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

Guns, Germs, and Steel Themes

The main themes in Guns, Germs, and Steel are geographic success, geographic failure, and communication. 

  • Geographic success: Diamond asserts that geographic location enabled some societies to develop agriculture and complex social structures, paving the way for future economic success.

  • Geographic failure: The failure of societies can also be attributed to geography: the need to hunt and forage rather than farm creates impediments to social development, as does a lack of natural resources or an unfavorable climate.

  • Communication: The ability to trade goods and communicate ideas also increases societal progress. Isolated communities are at a disadvantage once more advanced societies invade them.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on April 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

Geographic Success

Diamond’s main theme in Guns, Germs, and Steel is that the advantage of one society over another is not based on race or intelligence as some historians have claimed but instead on geography. Certain favorable aspects of local geography allow a group of people who live in that area to more easily produce food. As these people learn to farm the land and raise specific crops rather than forage for them, they find they have more time for other activities. They create rules that benefit their existence, designate certain members to focus on tasks beyond those of pure survival, and thus set up complex societies. From this advantage over the basic nomadic lives of hunters and foragers, the more stabilized and organized communities emerge as conquerors. Diamond asserts that one group of people is not more intelligent than another but rather that the more successful group lived in an area whose environment provided for cultural advantages. In other words, those who lived in more fertile areas, such as around the Mediterranean, as opposed to those who settled in the Arctic area or in the African Sahara, had a much greater chance of success.

Geographic Failure

Diamond also focuses on the opposite side of his major theme. Instead of concentrating just on how and why societies succeed, he explores why societies fail and how those failures become permanent if certain environmental conditions are not met. Societies that are forced to be hunters and gatherers because of the geography in which they live will always be at a disadvantage. Another condition that marks a group of people for failure is the inability to create a sufficiently dense population. This might be due to an unfavorable climate or to an insufficient supply of essential raw materials. A successful community also needs to be able to domesticate crops and animals; without doing so, the community will never progress to the next level—farming. One of the elements that allows for successful farming is the presence of large-seed crops. Wheat, for example, grows in a wide variety. The most productive and the most easily cultivated is a form of wheat that has a large seed, which provides one of the most basic food products—flour. If the large-seed variety does not grow in the vicinity of a particular society and it will not grow there even if the seed is provided from an outside source, the society will not progress. The same conditions apply for the domestication of animals. Being able to domesticate animals provides a society with much-needed labor as well as a source of food. Raising chickens, for example, is a much more certain source of eggs than having to look for the eggs of wild birds. But if chickens cannot be raised within a society, then the time-consuming aspects of hunting and gathering will have to remain.


Another of the book’s major themes is communication. In communities that were closely linked to one another, not only in proximity but also in cultural similarity, progress was more rapid. In the societies that eventually developed in Eurasia, people traded with one another, thus spreading the knowledge learned from one group to another. This spread of ideas hastened each community’s development. In contrast were communities that were isolated from other groups, such as those who lived on islands. Isolated people could do well enough within their societies to survive and even thrive, but they were at great disadvantage once people from more advanced societies arrived and invaded them.

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

Chapter Summaries