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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Context

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Political and Intellectual Trends of the Late 1990s

The publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel in 1997 capped a series of political and intellectual trends of the late 1990s, including the quincentennial (the 500-year anniversary) of the conquest of the Americas, the growth of new sciences such as evolutionary biology and genetics, and the political and academic field of postcolonial studies. Author Jared Diamond sees his work as both a scientific and political intervention in these three areas. In particular he was interested in debunking racial or biological explanations, such as inherent European superiority, for global conquest in the "age of discovery" (roughly the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries).

Diamond's scientific approach to studying human society was supported by other scientific developments at the time. People in the field of genetics were in the process of coding the human genome and proving human racial categories had no biological basis. This also led to new thinking about how genetics were shaped in the process of history and how humans and their societies continued to develop on evolutionary terms.

In the political realm, 1992 (the 500-year anniversary of the conquest of the Americas) saw tremendous debate about the causes and consequences of conquest. Much of the conversation revolved around the figure of Christopher Columbus. At the same time, postcolonial studies that examined the effects of colonial rule on conquered societies were forcing a reevaluation of the Eurocentric worldview of history. Diamond takes up many of these positions and questions as the foundation of his book.

Conquest of the Americas

The year 1992 marked the 500-year anniversary of the conquest of the Americas, and tremendous debate emerged about the nature and the legacy of the conquest. Much of the debate was framed by social historians who sought to complicate and reconsider the largely celebratory narrative of European conquest. Two aspects of the debate were the consequences of conquest for indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere as well as the causes of colonial domination by Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and other European powers.

In discussing the causes of European conquest, many interpretations relied on some form of European superiority, highlighting the disparity in technology, weapons, and immunities. Traditional scholars sought to show that this was reflective of "European civilization," while the revisionist social historians argued the impacts of violence and disease called into question any notion of European superiority.

Diamond's work pushes beyond much of this debate by looking for deeper causes of the differences between Old and New World societies. Guns, Germs, and Steel asks the question: If Europeans had superior weapons and immunities, why? In seeking answers Diamond explores the 13,000-year sweep of human history, showing how this superiority was not because of greater intelligence or sophistication, but rather because of the impacts of geographic and environmental factors on human societies in western Eurasia and the lands they were to eventually conquer. In short, western Europeans benefited from millennia of evolution and exchange across the Eurasian continent, a process that brought writing, gunpowder, agriculture, and immunities to Europeans.

Evolutionary Physiology

Diamond's initial training was as a physiologist, and in the 1980s and 1990s a new subfield, evolutionary physiology, was emerging from this discipline. Evolutionary physiology explores how aspects of living organisms are influenced and shaped by generational change and environmental factors. This draws heavily on the broader and older field of evolutionary biology and on the emergence of modern genetics in the 1970s and 1980s. Combined, these fields explore how humans as a species evolved to meet environmental factors as well as the role of specific genes and other mechanisms to adapt to natural environments.

Diamond applied these insights to human societies, not just to human physiology and genetics. He found many of the major factors that facilitated European conquest—such as advanced sailing and nautical technology, military weapons and training, and immunity from infectious diseases—ultimately came from environmental and geographic sources. In particular, migrations across the Eurasian continent exposed Europeans to agriculture and domesticated animals, which spurred the development of immunities over generations. This cause-and-effect relationship is thought to be attributed to exposure to microbes that help train developing immune systems. Furthermore, these developments eventually helped produce writing, gunpowder, and nautical and navigational technologies that allowed for conquest and exploration.

Postcolonial Studies

By the 1990s postcolonial studies were gaining credibility and having an impact on academic and popular culture. Postcolonial studies seek to show how many people in the fields of social science, literature, and the humanities view colonized societies through a lens of power, race, and gender that distorts their understanding. An important methodology in this tradition is to place the peoples, ideas, cultures, and societies of colonized peoples at the center of study and evaluate them on their own terms. A key figure in this tradition is literature professor Edward Said, whose 1978 work Orientalism revolutionized Middle Eastern studies and is a foundational text for postcolonialism.

Diamond's work can be viewed in the tradition of postcolonial studies in some ways, but it also offers major breaks with the tradition. For example, Diamond's opening question about contemporary global inequalities and the history of these developments places the colonized at the center of his study. Yali, a New Guinean friend, frames Diamond's 1972 study with a key question—"Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [i.e., steel tools and other products of civilization] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Diamond argues that science and empiricism provide the methodologies for getting at some answers. Guns, Germs, and Steel is exactly this: a postcolonial social study using empiricism and scientific methodologies.
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