Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 1, Chapter 2 : From Eden to Cajamarca (A Natural Experiment of History) | Summary



Chapter 2 looks at the expansion of humans throughout the Polynesian islands. It argues the case for geographic factors shaping the types of societies that develop. The chapter opens with an anecdote about the Maori of New Zealand and the Moriori peoples of the Chatham Islands. In 1835 the Maori discovered and wiped out the Moriori, a peaceful, democratic, and generally defenseless people. Diamond asks why this happened, and why, given that both peoples came from the same ancestors, they developed very different ways of life. His answer is that it was because of the geographic conditions of the Chatham Islands and northern New Zealand. Much farther south, and therefore much colder and less hospitable, the Chatham Islands produced a hunter-gatherer society based on general equality and horizontal social relationships. They had no stores of crops and therefore could not generate surplus populations to create a state, a military, or other specialized social positions. Northern New Zealand, on the other hand, was much warmer and could sustain agriculture, which allowed for dense populations and special groups of soldiers that fueled "ferocious wars."

The story of the Maori and the Moriori provides "a small test within a medium-sized test" about the development of human societies. Diamond argues here that geography—the divergence between the islands—produced two very different types of societies for the Maori and the Moriori, his small test, and that the same holds true for all of the Polynesian islands, his medium test. The author argues that in the rest of Polynesia, geographic variations between islands and atolls fundamentally shaped the types of societies that developed there. Six factors in particular, "climate, geological type, marine resources, area, terrain fragmentation, and isolation," all contributed to the shaping of societies. On islands such as Hawaii, agriculture, large populations, and a stratified society with kings and subjects were possible. In others, they simply were not.


Chapter 2 establishes Diamond's scientific and geographic approach to studying the development of human societies. He is trying to show readers, in the one very small example of the Moriori people, that geography has tremendous impacts on not only human physiological and biological factors but the very structure and scope of human societies. Diamond needs to establish this empirically early on for the rest of his study to work, and he hopes the example of the Moriori and Maori will convince his readers. He then uses the small example to show how these factors played out over the rest of the Polynesian islands, allowing readers to infer that what is true for island societies is also true for large societies on continents. Key to Diamond's scientific approach is his use of comparable peoples, placing groups in pairs and isolating the factors that may play a role in social change until he identifies key causal agents.

While geographic and material factors play a large role in Diamond's explanation, he doesn't seem to consider human consciousness and culture as part of the causal picture shaping human prehistory. For example, it is unknown why the ancestors of the Moriori broke from New Zealand to form their own society in harsher conditions. A cultural or individual propensity for more egalitarian living could have played a role, a factor then facilitated by the climate and geography of the Chatham Islands. Furthermore, Diamond finds the democratic structure of the Moriori to be less "complex" than that of the hierarchical Maori, a judgment that is somewhat subjective.

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