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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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What is Jared Diamond's thesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel regarding the development of European power?

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Diamond's thesis is, as he writes in the prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences between peoples' environments, not because of environmental differences between peoples themselves.

The book is intended to get at the ultimate, rather than the proximate, cause of human global inequality. He argues that Europe emerged as a dominant global force because it had a head start in all the things that enable the development of complex, advanced technologies. Put another way, the "guns, germs, and steel" that enabled Europeans to achieve global power were the result of geographic factors. These factors included a number of different things, but they can be boiled down to the rise and spread of agriculture. The development of agriculture enabled Eurasian peoples to settle, creating dense, stratified societies who developed sophisticated technologies.

Crucially, most of these developments occurred by "accident," as it were. Agriculture spread through Eurasia, for one thing, because large swaths of the landmasses were oriented along an east-west axis, enabling crops to spread quickly. Similarly, many of the large domesticable animals that were essential to agricultural development, both for meat and labor, were native to Eurasia and not to the Americas or Africa. So European societies had a head start in terms of agricultural development. This in turn allowed for the rise of specialization and trade, which were key to technological advancement. When they came in contact with indigenous peoples around the world, especially the Americas, the consequences were devastating for natives. European diseases, or "germs," decimated them, and their technologies were ineffective against the "guns" and "steel" wielded by the invaders.

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Diamond explicitly states that his book Guns, Germs, and Steel was written to answer a question asked to him by his friend Yali concerning why the Europeans had so much more "cargo" (material goods and technology) than the natives of Papua New Guinea. The central claim of the book is that the reason for this is mainly an accident of geography rather than inherent differences in the character of their cultures.

Diamond begins by pointing out that his personal experience is that people all over the world are equally likely to be hardworking and intelligent. He is opposed to the sort of racist views that tend to explain differences in wealth and technology by arguing for innate differences in intellect among people of varied ethnicities. Given that stance, he says we must search for another root cause of the differences in the speed at which economies and technology evolved.

He finds the explanation in geography. He argues that the key factor in differential development of wealth and technology has to do with natural resources such as plants and animals that can be easily domesticated. Also important is the existence of accessible east-west travel routes that allow the spread of crops and domestic animals. In these matters, areas such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other parts of Eurasia had major natural advantages over many other regions.

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Jared Diamond’s thesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel is that European economic, military, technological, and political power came about because of geographical luck, and not because the Europeans were in any way culturally or racially superior to people of other parts of the world.

Many people have argued that Europeans came to dominate the world because they were superior to other people.  In the past, many people were willing to claim that Europeans were and are racially superior to non-white peoples.  More recently, people stopped claiming that but started to argue that European culture was more suited to innovation and technological development than other cultures.  Diamond’s thesis is that these arguments are both false and that Europeans got ahead simply because of luck.

In Diamond’s view, power comes from agriculture.  Agricultural societies can have large populations that are densely packed.  These large populations come about because a relatively few people can farm and, thereby, feed a large number of people who do not farm.  Those non-farmers can become artisans who develop technology, scribes who keep written records, bureaucrats who allow centralized governments to function, soldiers who fight wars, and many other things.  In this way, agriculture leads to technological, military, economic, and political advantages.  (Agriculture also leads to the appearance of infectious diseases like smallpox which helped the Europeans dominate other peoples.)

The question, then, is why Europeans got agriculture before people from areas such as the Americas, Africa, and Australia.  Diamond says that this was because of geographic luck.  Europeans were lucky enough to live on a landmass where there were many plants and animals that could be domesticated.  This was not true of the other continents.  This meant that it was easier for Eurasian people to develop agriculture.  Europeans were also lucky enough to live on a landmass with a long east-west axis and relatively few physical barriers to movement.  This meant that new crops and new technological innovations could easily spread from place to place in Eurasia. 

The Europeans came to dominate the world, Diamond says, because they got agriculture before other peoples did.  His major thesis is that they got agriculture first because they were geographically lucky, not because they were racially or culturally superior.

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