Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel Study Guide

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 work of historiography by Jared Diamond. The book chronicles history from the beginning of humankind, attempting to explain why certain societies have survived and thrive, while so many others have perished. Above all, it focuses on a question posed by a New Guinean politician named Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo … but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Yali's question inspired Diamond to investigate the unequal rates of development across continents. He focuses primarily on the surprisingly advanced development of largely white, Eurasian peoples, as compared to the native peoples of the Americas, Australia, and Africa. Diamond combines a number of different disciplines in his ambitious attempt to answer this wide-ranging question, including history, archeology, biology, linguistics, and ecology, among others. Through a series of specific examples and broad historical patterns, he provides an answer to this important question: Eurasian powers are so influential and technologically-advanced today not because of genetic differences between them and other peoples, but because of differences in environment. Guns, Germs, and Steel interprets mankind's history in terms of geographics. In other words, it shows how certain physical features of Eurasia conferred important advantages that can explain Eurasia's more rapid development of technology, both the spread of and resistance to infectious diseases, and complex political organizations. Its remarkable new account of human history earned the book a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book, and a documentary produced by the National Geographic Society that took inspiration from the book’s analysis.

Diamond's thesis is not only interesting to academics who already study this field. In fact, it relates closely to modern politics and practical, contemporary concerns. The inequalities that Diamond investigates continue to have consequences today: much of Africa still struggles with colonial legacies, Native Americans have been pushed onto reservations, and Australian Aborigines struggle to lay claim to their rights. At the same time, many people still turn to explanations of human history that are problematically racist. For example, many people continue to assume that white colonists must have been biologically superior to indigenous populations, since they had developed superior technology that allowed them to subjugate these peoples. How else can we account for the disparities between different civilizations, if not for inherent genetic differences? But Diamond presents a new explanation that does not rely on such race-based distinctions. In fact, one of the most important driving factors for his book is his urge to show that such racist assumptions are not only morally wrong, but also logically flawed.

In his own experience with people in New Guinea, Diamond observed their remarkable intelligence. He takes it for granted that such native peoples cannot be naturally less intelligent or capable than white Europeans. In fact, Diamond states that indigenous people today show greater intelligence than many Westerners, since they do not spend time consuming passive entertainment like television, and since their hunter-gatherer lifestyle has selected for only the most cunning of people to survive through the generations. Diamond also rejects previous explanations for uneven development that have relied on factors like differences in weather, differences in irrigation systems, or the importance of immediate factors like guns, disease, and steel tools. Diamond offers a new and anti-racist explanation for the course of human history: Eurasian people were able to subjugate others because of factors that were essentially based on their luck to be located in the areas they happened to be located in. They had no superior genes or even individual inventors. Instead, they had superior soil and better access to wild plants and animals that were suitable for domestication. These environmental factors allowed them to begin domesticating plants and animals more quickly, which in turn allowed them to develop more dense populations with more infectious diseases, more complex political organization, and more potential for developing new technologies.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was extremely well received by historians, critics and the general public alike. Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for this book, as well as the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. Nevertheless, some critics have complained about the book’s broad scope. Historian Tom Tomlinson, for example, noted that, “Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Diamond uses very broad brush-strokes to fill in his argument.” Others, like anthropologist James Morris Blaut, believe that Diamond fell into the trap of Eurocentrism, meaning he wrote from a very European perspective, despite his attempts to combat racist historical narratives. But, on the whole, it has become a canonical work that is widely praised for its groundbreaking take on human history and development. Scholars like Stephen Walt and have put the book on lists of texts that any student of politics or history should read. It has been translated into 36 languages, and continues to offer important lessons for all kinds of readers.