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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Does social surplus lead to division of labor, specialization, and thus economic expansion in Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"?

Quick answer:

The evidence used in this question is relevant to Diamond’s thesis that societies with surplus goods are more likely to engage in tinkering, which results in increased technological innovation. A society with surplus produces enough for every person to be able to live a comfortable life, free from worry about basic needs such as food and shelter. As Diamond states, “Necessity is not the mother of invention.” Social surplus allows for the division of labor and specialization, which in turn increase social output and technological change. This facilitates an autocatalytic process of economic expansion.

Expert Answers

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Evidence from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel that supports the claims in this quote can be found in Diamond’s discussion of technology. Diamond contests the axiom “Necessity is the mother of invention.” While Diamond concedes that some inventions (e.g., the atom bomb) were due to an urgent need, a lot of inventors fostered technology “in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind.”

The lack of immediate demand suggests a social surplus. With enough people to produce and sustain the basic needs of a given society, people in that society can experiment with technologies that don’t necessarily possess a direct benefit. Diamond supplies many examples of inventors who had the freedom to engage in “tinkering.”

One such inventor is Thomas Edison. Edison did not anticipate that the phonograph he first constructed in 1877 would be mainly used for music. Nonetheless, his invention arguably catalyzed economic expansion in the form of the jukebox and the concomitant ways that people could then distribute and monetize music.

Some technological changes produced violent expansion. According to Diamond, advances in weapons and transportation gave “Europeans an overwhelming advantage” against the Indigenous peoples in the United States. The utilization of horses and firearms helped European nations settle the New World and expand their social and economic power.

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