Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Summary

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Summary

Central Question

Guns, Germs, and Steel develops the following question: What caused European societies to gain the advantage and the ingredients of power (guns, germs, and steel) that allowed for global conquest in the age of discovery—the 16th through the 18th centuries—and have continued into the present era? The question was initially posed to Diamond during his travels to New Guinea by a friend named Yali. The prologue is dedicated to "Yali's question." Using the colloquial term for material riches—cargo—Yali asked Diamond, "Why is that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" This question sparked in Diamond a decades-long quest to develop a satisfactory answer, which became the book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Prologue

In the prologue, Diamond argues previous explanations of conquest had fundamental flaws, and he explicitly argues against racist answers to the question. The first flaw he points out is that most arguments are based on some kind of explanation of European technological and scientific advantage, and most of those rested on a foundation of racist notions of intellectual or cultural superiority. For Diamond the racism of the response was troubling because it was offensive and empirically untrue; there is no racial difference in intelligence or other factors, he argues. But the "superiority" argument left further questions unanswered. If humans across the globe have virtually the same capacities and biological characteristics, what caused the social and historical advantages that led to conquest? For this, Diamond tackles the "ultimate explanations" of the major factors of conquest: "guns, infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products," asking what allowed western Europeans to have these advantages.

The "deep causes" Diamond puts forward are geographic and environmental factors. His main argument is condensed around four main continental differences that gave western Eurasians tremendous advantage. Europeans were able to develop large populations who were not tied to agricultural production because most of the plant and animal species that could be domesticated were found primarily on the Eurasian continent. A second factor is that east-west travel and migration routes allowed for plant and animal domestication to flourish along similar latitudinal climates, profoundly different from the north-south migration patterns of Africa and the Americas. Third, such technologies traveled poorly between continents both because of geographic isolation and because of environmental differences; plants and animals that did well in temperate Europe struggled in arid Australia or the mountainous southern cone of the Americas. The fourth and final cause is the tremendous geographic size and variation of the Eurasian continent. This allowed for greater variation and ingenuity between and within societies as well as the ability to import and develop technologies and ideas developed elsewhere.

Part 1

Guns, Germs, and Steel is divided into four parts with 19 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. Part 1 of the book, "From Eden to Cajamarca," covers 12,000 years of human history, taking us from "the Great Leap Forward"—the development of modern humans and their societies—to the conquest of the Incas by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1532. It also establishes the major question and methodologies of the book, asking why Pizarro was successful against the Incas and demonstrating the viability of the geographic model of social explanation through a look at the Polynesian islands.

Part 2

Part 2 of the book, titled "The Rise and Spread of Food Production," provides the bulk of the argument about how and why food and animal domestication happened most extensively on the Eurasian continent. It explores how and why some societies developed and utilized agricultural food production over hunter-gatherer subsistence, which is the crux of much of Diamond's argument. Crucial here is how east-west geographic regionalism allowed food and livestock to spread from its origin in the Fertile Crescent to western Europe.


Part 3

Part 3 explores the process "From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel." In it Diamond argues domesticated food and animal production, over millennia, exposed people to germs that eventually, through the process of natural selection, granted peoples a degree of immunity. Large, sedentary populations that produced food were also able to develop writing, advanced technologies, and state-based political systems.

Part 4

Part 4, "Around the World in Five Chapters," takes these ideas into the world, showing development in Australia, East Asia, the Pacific islands, the Americas, and Africa, and provides a new linguistic analysis that Diamond uses to support the main argument in Parts 2 and 3. The epilogue looks at counterarguments and makes the case for the scientific study of human history.

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