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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Quotes

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1.

Why is that you white people developed so much cargo ... but we black people had little cargo?


Yali, Prologue

Yali is author Jared Diamond's friend in New Guinea. Yali uses the colloquial word cargo for material wealth. His question is the basis for the entire book, and Diamond tries to look for "ultimate" rather than "proximate" answers. He discovers geographic factors, climate, domesticated animals, and human trade and migration made conquest—and therefore wealth inequalities—possible.

2.

Literacy made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and history.


Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

This quotation shows how just one factor—literacy—allowed Francisco Pizarro to set a trap for Atahuallpa and facilitated the process of conquest of the Incas. Diamond shows how literacy gave Pizarro a military advantage in tactics and strategy through access to a large history of military knowledge and events.

3.

Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland!


Levi, Part 2, Chapter 4

Levi, a Blackfoot farmhand, erupts in an outburst of anger to his boss. Diamond uses the anecdote to explore how a farming people such as the Swiss, or Europeans in general, could go on to own the land of the Blackfeet, a fierce and nomadic group of Great Plains hunter-gatherers. The author hopes to show the power of farming; domesticated plant food production is the basis on which the remainder of his argument rests, and he asks why some peoples developed agriculture and others did not.

4.

The resulting food surpluses ... were a prerequisite for the development of ... innovative societies.


Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

Farming—the domestication of plants and animals—is the foundation of Diamond's overall argument. From here, he says, the factors that led directly to conquest—the guns, germs, and steel—were developed. Those peoples who first developed farming around the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and Mediterranean basin had a tremendous head start.

5.

I am unaware of anyone ... seriously suggesting ... biological features of the region's peoples that might have contributed.


Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 8

This quotation shows Diamond explicitly making his argument of anti-racism based on the evidence of early food production in the Fertile Crescent. Diamond shows that food production, farming, and plant and animal domestication started first in the Fertile Crescent because it had a richness in wild grains and large animals to domesticate, the right climatic conditions, and other factors.

6.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.


Leo Tolstoy, Part 2, Chapter 9

Diamond uses this quotation from Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina to show the difficulty of domesticating animals. To turn a wild animal domestic, a whole series of conditions must be met. Only one of those conditions has to be wrong for the whole project to fail.

7.

Only a small percentage of wild mammal species ended up in happy marriages with humans.


Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 9

Diamond's chapter on "zebras and unhappy marriages" shows us that much like wild plant domestication, animal domestication is exceedingly difficult; exactly the right circumstances have to exist for it to take place, and if a single element is missing, the domestication of large mammals is not possible.

8.

No waves of native grain ever stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of North America.


Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 10

This is a central element of Diamond's argument that comes at the conclusion of Part 2. Geographic factors allowed grain production and other complex farming practices on the Eurasian continent and almost nowhere else. This was the single most fundamental factor leading to European conquest.

9.

Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest.


Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 12

In Part 3 of the book Diamond argues four factors—weapons technology, literacy, germs, and state power—facilitated conquest. Here he shows how literacy—and the ability to write—was another tool for expansive violence.

10.

Food production, and competition and diffusion between societies, led as ultimate causes ... of conquest.


Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 14

This is the most concise distillation of Diamond's overall argument. It comes at the end of Part 3, after Diamond has assembled the two components of his explanation: the impact of geography on human societies, especially in regard to food production, and the way food production led to settlement, specialization, technology, and disease.

11.

Thanks to the achievements of East Asia's first farmers, China became Chinese.


Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 16

Diamond is arguing that his geographic framework, with its emphasis on agricultural production and social complexity, can explain the prehistory and ancient history of China. He argues Chinese-speaking language groups were able to dominate all of East Asia and Southeast Asia because of their early development of farming.

12.

Why did Europeans reach and conquer the lands of Native Americans, instead of vice versa?


Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 18

This is the central question of Chapter 18, and truly of the entire book. In seeking to answer this question, Diamond shows geographic factors greatly benefited Eurasia; for example, a richness of domesticable plants and large domesticable mammals were inordinately found in Eurasia. These factors led to immunities, technologies, and centralized states—all of which facilitated conquest.

13.

Europe's colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples.


Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 19

In his explanation of the conquest of Africa, Diamond uses his geographic argument to great effect, showing the benefits of the natural world of Eurasia worked to aid European conquerors. Here he also makes explicit his anti-racist argument that he presents throughout the book.

14.

If ... Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged ... Eurasians would be ... reduced to ... fragments.


Narrator, Epilogue

Diamond's book is rich with counterfactual questions, and this is one: If the world's populations were reshuffled early in human history, what would be the result? At the end of the work Diamond finally provides his answer: world history would likely have played out in very much the same way. Because geographic factors influence human societies more than "racial" ones do, Diamond argues empires were made more by locations than by particular sets of people.

15.

The challenge now is to develop human history as a science.


Narrator, Epilogue

At the end of the book Diamond argues that his work was based on the methodologies of science applied to human societies and that in the future the discipline of history should strive to meet this standard of study.

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