Guns, Germs, and Steel Summary

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is a nonfiction book that explores why some societies are more materially successful than others. 

  • Farming and domesticating animals provided stability that hunter-gatherer societies lacked. 
  • Major portions of Eurasia had a geographical advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals.
  • The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the trading of crops and animals. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverses various climate zones and geographic boundaries, discouraging trade.
  • The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs that would later wipe out more isolated populations in the Americas.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, somewhat surprisingly, a national best-seller. At a time when other popular nonfiction topics centered on personal relationships and diets, Diamond caught the attention of the reading public with a fascinating account of more than 13,000 years of human evolution and societal development.

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Although the book has raised a few points of controversy among scientists, it also has gained widespread praise. Some scientists argue against Diamond’s thesis that geography and environment are the most important factors in shaping the world as modern humans know it. But most critics praise Diamond for the task he successfully took upon himself, which was to answer a very complex question. In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts how he became intrigued when his New Guinean friend Yali asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” The cargo that Yali refers to is technology—tools as simple as axes; accessories such as umbrellas; and more complicated inventions such as computers, cell phones, and the Internet. After all, Diamond points out, a mere two centuries prior to his meeting Yali, New Guineans were still using stone tools. What factors caused this gap between the development of one culture and another?

Diamond searched for an answer by examining millions of years of history, mapping out the migrations of early humans from Africa to Eurasia, from eastern Asia to the Pacific Ocean islands, and from Siberia to the North and South American continents. He follows humans as they evolve biologically, and then he concentrates on specific representative societies to illustrate his findings.

To define the differences between developing cultures, Diamond emphasizes the effects of food production, writing, technology, government, and religion. Then he demonstrates, in his opinion, why the differences among various cultures occurred. More important (and one of the reasons for some of the controversy surrounding this book), Diamond concludes that it is ultimately geography, not biology or race as some other studies have tried to prove, that produced the cultural disparities his friend Yali had pointed out.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel opens with a prologue in which the author presents a question from a New Guinean politician and friend named Yali: why were Europeans able to conquer so many other societies around the world? This question, in the past, has often been answered in terms of genetics, a belief that Diamond sets out to disprove. People are not born superior to another group, Diamond contends. To provide a background for, as well as an argument to support, his own explanation, Diamond then briefly sketches millions of years of human evolution. When Diamond reaches the last 13,000 years, he slows down to focus on specific societies and historical events. In the process, Diamond’s theory becomes apparent. He believes that the success of a society is not based on intelligence and ingenuity but instead on geography, food production, germs and immunity, the domestication of animals, and the discovery and use of steel.

Societies become more stable as they move from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and raising domestic animals. What then inevitably follows is the development of specialized labor groups as well as the establishment of hierarchies in ruling parties. Populations thrive under these conditions, and in time empires rise. The stability provides farming societies with powerful advantages over nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, which are forced to roam the countryside in search of food. One major advantage of farming societies is that some members are eased from the burden of producing food and are then able to devote their time to making weapons and perfecting the art of using them.

Major portions of the Eurasian area, Diamond points out, had a natural advantage in agriculture because of the presence of plants and animals that were easily domesticated. Not only did this allow food surpluses to develop, but it also enabled crops such as cotton, flax, and hemp to be easily processed into clothing, blankets, nets, and ropes. Animals, besides providing food and labor, also gave Eurasians wool and leather—protection from the cold. Gourds, such as those grown in North America, were used as containers, which made life even easier for farming societies. Horses, which were domesticated in Europe, offered significant advantages in wars. Animals such as camels, llamas, mules, reindeer, and yak pulled wagons and sleds, easing the workload and allowing further exploration.

One of Eurasia’s main advantages in producing stable and profitable societies was its long landmass with an east-to-west axis. Such an axis created an environment in which plants growing in one area in the east were easily adapted in another section in the far west. The east-west axis also allowed the use of similar animals that were easily domesticated. People from different groups in Eurasia were able to exchange ideas, which increased the chances of innovation and thus helped technology advance more rapidly. This was not as true in the Americas, whose land mass extended broadly on a north-south axis. Plants or seeds taken from the more temperate areas would not grow in the tropical zones or the frigid areas, which prevented people in different locales from exchanging ideas, crops, and innovations, thus decreasing their chances for rapid advancement. Other impediments to progress included large bodies of water or land barriers such as mountains and deserts. The slow development of Mexico’s corn crop is one example of decreased adoption rates. The vast desert between present-day Mexico and the United States prevented, or at least vastly slowed down, the knowledge gained by one group of people from being passed on to another.

But among Eurasian societies, information flowed quite freely and relatively quickly. Because communication was widespread through trading, Eurasians hurriedly developed and improved on such innovations as the use of the wheel, metalworking, shipbuilding, and (one of the ultimate advantages) guns. Their populations, food production, and technologies grew at faster and faster rates. This provided them with greater economies, which in turn allowed them to conquer more people in more extended areas of the world.

As a consequence of living in dense populations, trading with other dense populations, and living close to domesticated animals, Eurasians came into contact with stronger germs. At first this might sound like a disadvantage, but as weaker members of early societies succumbed to germs, the people who survived built natural immunities against them and passed the immunities down to their children. This provided later generations of Europeans with an extra advantage, especially when traveling to the Americas and later to the Polynesian islands in the Pacific. The germs were devastating to the indigenous people of the Americas and Polynesia, many of whom died without the Europeans even lifting a gun.

Diamond closes Guns, Germs, and Steel by briefly examining how his theories explain societal development in five areas of the world: Australia and New Guinea, China, Polynesia, the Americas, and Africa.

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