[2007-02-16] “Guns, Germs, And Steel”

Why was it that the Europeans came to dominate over the native Americans, the Africans and the aboriginal Australians and not vice versa? Why was it that civilisation flourished early on in places like the Middle East, India and China while places like sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the Americas languished far behind for several thousand years?

In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Jared Diamond tries to answer these questions based on the theory that environmental factors, rather than innate racial superiority, account for the eventual dominance of one set of people over another. He surveys the history of humans over the last 13,000 years (after the last Ice Age) to conclude that “guns” (superior weapons, armours, carriers and tactics), “germs” (passing on of diseases to which the opponents have no resistance) and “steel” (superior technology) have been the proximate factors that allowed one set of people to dominate another.

He then explores the ultimate factors that lead to some people having these proximate factors in their favour and not others. He finds that the rise of food production, the domestication of animals, the east-west axis of Eurasia compared to the north-south axes of Africa and the Americas and the absence of major geographical barriers preventing a diffusion of ideas and materials led to the Eurasians getting an early lead compared to other societies. He notes that the rise of food production allowed primitive hunter-gatherer societies to evolve into food producers and food consumers, the latter then freed to become soldiers, craftsmen, bureaucrats, priests, kings, etc. The domestication of animals allowed them to be used for ploughing fields and producing manure (increasing food production), transportation, mounting swift attacks on enemies from a vantage position, etc. Domestic animals also passed on the germs for several diseases to their masters, that their masters ultimately became resistant to, but that proved fatal to their enemies who did not possess such resistance. Only some of the wild plants and animals could be domesticated and some regions had a great advantage over others in this area. An east-west axis and the lack of major geographical barriers allows more areas with similar climates to exchange ideas and materials and this accelerates progress. These factors ultimately led to writing developing early on in some regions and much later, or not at all, in others. Writing permitted wide and durable distribution of accurate descriptions of facts and ideas that in turn allowed faster progress.

It must be said that the author presents very good arguments, though not entirely convincing, to back his theory. However, the author seems to gloss over other factors that might add to the explanation, in particular the reasons for the dominance of Europeans in Eurasia rather than, say, the Indians or the Chinese. He very briefly, that too only towards the very end, touches upon the decline of farming and the rise of deserts in the Middle East and the decline of China. He mentions in passing that the caste system of India was a big factor in crushing the progress it had achieved over the years. In a similar manner he insists that the division of Europe by geographical barriers that were nevertheless surmountable led to a continuing disunity that fostered a competition to advance technology and colonise other countries. I also felt that the author uses New Guinea a bit too much as an example for many of his explanations, almost to the point of causing fatigue, though it is to be expected since he spent a significant portion of his professional life there.

On the whole though, I would highly recommend this book. It contains a wealth of enlightening information and is undeniably thought-provoking.

Other Posts from 2007