west continental axis, which made everything from animal husbandry to agriculture (both vital to food production) significantly easier. Societies in the Americas, on the other hand, were located on north-south axes, so they stood at a disadvantage. For example, in some regions, certain wild plant and animal species simply could not be domesticated, which significantly limited the food production of nearby societies. The Eurasian (Mediterranean) climate was also particularly conducive to producing cereals such as wheat and barley, both huge elements of the human diet.

Food production, therefore, was hugely important. Diamond reinforces this in the new afterword of the twentieth-anniversary edition of the book (2017), writing,

Today, countries with a long history of agriculture, and of the state governments that resulted from agriculture, have higher average per-person incomes than do countries with short histories of agriculture and state government [...] That effect of agricultural history is a big effect. It accounts for about half of the explained variance in differences in average income between countries.

Another reason is that Eurasian peoples were able to infect other societies with diseases to which they had already acquired some genetic and immune resistance. Because most of the diseases in question were spread through domesticated animals, and Eurasian peoples were well-familiar with these animals and immune to their diseases, the diseases mainly devastated societies who were not acquainted with Eurasian domesticated mammals, such as those of the Americas.

Please refer to the book itself (particularly Part II and III), the eNotes summary, and Jared Diamond’s website for more details.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, the conquering of Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere by Europeans was not due to any inherent racial superiority, but was rather a result of environmental differences that caused a more rapid development of European civilization.

The story begins in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where an abundance of plants and animals that could be domesticated and used as food sources caused hunters and gatherers to settle down into cities. The technology of farming and animal husbandry spread rapidly east and west due to the geography of the Eurasian continent. Cities gave rise to more specialized occupations, including technologies such as weapon production. In comparison, North and South America had relatively few wild plants and animals that could be easily domesticated. As a result, civilizations developed more slowly. Additionally, various locations in the Western Hemisphere were cut off from each other by barriers of geography and climate, so the people there did not benefit from a ready exchange of ideas.

Another major factor in the conquest of the Americas, according to Diamond, was an indirect result of the European domestication of animals. Because of their proximity to the animals they kept, Europeans developed immunities to the diseases the animals carried. However, when Native Americans were exposed to these diseases, they had no immunity and succumbed to the deadly diseases in great numbers.

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The answer to this is given on two levels.  First, there are immediate causes that allowed the Europeans to be more successful than the Native Americans.  Second, there are ultimate causes that allowed the immediate causes to come about.

The ultimate causes are essentially those that are referred to in the title of the book.  Diamond says that the Europeans were able to conquer the Americas (and other areas) because they had “guns, germs, and steel.  In other words, they were successful because they had better technology and because they carried germs that could (and did) devastate the populations of the areas to which they came.

But why did the Europeans have the guns, germs, and steel?  Here, Diamond says that the answer is based in geographic luck.  Diamond argues that Eurasia was the continent that was best suited for developing and diffusing agriculture.  Because of this, agriculture arose there first and spread widely across that land mass rather quickly.  This meant that the people of Eurasia could form civilizations earlier than anyone else could.  Because they formed civilizations first, their civilizations were technologically more advanced by the time that they went out exploring and conquering.

Thus, the Europeans were able to conquer the western hemisphere because their geographical luck led them to have “guns, germs, and steel” while the Native Americans did not.

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