Guns, Germs and Steel

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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at UCLA. It won the Pulitzer Prize for 1998, as well as the Aventis Prize for best science book in the same year. According to the author, "An alternative title would be: A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years." But the book is not merely an account of the past; it attempts to explain why Western civilization, as a whole, has survived and conquered others, while refuting the belief that European hegemony is due to any form of European intellectual superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.



Prologue and anticipation of criticisms

The prologue to the book opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term for inventions and manufactured goods, "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?"

Diamond found that he had no good answer. He says that the same sort of question seems to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin ... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, having thrown off colonial domination, lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) He says that, unable to find a satisfactory explanation from the best-known accounts of history, he decided to make his own investigation.

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (p. 17):

  • "If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?" His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. "[Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.
  • Doesn't addressing the question "automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of western Europeans ... ?" But, according to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of western European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to Western Europe."
  • "[D]on't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable,...?" On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes.

The theory outlined

Before anyone developed agriculture, people lived as hunter-gatherers, as some still do.

Diamond argues that European civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is more like a house of cards, each level dependent upon the levels below it. Specifically, the key to civilization is agriculture. The keys to agriculture are domesticable plant and animal species for food and work. The demands for domesticability of an animal species are particularly stringent. Diamond identifies six criteria including the animal being sufficiently docile, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and having a social dominance hierarchy.


GGS argues that cities require an ample supply of food and thus depend on agriculture. As farmers do the work of providing food, others are free to pursue other functions, such as mining and literacy. (Division of labour.)

Essential to the transition from hunter-gatherer to city-dwelling agrarian societies was the presence of large domesticable animals, raised for meat, work and long-distance communication. Diamond identifies a mere 14 suitable candidate species world wide. The 5 most important (cow, horse, sheep, goat and pig) are all native to Eurasia. Of the remaining 9, only one (the llama of South America) is indigenous to a land outside the temperate region of Eurasia. None of the 14 is native to Africa. The Holocene extinction event eliminated many of the candidate species, and Diamond argues that the pattern of extinction is more severe on continents were humans arrived later and with more devastating hunting techniques.

Smaller domesticable animals such as dogs, cats, chickens and guinea pigs may be valuable in various ways to an agricultural society, but will not be adequate in themselves to sustain large-scale agrarian society.


Diamond also explains how geography shaped human migration, not simply by making travel difficult (particularly by longitude), but by how climates affect where domesticable animals can easily travel and where crops can ideally grow.

Modern humans are believed to have developed in the southern region of the African continent, at one time or another (see Out of Africa theory). The Sahara kept people from migrating north to the Fertile Crescent, until later when the Nile river valley became accommodating. Some peoples, such as the Aborigines of Australia, are believed to have been early emigrants from Africa, leaving by boat.

Diamond continues to explain the story of human development up to the modern era, through the rapid development of technology, and its dire consequences on hunter-gathering cultures around the world.


In the later context of the European-American conquest of the Americas, 90 percent of the indigenous populations are believed to have been killed off by diseases unwittingly brought by the Europeans.

How was it then that disease native to the American continents did not kill off Europeans? Diamond points out that the combined effect of the increased population densities supported by agriculture, and of close human proximity to domesticated animals leading to animal diseases infecting humans, resulted in European societies acquiring a much richer collection of dangerous pathogens to which European peoples had acquired immunity through natural selection (see the Black Death and other epidemics) during a longer time than was the case for Native American hunter-gatherers and farmers. (He mentions the tropical diseases that limited European penetration into Africa as an exception.)

Other theories

In addition to the central thesis, Professor Diamond includes related (and sometimes controversial) observations:

  • In the prologue he writes that "in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners", which is his personal observation from interacting with both societies, and is defended with the socioevolutionary argument that the trait of "intelligence" was selected for in the hunter-gathering New Guinea societies, but not the densely populated European civilizations (where the major survival pressure was on the genes for resisting epidemics).
  • In chapter 13 (on invention) Necessity's mother he writes (page 248) that the QWERTY keyboard layout has become entrenched despite "trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent". This gives great weight to a trial carried out by the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard company (with a rival system to sell), as independent trials never replicated these results. (Other analysts have found that the current layout is optimal; since it was not designed "to force typists to type as slowly as possible.")
  • In chapter 19 (How Africa Became Black) he speculates that if the Dutch had arrived in South Africa after the Bantu they would have been unable to establish themselves in Cape Town, and says that since both sets of invaders displaced the Khoisan people the Dutch claim of prior occupation (although true) "needn't be taken seriously".

Criticisms of methodology

Some people criticize the argument of the book as derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julien Steward, and Esther Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture and economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.

Others have criticized the book as an example of environmental determinism in the service of Eurocentrism. The charge is not that the book claims any essential superiority of European civilization or culture, nor that the book claims any inherent superiority of some European race. These critics assert that the problem with earlier cultural and racial explanations of European superiority (explanations that Diamond rejects) is not just that their explanations are wrong, but that what they are trying to explain — European superiority — is itself a Western myth. Although Diamond explicitly argues against European cultural or racial superiority, the charge is that his own argument serves many of the same functions as nineteenth century European claims to cultural or racial superiority, by suggesting that Europeans were destined to rule the globe. Diamond anticipates this criticism in the first point in his introduction.

Specifically, some argue that:

  • It suggests that European civilization has "won" some competition. This suggestion is implicit; Diamond explicitly compares two Oceanian societies in a natural experiment in order to demonstrate the primacy of environmental factors in explaining why some societies are more developed than others. This is a false analogy, because a comparison is not the same thing as an experiment. Human history is far from over; therefore it is impossible to say that any one society has "won" over another form, as long as both survive. In other words, experiments must have clear endings and the human "experiment" never ends. As well as supporting this view, Timothy Taylor goes further by questioning whether Cortez actually "won" in his conflict with the Aztecs in the first place. Taylor accuses Diamond of assuming that Cortez was the victor because the European culture supplanted the Aztec. He says that this is a eurocentric analysis, because the Aztecs may have considered their "fate and chances of eternal salvation" as more promising than the conquistadors'. He writes that while the book sees environmental adaption and resource-base expansion as self-evidently good, the Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological cost. See similar views from anthropologists at: discourse (
  • It overlooks or obscures the importance of non-European (especially African) knowledge, technologies, and labor in European development, and the fact that Europeans forcibly appropriated much of this knowledge, technology, and labor. In other words, the "ascendancy" in question is one that has primarily benefited Europeans but is not specifically "European" in nature.
  • It makes little attempt to explain relatively recent geographic transitions in technology, power and wealth; in particular the rise of Europe and the decline of south-west Asia since about 1500 AD.
  • The effect of the above three problems is that Diamond's book suggests the inevitability of European ascendancy. Although Diamond's reliance on geography is not "racist" per se, it has the same effect of naturalizing differences.

Instead, these critics argue that European ascendancy was far from inevitable; a result of complex political and economic forces that cannot be reduced to environment; and likely a temporary phenomenon.

For a review of these criticisms, see the geographer James M. Blaut's Eight Eurocentric Historians.

Many historians dispute Diamond’s “law of history” regarding of dominance of agricultural societies over their non-agricultural neighbors. In fact, there are numerous cases of nomadic societies conquering agricultural ones: the Hittite conquest of the ancient Middle East, the successive movements of the Celtic and Germanic people across Europe, the Aryan migration into India, the Turkish conquest of much of the Moslem world that began in the 11th century, and the vast Mongolian conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries.

A more fundamental argument against Diamond’s thesis is that he does not understand the true nature of history; if history is defined as “a study of human actions” then it must be a study of conscious action and the evolution of ideas, rather than environmental factors. The ability of man to shape his environment and create a positive environment for growth presents many counterexamples to Diamond’s thesis, such as the numerous cases of rapid prosperity achieved by countries with few resources but free markets such as Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. (Compared with nations blessed with natural resources that have stagnated under interventionist governments, examples: Brazil, Nigeria, and Russia.)

Responses to criticisms of methodology

With regard to the question of whether or not there has been some sort of competition that has been "won and lost", Diamond asserts, in the third sentence of the prologue, that "the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies." It is possible that this defines the "competition" that Diamond attempts to explain, and that being conquered is a definite loss, even if not final or absolute. He says that in some cases (such as China) "absorbing the invader" is a long-term strategy for cultural survival that has proven successful, but in other cases – Aztec civilization for instance – the combination of germs and cultural shock has wiped out the colonized culture. Diamond cites analysts who predict the ‘supremacy’ of Asia in the 21st Century, and says that he doesn’t dispute the claim that the current hegemony of Europe (and its colonies) is "temporary".

With regard to the fact that non-European peoples have contributed (often involuntarily) to European society, Diamond does not deny this; he writes that he is in fact concerned with exactly this: explaining facts like why Europeans enslaved Africans and not vice versa. (Confusing Diamond's simple story is the fact that about 1.5 million Europeans were enslaved on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, beginning before the mass European enslavement of Africans in the triangle trade. He emphasises that similar counter-examples do not occur between the "New World" and the old.)

With regard to changes since 1500 AD in the power of southwest Asia compared with Europe, Diamond does touch on this in his conclusion, he says for example that SW Asia's intense agriculture damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty), and that political homogeneity led to stagnation. Indeed, it is a matter of historical record that, circa 1500, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated in a single political decision; in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. He also says that India on the other hand may have been too fragmented for a monumental rise in power similar to Europe's. In fact, many attempts were made to ban technologies such as firearms, but only in politically unified and isolated nations (such as Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate) were such bans successful. Still, it is true that the book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about 1500 AD. Furthermore, Diamond's arguments are rather broad, and mostly argue that Eurasia (as opposed to Europe) would inevitably be dominant.

Diamond has answered the critique of historical counterexamples (in differing growth rates unrelated to material endowments) by claiming that these cases represent short-term growth over (at most) fifty year time windows. In the case of rapidly expanding economies (such as the "East Asian Tigers") the rapid growth is usually explained (in economics) as one country "catching-up" to the rest, through trade and technological transfer (which would have been very difficult between continents in the pre-1500 period the book concentrates on). Instances of civilizations stagnating or being conquered despite having access to superior resources than their neighbours are mentioned several times in this book; in Professor Diamond’s view these reversals of fortune support his thesis, providing a mechanism for the spread of cultural dynamism and technology within continents but not (until the "Age of Exploration") between them. (His later work, Collapse tied environment and the fate of individual civilizations together more closely, but in Guns, Germs, and Steel his argument is made at the continental level, rather than the level of specific societies.)

In the epilogue Diamond discusses "The future of human history as a science", pre-empting the criticism that he fails to understand what history is about by defining what he thinks part of it should be. He contrasts various styles of historical interpretation, and compares these to the practise of other academics who call themselves "scientists". He says he is "optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs".

Finally, Diamond's view is undoubtedly largely "deterministic" in that it argues that Eurasian dominance was inevitable, or at least very likely (sometimes called "Geographical determinism"). Nevertheless, Diamond explicitly asks (on page 17) whether this inevitability would "justify the domination", and whether it renders futile modern attempts to "change the outcome". He denies that it does because the effects of proven environmental determinism could be easily nullified by contemporary transport and communication, whereas the effects of proven racial determinism might be used to justify genocide.

Criticism of scholarship

Other historians have questioned some of the specific propositions Diamond marshals to prove his case on grounds of fact and/or plausibility. For example:

  • Professor Joel Mokyr asks whether North-East American Sumpweed is not a counter-example to Diamond's claim that Eurasia was endowed with all of the world’s domesticatable crops. The book argues that although the flower is a "a nutritionist's ultimate dream" it was not possible to use it in farming because it causes hay fever, skin irritation, and smells bad. Mokry says that these are unpersuasive arguments that might be applied to the ancestors of Eurasian crops.
  • Diamond cites modern zoologist's inability to domesticate the zebra as evidence that it could not have been domesticated over the past forty millennia in Africa. Again; this has been challenged as not in-itself a persuasive argument. It appears to these critics that modern failures to domesticate elephants and zebras are provided only as a fallbacks to Diamond's main point that since these animals have not been domesticated they could not be. (I.e. denying the antecedent, or as the Science & Society editorial puts it: "tautological reading-backwards from the present"). Supportive reviews have pointed out that Diamond produces further arguments, such as the ingenuity of native peoples in exploiting their environment as evidence of the difficulty of domesticating such animals. Surely, he writes, the native peoples who tamed elephants for use in war would have tried to breed them in captivity. If native peoples were clever enough to selectively breed modern forms of corn from the vastly different variety that grew in the wild, surely they could have found a way to domesticate elephants.

See also

External links

  • The World According to Jared Diamond ( is a positive review of Diamond's thesis from Georgetown University in 2001. It points out that the historical evidence is weaker than it appears because roughly 80% of humanity lived in Eurasia rather than the other continents, so that the "deck was stacked even without Diamond's biogeographical factors". J.R. McNeill judges the book a "compelling illustration that human history is embedded in the larger web of life on earth."
  • Food, social evolution, and conquest ( is a Science & Society editorial on the book from the marxist perspective, arguing that its ideas are insightful, but require the addition of the social dimension to produce a theory with more explanatory power.
  • Professor (of Economics and History) Joel Mokyr reviews the book ( from the perspective of teaching and understanding economic history, his Northwestern University review says that Diamond has revived the respectability of "Geographic Determinism" in economic history, and that whilst many of his assertions are questionable the book presents a well-thought out argument that will make the reader wiser and better informed.
  • A PowerPoint slideshow on geographical determinism ( contrasting the "Diamond Thesis" with other theories of modern wealth distribution (from University of Washington).


- this is a more extensive discussion of the effects of geography on comparative Chinese and European development than is allowed in the final section of Professor Diamond's book, and predates it by sixteen years.he:רובים חיידקים ופלדה

hu:Háborúk,_Járványok,_Technikák it:Armi, acciaio e malattie


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