Full Title: Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies Author: Jared Diamond Year: 1997 (mine was 1999 paperback) Genre: History, Civilization, Culture, Humanity Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-31755-8 (trade paperback) View It On Amazon Wikipedia Page Author’s Wikipedia Page
This Pulitzer Prize winning book attempts a “short history of everybody for the last
13,000 years”, in which author Jared Diamond (professor of geography at UCLA) tries to
answer the question: “Why did history unfold differently on different continents?”
Various theories have arisen over the years as to why the peoples of western Eurasia (Europe,
North Africa, and the Middle East, primarily) ended up dominating the world stage. Those
theories have included outright racism (Europeans are genetically superior) and religious reasons
(God favored them), but rarely looked to actual historical causation. Diamond asks the rhetorical
question: why was it Europeans who colonized the Americas and Africa, but not the other way around
(Americans colonizing Europe and Africa, or Africans colonizing Europe and America)? The
proximate cause is obvious — European societies at the time had more advanced weapons,
a civilization more adapted to conquest, and genomes more resistant to the diseases they carried
with them. But how did it get that way?
Diamond pushes back the envelope of history to pre-literate times, exploring multiple fields of
study in order to get to ultimate explanations.
“Why didn’t capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in sub-Saharan Africa,
scientific inquiry in China, advanced technology in Native North America, and nasty germs in
The answers he comes up with are not terribly surprising, but perhaps paint a different
picture than the one we’re used to seeing. Certain areas of the world did not have
the same natural opportunities as others. When humans first began to domesticate plants and animals,
some areas had more available choices than others. Notably, Eurasia had the most (and best) options
for domesticable flora and fauna, which in turn led quickly to agrarian societies while the rest
of the world was still hunting and gathering. Agrarian societies led to increasing populations,
more advanced government, widespread transmission of disease (and therefore, eventually, greater
resistance to disease), division of labor, standing armies, and so on. In places where domesticable
crops/animals were few, the advantage of agriculture over hunting/gathering was slim or nonexistent.
So in those places, humans remained at the bare minimum of civilization: families, bands, or tribes.
Populations grew slowly or not at all, writing never arose, advanced weaponry was never developed,
and so on. He also notes the shapes and climates of the continents. Even when agriculture did arise
in certain places in the Americas or Africa, it didn’t translate well to higher or lower
latitudes because of drastic climate shifts. Eurasia, on the other hand, lies east-to-west, making
it very easy to transplant latitude-oriented crops from one place to another.
What I Liked Least About It
The most frustrating thing about the book was how often Diamond repeated himself. I think I
could have gotten the same information in half the time if only it had been edited down.
This, however, is a minor complaint, and is softened a bit by knowing that repetition is
sometimes necessary in writing.
Something that only arose briefly was the story of how the Americas came to be populated by
humans. I chafed a bit at Diamond’s conservative refusal to give any validity to a
growing body of evidence indicating that humans were in the Americas much earlier than
What I Liked Most About It
Mostly, I liked the sheer amount of information, from genetics, archeology, paleontology,
other fields, but also I appreciated the non-Eurocentric version of history. Like most people in
the West, the history I grew up learning focused heavily (almost entirely) on Europe, and then on
the Americas after colonization. Where we learned other history, it was mainly to help explain the
history of Europe and the Americas. Diamond’s book doesn’t do that, instead focusing
equally on various geographic regions in order to draw his conclusions.
I also liked the graphs, tables, and illustrations, which helped understand the text.
Further, I like the conclusions that were drawn — to some extent. Personally, I would have
liked it to go farther into why the conquering societies did what they did (just because
they were in a position to do so doesn’t mean they had to conquer and colonize),
rather than stopping at why they were in the position. Diamond has been criticized for
reviving “environmental determinism”, though I think his position was fairly well
backed-up by his evidence. Australian aborigines couldn’t very well develop the complex
societies that arose in Eurasia, because there simply weren’t enough native plants and
large mammals to domesticate. They were fairly well stuck at a certain stage of development
until others could bring plants and animals from elsewhere.
One thing that struck me early in the book was the description of the
Battle of Cajamarca, which the
author used as a prime example to flesh out his question. If I had heard of this battle before,
I don’t remember it. Most of my history lessons about European clashes with Native
Americans focused on North America. This particular narrative, in what later became Peru,
drew a larger emotional response from me than anything else in the entire book.
Diamond uses mostly quotations from the Spaniards in question — many of whom wrote detailed
accounts of their massacre of the Incas. I was dumbfounded by the invaders’ utterly
unshakable belief that God wanted them to kill the natives, and by their ultimate satisfaction in
shedding the blood of uncountable thousands on a single day.
“It will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy
Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens... It will give joy to the faithful that ... such
terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration excited in all mankind...
“At the same time the trumpets were sounded, and the armored Spanish troops, both
cavalry and infantry, sallied forth out of their hiding places straight into the mass of unarmed
Indians crowding the square, giving the Spanish battle cry, ‘Santiago!” We had
placed rattles on the horses to terrify the Indians. The booming of the guns, the blowing of the
trumpets, and the rattles on the horses threw the Indians into panicked confusion. The
Spaniards fell upon them and began to cut them to pieces. The Indians were so filled with fear
that they climbed on top of one another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other. Since they
were unarmed, they were attacked without danger to any Christian. The cavalry rode them down,
killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The infantry made so good an assault on those
that remained that in a short time most of them were put to the sword...
“Truly, it was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few of us. It was
by the grace of God, which is great.”
The accounts describe torture, wanton murder, and the kind of extreme racism that even today’s
worst racists won’t say out loud. (Again, this isn’t Diamond’s interpretation;
I’m talking about the quoted words of the Spaniards themselves.
It bothered me just a little that Diamond carefully avoided asking questions about why the
Spaniards (and other, later, European invaders) would do what they did, but instead only explored
how they came to be in such a position. Because the causes that Diamond ultimately concluded
(geography, available flora/fauna, etc.), while being at least partially responsible for the
rise of Eurasian civlization, did not in any way force the Europeans to behave the way they did
when they came into contact with foreign peoples. They could have just as easily initiated trade,
opened a dialog, tried to establish communication, exchanged gifts, etc. — as some
explorers actually did do at some points in the exploration of the Americas. But nothing
in the geography or other natural causes explains why European invaders regularly and
consistently attacked without provocation, murdered indiscriminately, enslaved others for
profit, and forced their beliefs on indigenous peoples all over the world.
(Note: Others besides Europeans acted poorly too, seemingly without cause — African tribes
attacking and enslaving one another, New Guinean bands doing the same, Asian peoples alternating
between attacking and defending against others nearby. I focus my question on the European
groups since their deeds are the ones that shaped the world we live in today.)
Understanding that my reviews are purposefully set up to emphasize the negative aspects of
books, allow me to clarify that I really did enjoy reading this work and I think it was
well-written (and extremely well-researched) overall. I would recommend it to anyone interested
in world history.