Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 4, Chapter 15 : Around the World in Five Chapters (Yali's People) | Summary



Chapter 15 applies the arguments of Parts 2 and 3 to the history of Australia and New Guinea. It begins with an account of Diamond and his wife hiking in the Australian outback. Although they were experienced desert hikers, the heat and aridity proved too much for them; Diamond began to have heat hallucinations, and they quickly turned back. Diamond argues the extreme harshness of Australia means only very small numbers of people were able to populate the continent and therefore not much technological sophistication was possible, either. Diamond is arguing against a racist argument in this chapter. The racist argument states that whites settled Australia and turned it into a modern, developed democracy in a matter of decades and that Australian Aborigines were not able to do so because of racial qualities. Diamond finds this logic faulty; he argues European settlers imported society and technology that were developed elsewhere. Settlers were not left to develop society and technology from scratch in the inhospitable conditions of Australia.

Australia and New Guinea were once part of a single landmass; the end of the last ice age raised seawater levels. The result was two hemi-continents with very different environments, although both developed in some of the most isolated areas on the globe. New Guinea is extremely wet, has fertile soil, and has a variety of microclimates. Peoples in New Guinea were able to develop village societies and chiefdoms of the kind described in the previous chapter, but they could not advance to states because of the geographic limitations that restricted areas for agriculture and created isolation from the more complex societies of Java and China. Australia remained a hunter-gatherer band society because of its geographic features.


Chapter 15 begins the fourth and final section of the book, in which Diamond applies the arguments he developed in Parts 2 and 3 to specific continental histories: those of Greater Australia, East Asia, Polynesia, the Americas, and Africa. Chapter 15 focuses on Greater Australia; New Guinea and the continent were once part of the same landmass. This section of the book seeks to show how Diamond's arguments, which deal mostly with prehistory and ancient history, shape contemporary features of the modern world. It also sets out to make some of the more abstract geographic concepts a bit more concrete. He does this in Chapter 15 by showing how the modern history of the peoples of Australia and New Guinea, both the indigenous populations and the invading conquerors, were and are dramatically shaped by geography.

Diamond also revives his explicitly anti-racist argument in this chapter to good effect. Had the people of Eurasia developed in Australia, the resulting society would likely have been much like Aboriginal society. Diamond's argument, however, is somewhat marred by his continued ranking of social order on a hierarchy of complexity, with more "complex"—meaning more Western—societies given implicit value.

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