Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and SteelA quick glance at Jared Diamond’s fields of expertise will give you some idea of what you are in store for when you read him: physiology, biology, ornithology, environmentalism, history, ecology, geography and anthropology. And a good thing, too, that his base of knowledge is so vast, because Guns, Germs and Steel is ambitious in the extreme, seeking to answer a question most likely pondered by everyone who has travelled extensively or simply watched National Geographic: why is it that some societies still hunt their food, live in tribes, or use stone tools, while others have grocery stores, smart phones and international airports? Why is that that Eurasian nations have come to dominate the world politically, militarily, and economically, while others still struggle to feed and clothe their citizens?

As is probably to be expected, there is a lengthy preamble in which Diamond defuses possible objections to the study of human civilizations and their dominance or subordination. Does finding reasons for one nation’s dominance excuse or justify it? Does this not provide fodder for racists or nationalists? In fact, Diamond argues, the study of this part of our history is necessary precisely because, for so long, the answer was presumed to be some variation of racial superiority. When Europeans first encountered Native American or African tribes, who were at a significant disadvantage by any quantifiable measure, the de facto presumption was that they were an inferior breed, destined by god or nature to languish in poverty, and this provided the justification for all manner of evils.  Diamond seeks to provide a better explanation, one based on facts and data rather than racist notions of ethnic superiority, and he does so in utterly convincing fashion, drawing on the full breadth of his learning to demonstrate just how complex – and how dependent on chance – are the histories of human civilizations.

He begins by drawing a distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in what is now Mexico and Peru in the 16th century, they benefited from steel armor, guns, horses and highly evolved germs to which they had developed a resistance. These are all proximate causes, from which the book derives its title. But the question remains: why did Spain have the guns, the steel and the germs, and not the doomed Incas, Aztecs or Mayans? Answering that question, not only in the case of Spain but Europe and Asia as well, is the focus of the rest of the book, and proves to entail a series of subsequent questions as well.

As Diamond demonstrates, geography is the ultimate causes. Those peoples, chiefly Eurasian, that settled on continents with favorable climate conditions, domesticable animals and native plants conducive to agriculture were given an advance start on the majority of the world in farming and food production. The alignment of the continents – the orientation of their major axis relative to the equator – determined how much of their overall area was conducive to particular seeds, and thereby how easily agricultural knowledge could be passed on. In Europe and Asia, which have an East-West orientation, seeds that were suitable for one growing season could be easily transferred across the continent, where they would benefit from that same growing season. In contrast, the dominant axis of the Americas and Africa is oriented North-South, creating strong variance in temperatures and seasons that were not favorable to the early spread of agriculture. Similarly, geographic barriers like deserts and oceans cut off certain continents from the competitive interchange of ideas and technology from which Europe and Asia benefited so richly.

Agriculture, as opposed to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, supports a greater population and allows for sedentary societies, both preconditions for complex systems of government and mercantile classes that give rise to technological advances. Thus it was only in agricultural societies that writing first developed, and only in agricultural societies that complex forms of government took hold. If agriculture created favorable conditions for society, it also created ideal conditions for germs and epidemics. Large populations of humans living in increasingly denser environments, coupled with the close proximity of farm animals, proved to be perfect breeding conditions for bacteria. Epidemics ravaged Europe, leaving behind only those people fortunate enough to carry a genetic immunity. After multiple generations, Europeans had evolved a genetic resistance to germs that, by contrast to those in found in, for example, the Americas, were highly evolved, capable of overwhelming the immune systems of populations who had no prior exposure to them.

If all of this, in summary, does not seem particularly impressive or groundbreaking, rest assured that Guns, Germs and Steel develops its thesis over 500 pages, going into incredibly minute detail as it charts the dominant human migrations out of Africa and into the variance continents, laying the foundation for a sweeping understanding of our planet’s human diversity and renewing my appreciation for the remarkable resilience of our species. This is the best kind of science: interdisciplinary, meticulously researched and, above all, bearing direct relevance to all humanity.