illustrated profile of a man spitting in the same direction that a pistol and three steel bars are pointing

Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Key Arguments in Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Summary:

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. He explains that societies with access to fertile land, domesticable animals, and favorable climates developed agriculture first, leading to technological advancements, political organization, and immunity to diseases. These advantages allowed them to conquer and dominate other societies.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's argument in Chapter 2 of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In Chapter 2, Diamond is arguing that it is geography, and not culture, that determines what kind of a society springs up in any given place.  To prove this, he looks at evidence from Polynesia.

Diamond tells us that all the people who inhabited Polynesia came from the same ethnic and cultural background.  Therefore, if culture was what really mattered, they should all have ended up with similar societies.  Instead, what happened is that various Polynesian societies ended up with very different levels of economic and political development.  Diamond says that those that sprang up on large islands or island groups became more advanced.  Those that arose on small islands with fewer resources remained small and relatively primitive.

This, to Diamond, proves that it is geography rather than culture that determines what a society ends up being like.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's claim in Chapter Three of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Chapter three of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel focuses on Francisco Pizzaro’s treacherous murder of the assembled Inca elite at Cajamarca. He uses this case study as a way to demonstrate how the innovative technologies of the European “Age of Discovery” enabled imperial powers like Spain to expand to far-reaching parts of the globe, including South America. Atahuallpa was the absolute monarch of what was the largest and most advanced state in the New World at the time. Pizarro’s conquest of the Peruvian kingdom was nothing short of miraculous, which Diamond attributes primarily to the advantages provided to the conquistadors by their superior weapons and sophisticated maritime and biological technologies.

Diamond’s main purpose in this chapter is to elucidate the similarities between Spanish success in Peru and that of European global expansion everywhere. As he states,

But it [the conquest] is also of more general interest, because the factors that resulted in Pizzaro’s seizing Atahuallpa were essentially the same ones that determined the outcome of many similar collisions between colonizers and native peoples elsewhere in the modern world.

The story of Atahuallpa’s capture (according to the Spanish sources) was one of unequivocal victory, massacre, and indigenous incompetence. The firing of guns into crowds of Peruvian soldiers, as well as the fearsome noises and vicious movements of Spanish horses, set the Incans in a panic. Their terror all but guaranteed Spanish victory.

At the time of the engagement, Diamond informs us that Pizzaro had only 62 soldiers mounted on horses and 106 foot soldiers, while the Incans were 80,000 strong. He asks a simple question: Why did Pizzaro capture Atahuallpa? The answer: steel swords, steel armor, guns, and horses. The major technological advantages of the Spanish meant that they were pitted against native soldiers possessing vastly inferior material resources: bronze, stone, and wooden clubs; maces; slingshots; and fabric clothing. These circumstances, and the unchallenged Spanish victory, reinforce Diamond’s central argument about the spread of European hegemony more generally – civilizations that possessed relatively advanced technological and biological items could conquer societies across the globe that had not matched their level of material development.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's claim in Chapter Three of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In the landmark book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond argues that environmental advantages, not inherent differences in genetics or intellect, explain why some civilizations became dominant over others. In Chapter 3, "Collision at Cajamarca," Diamond uses the Spanish conquest of the Incas in 1532 as an example of European’s environmental advantages in the Americas. Their better resources led to victory even though they were vastly outnumbered.

To make a claim is to use a statement as a primary point to prove an argument. Diamond makes numerous claims in Chapter 3 of his book, but two of these are of primary importance. First of all, Diamond makes this claim:

The most dramatic moment in subsequent European-Native American relations was the first encounter between the Inca emperor Atahuallpa and the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro at the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532.

Diamond makes a claim concerning this encounter's importance because he intends to use it as an example of his theory. He intends to use details from this incident to explain why the encounter resulted in the Spanish conquering the Incas and not the other way around. He makes this claim near the end of the chapter:

Thus, Pizarro's capture of Atahuallpa illustrates the set of proximate factors that resulted in Europeans' colonizing the New World instead of Native Americans' colonizing Europe.

Throughout the chapter, Diamond makes detailed claims of specific factors that enabled the Spaniards’s victory despite being outnumbered 168 to 80,000. These include the steel weapons and armor of the Spaniards as opposed to the Incas's far inferior weapons, the surprise of the Spaniards's firearms, the tactical superiority of having cavalry on horseback, the transmission of European diseases for which the Incas had no immunity, and the fact that the Spaniards were literate and possessed information about historical warfare and human nature which the Incas did not know. All of these examples Diamond provides that support his theory can also be considered claims.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's claim in Chapter Three of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Diamond’s main claim in Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that the Spanish were able to defeat the Inca because the Spanish had “guns, germs, and steel” while the Inca did not.  This is not a very controversial claim and is really only made as a way to set up the rest of the book.

Chapter Three is meant to show us how “guns, germs, and steel” helped the Spanish to defeat the Incas.  Diamond uses that phrase as a shorthand for the various advantages that the Spanish had.  He says, on p. 80 in the paperback version of the book, that the

Immediate reasons for Pizarro’s success included military technology based on gunsm, steel weapons, and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing.

This is the major claim of Chapter 3, but it is not the main claim of the book.  What is more interesting to Diamond is why the Europeans came to have the guns, germs, and steel while the Inca did not.  In the rest of the book, Diamond will attempt to explain why this was so.  Chapter 3, then, is meant to set up the rest of the book.  It lists the immediate reasons why the Spanish defeated the Inca and encourages us to wonder about the ultimate causes that gave the Spanish their advantages.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's main argument in Chapter 5 of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

The title of chapter 5 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is "History's Haves and Have-Nots: Geographic differences in the onset of food production." In this chapter, Diamond tries to assess which countries independently developed agriculture and domesticated animals and which did not but instead either: (1) developed agriculture at a relatively early period but not independently, or (2) only developed agriculture after being colonized by agricultural nations.

Diamond notes that the archaeological record is complex but that only five societies can be shown to have definitively developed food production independently, those located in Mesopotamia, China, Mexico, the Andes, and Eastern North America. He argues that Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Western Europe probably imported knowledge of food production but admits that the evidence is ambiguous.

The chapter concludes with defining the question that will be answered in later chapters. Given that fertile places such as California did not independently discover agriculture, there must be some factor other than fertility of soils creating preconditions for the discovery. That issue is explored in subsequent chapters.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Diamond's main argument in Chapter 5 of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In Chapter 5, Diamond does not really make much of an argument.  He is simply presenting facts without trying to make a point.  He is using this chapter to set up other chapters.  

In Chapter 5, Diamond is telling us which areas of the world discovered food production on their own and which areas only got it through diffusion and borrowing.  To the extent that there is an argument, he is claiming that the places that got a head start on food production came to have an advantage over those that did not.  He argues that the places that got food production earlier became the "haves" of history.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you briefly paraphrase and explain Diamond's theory in Chapter 8 of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

If your book and mine are the same edition, then pp. 155-6 are at the very end of Chapter 8.  In those pages, Diamond tells us why it is (in his opinion) that food production did not start in North America (the theory applies to other areas as well).

Basically, what Diamond is saying is that some places, like North America, just didn't ahve the right set of native food sources.  They did not have enough different kinds of plants and animals that could be domesticated and used for food.

By saying this, Diamond is saying that you can't blame the people of North America for not coming up with agriculture -- they just didn't have enough native kinds of plants and animals to let them invent agriculture.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main points of Chapter 11 in Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"?

The title of this book is Guns, Germs, and Steel.  In Chapter 11, Jared Diamond discusses the “germs” that are referenced in the title.  He argues in this chapter that farming allowed Eurasian societies to develop infectious diseases while societies in other areas did not have such diseases.  When Eurasians came into contact with people like Native Americans, those diseases decimated the populations that had not been exposed to them before.  In this way, farming helped Eurasians get the “germs” that helped them to dominate the world.

One piece of evidence for this claim is found in Table 11.1 on p. 207.  There, Diamond shows us that many diseases that can be very deadly actually come to us from animals.  Perhaps the most deadly of these diseases is smallpox.  This disease is known to have killed millions of people in the Americas and elsewhere.  It came to humans through their contact with livestock such as cattle. 

A second piece of evidence is the fact that the populations of many places that the Europeans conquered dropped dramatically even though Europeans had not actually gotten to those places yet.  We see this on p. 210 where Diamond discusses the population of Mexico.  Before Europeans reached the interior of Mexico, smallpox arrived.  Diamond says it was carried by an infected slave from Cuba.  The disease was passed along by Mexican Indians from the coast and eventually reached the Aztec empire in the inland Valley of Mexico.  Diamond says that Mexico’s population dropped from 20 million to about 1.6 million even before the Spanish got to the Aztec Empire to conquer them.

Thus, the main point of this chapter is that farmers have livestock and that livestock breeds germs.  These germs help farming societies conquer other societies, thus making farming societies powerful.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does Diamond generalize about societal development in Chapter 14?

Basically, Diamond can make such generalizations because that is what all social scientists do.  Social scientists have to do things like categorizing people or societies so that they can have some way of thinking about them.  For example, we talk about both the United States and Great Britain as democracies even though they have very different political systems.

Diamond makes these generalizations because he has to be able to talk about the different stages that societies go through.  It is clear that there are differences between societies and it is important for Diamond's thesis to talk about what attributes each sort of society has.  In order to make any sense of the range of possible societies, it is necessary to make broad categories.

As Diamond says, categorizations are "doomed to imperfection" but they are better than nothing.  That is why Diamond can make such broad statements.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does Chapter 15 support Diamond's argument?

Diamond's major argument in this book is that geography, as opposed to race or culture, accounts for the fact that Europeans have come to dominate the world.  Chapter 15 supports this argument by making a geographical argument for why whites succeeded in modernizing Australia where non-whites had not.

Diamond says that the case of Australia seems to prove that Europeans are superior to Aboriginal Australians.  Europeans came to Australia and quickly created a "literate, food-producing, industrial democracy" (Diamond, p. 320).  They did this in a place where Aboriginal Australians had failed to create such a society.

Diamond points out, however, that Australia was extremely unsuited to developing food production.  It had no domesticable large animals and it had very few domesticable plants.  He points out that Europeans who came to Australia had to import everything that they used to make Australia into the modern country it is today.  They did not create a modern society in Australia, they imported it.

This supports Diamond's argument because it shows that Australia's geography was not suited to the development of food production and modern society.  Such a society could only be created in Australia with the use of imported crops and technologies.  This shows that it was geography, and not some failing of the Aboriginal Australians, that made Australia such a primitive society when the Europeans got there.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on