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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Why, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel, did Europeans conquer the Americas and not vice versa?

Quick answer:

1. The Spanish had better weapons and more of them, so they were able to defeat the Incas. 2. The Europeans also brought diseases to the Americas that killed many natives, as well as making them more susceptible to injury from European weapons. 3. The Spanish used writing and organization effectively in their conquest of the Americas, whereas other empires such as the Aztecs did not organize effectively enough to use writing and organization in battle.

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In Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explains why the Europeans were able to conquer the Americas rather than the other way around. He begins the chapter with a close analysis of Francisco Pizarro's defeat of the Inca King Atahuallpa in 1532, despite the Spanish forces...

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being vastly outnumbered.

The first element underlying Pizarro's victory was superior military technology. This included the use of horses, guns, and steel swords and shields, which not only were vastly more effective than Inca weaponry but also terrified many opponents.

Just as important as military technology was the spread of European diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and plague, to which the inhabitants of the Americas had no natural immunities. This meant that European conquerors were fighting against communities decimated by diseases.

Finally, the Spanish conquerors were better organized and used writing to communicate effectively, spread strategic plans, and share information about their opponents' weaknesses. In other words, the Spanish had more elaborately developed systems of what is now called C3I, or Command, Control, Communications and intelligence, which are essential to military success.

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The answer to this can be found in Chapter 3.  There, Diamond lays out a number of factors that allowed Spain to conquer the New World rather than having Native Americans conquer Spain.  They include:

  • Military technology.  The Europeans had guns and steel weapons.
  • Infectious diseases.  These "germs" killed many Native Americans, helping to weaken their societies.
  • Ships and writing.  These were two more things that the Europeans had and the Americans didn't.
  • Centralized political organization.  This allowed the Spanish to be more organized and disciplined than the natives.

All of these were proximate causes of Europe's ability to conquer.  The ultimate cause of this, however, was the fact that agriculture arose in Eurasia long before it did in the Americas, thus allowing Europe to become stronger than the New World.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, why were Europeans the ones to conquer Canada and not the other way around?

Diamond's major point in this book is that geography is the cause of the Eurasian people's ability to conquer people in places like Canada.  

Diamond argues that people in Eurasia had more kinds of plants and animals that could be domesticated than Americans did.  This allowed them to start farming earlier and on a larger scale.  Their farming allowed them to live in larger communities and create civilizations.  When this happened, the Europeans developed the technologies (the "guns" and the "steel" of the book's title).  They also developed infectious diseases (the "germs") through contact with their domesticated animals.

Geography, then, is the reason why Europeans conquered Canada and not the other way around.

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