“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo … but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
In the beginning of the book, Diamond refers to a question he was asked by an influential New Guinean politician named Yali. The quote from above is important because it was what drove the author to begin writing this book in the first place. Diamond realized that he did not have a good answer to Yali's question, because he did not know how to explain why some nations had developed more quickly than others. Throughout the book, he will attempt to answer Yali’s question by drawing on a variety of different disciplines, while remaining impartial and unbiased in his analysis.
Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.
An important milestone in the evolution of humankind is the point when men first learned how to domesticate animals and plants. The process of domestication started a long time ago when people realized that raising animals made more sense than hunting them. However, the number of animals domesticated is low when compared with the number of animals that exist all over the world. What this quote emphasizes is that in order for an animal to be considered useful to society it must meet certain criteria. Thus, every domesticated animal shares the same characteristics with other species that have been domesticated. But even one flaw or missing characteristic can mean that a species is impossible to domesticate at all.
Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.
Diamond points out that more often than not, people invented certain things because they needed them. Often, however, the invention was not used for the same purpose the inventor envisioned. Instead, it was adapted to suit the given needs of the society. For example, wheels were invented in some native societies, but not used for transportation purposes. Instead, they were used for agriculture or pottery. This goes to show that an invention, by itself, is not enough to change a society and spur a new usage. Instead, it is the society's need for a particular product that drives how the new invention will be used.
Thus, an observer transported back in time to 11,000 B.C. could not have predicted on which continent human societies would develop most quickly, but could have made a strong case for any of the continents.
Diamond begins his text by analyzing the earliest origins of humanity. He is seeking to determine whether disparities in development began at this point in time. As this quote demonstrates, he concludes that these disparities are impossible to predict as early as 11,000 B.C. In fact, as he puts it, a scientist could have "made a strong case for any of the continents" at this point in time; all of them had different environmental advantages and disadvantages that could have been predicted to put them ahead or behind in a number of ways. This is an important point to keep in mind, because it means that human developmental disparities were not ingrained in different peoples from the start. It thus helps Diamond to support his point that biological or genetic explanations for these disparities do not make sense.
"Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland!"
This quote is attributed to the Native American, Levi, whom Diamond befriended while working on Fred Hirschy's farm. Diamond tells a story about initially believing Levi was a very gentle, peaceful soul, especially as compared to the other hired hands on the farm. However, one day, while drunk, Levi exploded with a rant against Fred Hirschy and the ancestors that had brought him to North America. This incident made Diamond aware of the deep-seated resentments that still existed amongst modern Native Americans. They were aware of the fact that their modern situation was to blame on the arrival of Europeans many years ago. These Europeans had been able to overwhelm Native American defenses and subjugate these people, leaving them worse off today, in comparison to white Americans.
The peoples of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and steel. The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.
This quote speaks to a central point of the book. Diamond identifies food production as an important landmark in human development. Food production allowed societies to become more settled, more dense, more complex, and more prone to infectious diseases. Thus, it was responsible for a number of proximate factors that gave Eurasians an advantage over other peoples around the world. As Diamond puts it, the situation could be seen as the "haves" (the Eurasians) winning out against the "have-nots" (everyone else) due to the advantages they gained after developing food production.
Thus, the reason for the failure of Native Americans to domesticate North American apples by the time Europeans arrived lay neither with the people nor with the apples...Instead, the reason Native Americans did not domesticate apples lay with the entire suite of wild plant and animal species available to Native Americans. That suite's modest potential for domestication was responsible for the late start of food production in North America.
One of the questions Diamond seeks to answer is whether certain peoples' failure to domesticate plants that were domesticated successfully elsewhere can be blamed on the people, or on the plant itself. He phrases this by asking whether the problem lies with "the people or with the apples," in reference to the fact that Native Americans did not domesticate their local apples. This question is important because it relates to the central issue, regarding whether peoples or their environments are responsible for their rates of development. Diamond concludes that, actually, the answer is neither—the problem was not with individual plant species, but with the range of plants that were available in a given area. Thus, he supports his main argument that the environment is primarily to blame for developmental differences amongst humans.
Around those axes turned the fortunes of history.
This quote concludes Diamond's chapter about the influence of a continent's geographical axes on its rate of diffusion of technology, agriculture, etc. He explains that the rotation of a continent's axes had a substantial effect on diffusion; if its axes were primarily north-south, then diffusion was more difficult because climate varied across the different areas of the continent. If they were east-west, however, it was made easier by the consistency in climates on the continent. Thus, Diamond illustrates the importance of axes by stating that, around them "turned the fortunes of history." The positioning of a continent's axes had an enormous effect on that continent's subsequent human history.
However, food production itself is not a proximate cause. In a one-on-one fight, a naked farmer would have no advantage over a naked hunter-gatherer.
It is important to remember that food production, though a vital factor, was not the only determinant of whether one person could dominate another. Food production is an ultimate cause, meaning it is the original cause that explains certain resulting factors that, themselves, did determine vital differences. Diamond illustrates how proximate vs ultimate causes work in this quote, which gives a vivid example: if one naked farmer and one naked hunter-gatherer fought each other, the farmer would not have any advantage just by his genetics or diet alone. Instead, the advantages come from other factors related to farming. Perhaps the farmer would be able to clothe himself in sturdier clothing, or carry better weapons, or have other farmers who could fight with him.
The second Eurasian attempt to colonize the Americas succeeded because it involved a source, target, latitude, and time that allowed Europe's potential advantages to be exerted effectively.
Toward the end of the text, Diamond reinforces his point that colonization was determined by environmental factors. He explains that there was actually an earlier attempt to colonize the Americas, which we typically do not remember because it was not successful. In this early attempt, colonizers failed because they did not have the right resources or advantages to defeat the native peoples. The second attempt was successful thanks to timing and chance; the Europeans had the right timing, target population, diseases, weapons, and political organization to succeed. This example emphasizes the fact that one peoples' domination of another was not based on biology, but rather on factors outside of human control.
Guns, Germs, and Steel Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Guns, Germs, and Steel is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
That's why Darwin, in his great book On the Origin of Species, didn't start with an account of natural selection. His first chapter is instead a lengthy account of how our domesticated plants and animals arose through artificial...
As I recall, human settlement depended on flora and fauna. Hunter-gathers had thrived on some of the most useful and plentiful flora and fauna in the world. Permanent and semi-permanent settlements were established and "civilization" grew from...