Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Main Ideas

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond attempts to make both a scholarly and a political argument. He interjects an interdisciplinary and geographic framework using scientific methodologies in the study of human societies. Politically, Diamond is trying to undo racist frameworks for understanding contemporary power dynamics and the course of human history.

Importance of Geography

Diamond hopes to show the power of geography in shaping human social organization. He shows readers that the layouts of continents, the types of climates, the available resources, and the flow of human, plant, and animal species have tremendous consequences not just for human physiology or evolutionary biology but for the shape and content of human societies. Indeed, this is Diamond's major contribution: arguing there is a direct and causal relationship between geography and human social organization and processes. In short, geography impacts the content of history, conquest, politics, and technology.

Diamond demonstrates this causal relationship by "reverse engineering" the process of history, starting with questions about contemporary wealth and power inequality from his New Guinean friend, Yali. Moving backward in time, he asks about conquest and empire. Then he moves further back to explore the "proximate factors" of conquest in technology and immunities, and then further back still to explore human prehistory and the origin of human settlement and social organization. These origins, Diamond argues, are fundamentally tied to geography, to the type of available natural flora and fauna, to the type of human movement possible over or around geographic obstacles, and to other factors. It is a compelling picture that draws on anthropology, evolutionary biology, animal physiology, linguistics, archaeology, and other fields.

In both time scale and area, Diamond is thinking very big. He is attempting to provide a grand narrative and singular framework that can help to explain much of human history. Human geography is at the core of this thinking.

Questioning Violence and Conquest

Violence and conquest play a central role in Diamond's work. He takes the issue of violence—in particular, successful uses of violence—as something that needs to be questioned and explained. At the same time, he seems to assume violence is a fixed part of the human experience.

Part 1 of the book concludes with a detailed account, some of it pulled directly from firsthand source material, of Pizarro's conquest of the Incas without a single Spanish casualty. Diamond bases his entire book around this turning point in human history. He seeks ways to explain how this moment was structured, what enabled it to play out the way it did, and why Spanish conquistadors had such overwhelming advantages in a military contest. In this he is largely successful, showing how geographic factors, such as the layout of continents and the types and variety of flora and fauna, helped produce developments on the Eurasian continent that were not easily replicated elsewhere.

However, Diamond also seems to believe violence is a fixed part of the human condition, ever present in human interaction and exchange on both the individual and social levels. Strangely, he does not attempt to show how violence itself is socially and historically structured or how factors such as culture play into uses and understandings of violence, or at least, given his emphasis, how geographic factors influence how violence is used. Instead, interpersonal violence appears in the work to justify the formation of states in agricultural societies, an assumption that could be challenged as much as conquest is questioned.

Culture or Materiality?

A major idea of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that material factors—geography, food production, and the biology of immunity—dramatically influence the content of human societies and the course of history. While he shies away from arguing geography and materiality "determine" history and social formations, Diamond comes very close to making this argument. His vision in the book is that geography and its impact on human material culture are fundamental, an "ultimate factor," in explaining causality in human societies, and he makes an excellent case. In just one example, humans developed immunological defenses against infection over millennia based on their exposure to domesticated animals. This factor gave western Eurasian peoples a tremendous immunological advantage over peoples for whom widespread domestication of animals had not been possible. For this insight alone, and the related idea that these developments were tied to geographic factors rather than human ingenuity, the book is a tremendous accomplishment.

However, do geography and materiality explain everything? Is every "ultimate factor" at base a geographic one? What about factors of culture, ideology, human consciousness, cognition, and agency? Diamond's book is much weaker when addressing these factors. In the epilogue he does include some concluding remarks about how culture is also important. He gives the example of Latin-based typewriters retaining the QWERTY keyboard, or Chinese or Japanese retention of kanji (system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters) rather than the adoption of more efficient systems of writing. But these examples are rather trivial cultural matters. Diamond does not mention how cultures of violence and conquest may have differed between peoples and how these cultural differences may also have been a "proximate" factor of conquest. That Guns, Germs, and Steel leans so heavily on material factors in its explanations is one of its strengths, as it makes an excellent case. It is also a major weakness, as clearly geography and materiality cannot explain everything.

Anti-Racism

A final major theme of the book is the development of an argument explaining the European conquest of much of the globe without relying on an argument based on European supremacy. At the outset Diamond is explicit that he wanted to develop a convincing argument that ultimately does not rest on the notion that European or Eurasian peoples were simply more ingenious, inventive, sophisticated, or advanced. The title of his book reflects this anti-racist agenda. The most commonly ascribed immediate, "proximate" causes of conquest were an immunity to disease, the advanced technology of writing and navigation, and weapons (swords and guns), all of which aided Europeans in their quest for domination.

Diamond says that if we look beyond the "guns, germs, and steel" argument, common assumptions about why Europeans had those benefits have to do with greater intelligence or other notions of superiority. Based on his experiences and the emerging science that has found race has no significant impact on features such as intelligence, Diamond looks for more satisfactory, deeper, "ultimate" causes of conquest.

Here, geography plays a major role. Eurasians were not "smarter" than the peoples of New Guinea or the Americas. Instead, they benefited from an accident of human geography. The continent of Eurasia had great biotic diversity, which enabled plant and animal domestication to develop more easily and meet greater needs. Furthermore, because of the east-west arrangement of the Eurasian continent with similar climates along similar latitudes, agriculture and other developments could spread more easily. Had the peoples of the world been switched in the Late Pleistocene, Diamond argues, the results would be much the same. Those in western Eurasia had a tremendous geographic, not racial, advantage.

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