Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 4, Chapter 18 : Around the World in Five Chapters (Hemispheres Colliding) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 18 rehashes familiar territory with the basic question, "Why did Europeans reach and conquer the lands of Native Americans, instead of vice versa?" In this chapter Diamond applies the arguments for Parts 2 and 3 to the disparities between Eurasian and American peoples and to the conquest. Here, Diamond cogently restates his central arguments: the one glaring difference between western Eurasian and American societies was in their food systems, particularly in the existence of several large domesticated animals in Eurasia and only one—the llama—in the Americas. This single factor, a result of the massive extinctions in the Americas in the Late Pleistocene, had a tremendous impact on the course of history. Diamond observes, "if it had not been for those extinctions, modern history might have taken a different course." There were other differences that mattered, such as the protein-rich cereals of Eurasia compared to protein-poor corn in the Americas. From here the other proximate factors developed: literacy, technology, immunity to germs, and organization into states.

Diamond compares the dates of relatively similar developments in both Eurasia and the Americas and argues that a longer exposure to many of the practices discussed in the book gave Eurasian conquerors an advantage. For example, while American peoples, especially those of Mesoamerica and the southern cone, developed plant and animal domestication, urban settlements, complex states, and in one instance writing, often they were developed several thousand years after the practices had become widely used in Eurasia.

A fresh element is introduced when Diamond describes and compares the linguistic patterns of Eurasia and America. While Eurasia has a few large language families that each hold hundreds of distinct languages (such as the Indo-European language group that includes English and Hindi), America has relatively few of these large language groupings. The significance for Diamond is clear: the linguistic record indicates American peoples were relatively isolated. They did not benefit from the east-west latitudinal geographic dispersal patterns that graced Eurasia. Instead, the peoples of the Americas were hindered by their geography, settlement practices, languages, and technology, unable to expand or overcome the harsh differences of the American climates and bioregions.

Diamond also touches on Norse excursions into the American continent in this chapter, but he argues geography—the high latitude of their explorations and their inability to survive harsh northern conditions—doomed their attempts.

Analysis

Chapter 18 provides the most complete and succinct summation of the overall argument of the book, and it also introduces a couple of new facets. If readers are looking for a single chapter encapsulating the entire work, Chapter 18 provides the best overview.

Diamond also presents his compelling linguistic argument here—large language groups of Eurasia speak to patterns and lineages of settlement, expansion, and exchange—which is absent in other sections of the book but is the major contribution of the fourth part.

The section on Norse conquest or attempted conquest seems to add little to his overall argument and is too brief to be fully convincing.

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