Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 3, Chapter 12 : From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel (Blueprints and Borrowed Letters) | Summary



Chapter 12 is about the relationship of literacy to geography and conquest. Diamond explains that "writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest." While preliterate peoples also had empires and successful conquests, Diamond argues that "writing made the transmission [of information] easier, more detailed, more accurate, and more persuasive." This chapter attempts to answer the related questions of why writing developed in some societies and not others as well as why and how it spread to others that did not generate their own.

There are three different types of writing systems: alphabets, as used by Greek- and Latin-derived languages; logograms, where one word is represented by a symbol, as with Chinese and Japanese kanji; and syllabaries, whereby each syllable gets its own symbol. Often languages use a mix of all three, as with Sumerian cuneiform and the writing of Mesoamerica, the only two indisputable instances of independent writing origination in human history. Written language is difficult to develop because of the complex nature of taking a spoken language and relating it to abstract and decipherable individual signs and symbols. Diamond speculates that writing in ancient Sumer came from pictorial accounting of agricultural stores and then evolved through a process called the rebus principle, in which simple pictures are used with silent markers to distinguish words and meaning. The origin of Mesoamerica's writing was likely similar.

From these sources, how and why did writing spread? Was it "blueprint copying," wherein details of the written language are shared and adapted, or was it "idea diffusion," whereby peoples exposed to the idea of written language began the painstaking process of developing their own? Furthermore, why was writing not more widespread in the Americas? Often little is known about the origins of writing systems. Some writing systems, such as the Cyrillic and Latin traditions, adopted existing systems with variations to their spoken language, a process again copied for Romance and Slavic languages. Ancient Semitic peoples experimented with hieroglyphs developed by the Egyptians to create alphabets and added inventions such as vowels, from which many of the modern writing systems are derived. From here, "blueprint copying" spread writing across much of Eurasia and beyond. By contrast, the system of idea diffusion can be seen in the modern period with the development of the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah in 1820. Other examples include the Korean alphabet devised by King Sejong, the script of Easter Island, and others.

So why did writing develop in the first place? Earliest writings are bureaucratic accounts of matters of the state, food storage, rations paid, and the like, prompting anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to quip that the purpose of writing was "to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings." Indeed, for millennia writing was the private reserve of scribes of state power, and only later were prose, poetry, and more expressive writing developed. Hunter-gatherers did not develop this process because they did not have the same "institutional uses" as hierarchical agricultural societies. Diamond concludes that "food production and thousands of years of societal evolution following its adoption were as essential for the evolution of writing as for the evolution of microbes causing human epidemic diseases."


In the same way that Chapter 11 connected geography to immunity, Chapter 12 seeks to connect the influence of geography on human social organization to a specific factor of global conquest centuries later—in this case, the system of writing. Writing facilitated the process of food production, storage, and administration for dense, urban, sophisticated societies. That need could then be used to facilitate other processes, such as the construction of states and the resulting violence. When states became empires, writing again played a crucial role, facilitating the process of expansion and allowing the recording of and reflection on new discoveries.

Chapter 12 pairs the only two known independent developments of systems of writing—those of the ancient Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica—and asks why the uses of writing were so different in each. Sumerian writing spread across the entire continent, while the Aztec system was localized to Central America. Here, Diamond's geographic argument is at root; had it not been for the east-west migration and diffusion patterns of Eurasia, Europeans may never have developed their own writing. Peoples in the Americas, meanwhile, were limited by their geography, as the difficulty of north-south mobility prevented writing from spreading outside of Mesoamerica.

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