Book Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel
- Post by: Irjar Jira
- January 18, 2022
- Comments off
Book Summary :
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies.
Guns, Germs, and Steel came out in 1997. In 1998, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. It was a highly acclaimed book, along with the event, his prize for the best science book, and several other awards, and even though it’s now 20 years old, it still offers unique insight into why the modern world looks the way it does.
Diamond has also written several other well-known books, two of which are among my favorites: The Third Chimpanzee, published in 1991, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, published in 2005. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest and most clear thinkers of our time. He poses bold historical questions, and I’m afraid I have to disagree with everything he says. But I believe his work is priceless. The central question that Jared Diamond seeks to answer in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is why history unfolded so differently on different continents. Eurasians succeeded in developing the power to conquer people worldwide rather than the other way around.
Why didn’t Native Americans develop advanced technology, build ocean-going ships, and colonize Europe or China, for example? What caused Eurasian societies to wield such disproportionate power in shaping the modern world? It is critical to understand the term Eurasia, which is an amalgamation of Europe and Asia. Diamond interprets the entire landmass as a single unit throughout his book, which is problematic for various reasons that we will discuss later.
Previously, many people mistakenly assumed that Eurasians rose to global dominance because they were inherently superior. But, of course, we know that’s not true, and diamond is particularly convinced, based on his extensive fieldwork with native New Guineans and tribespeople. Moreover, those primitive peoples who continue to live semi-hunter-gatherer lifestyles are as intelligent as people living in advanced economies.
He claims that New Guineans are more innovative than New Yorkers because they have so many more problems to solve daily to survive. He claims that typical New Yorkers are Londoners raised by watching television and having all of their needs met automatically. I believe he is overlooking the enormous complexity of life in developed economies and the countless novel challenges that humans face in modern life. However, Diamond’s argument is not racial in any way.
Finally, he explicitly assumes that intelligence was not the key historical variable that enabled Eurasian societies to dominate other cultures. So, what is the solution? In this case, the book’s title is a little deceptive. During the last 500 years or so, guns, germs, and steel have undoubtedly enabled Eurasians to subdue people all over the world. But why were Eurasians wielding those weapons in the first place rather than the conquered? Consider one of the most shocking examples in his book of the disparity in power between Eurasians and non-Eurasians. On November 16, 1530, a mere 168 ragged Spanish soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro found themselves in the Peruvian highlands of South America facing an Incan army of 80,000.
The meeting was supposed to be peaceful, but when the Incan Emperor came out of Walpa onto the Spanish priest and was offered to the ground through the Bible, the Spaniards became enraged and attacked. Those 168 Spaniards slaughtered at least 7000 Incan soldiers in a matter of hours without losing a single one of their own. They’d driven the rest of the massive army away, and they’d apprehended the Incan emperor. And over the next few years, they destroyed the Incan civilization. So many things went wrong for the Incas. When the Spaniards arrived, they were politically divided. They were caught off guard by Spanish aggression, but it’s clear that the Spaniards dominated the fight, even though the odds were 476 to one against them.
The Spaniards had superior weapons. They undoubtedly had firearms with them. However, the only significant gun was a single piece of artillery. The rest are known as Harco buses, which are slow to load, really inaccurate first generation guns with mostly psychological effects; the Inca were terrified by their explosions. Steel, steel swords, daggers, lances, and steel armor against steel, were the weapons that mattered to the Spaniards. The Incas were powerless. They wore only thin thatch and leather armor, which steel blades easily sliced through, and their blunt club weapons bounced off Spanish steel armor. Spanish horses were also decisive.
Approximately 30 mounted Spanish soldiers against whom the Inca had no defense. They couldn’t even flee because they couldn’t outrun them, and horses, like guns, frightened the Inca, who’d never seen anything like them. Eurasian germs, on the other hand, entered the picture earlier. When the Spaniards arrived, the Incas were politically divided because a smallpox epidemic had already spread among South American natives after introducing Spanish settlers in Panama and Colombia six or seven years earlier.
Countless Inca had fallen ill and died, including the original emperor and the majority of his court, sparking a full-fledged Incan Civil War. Overall, it’s safe to say the Incas were far from at their peak when they faced off against the Spaniards, and the Spanish guns, germs, and steel completely demolished what was left of them. So it’s clear why the Spanish fight was chosen, but that doesn’t answer Diamond’s question.
He’s curious why the Spanish had guns, germs, and steel while the Incas didn’t. He’s curious about what happened in the past that put the Incan civilization and nearly all other native societies around the world at such a disadvantage when they collided with Eurasian culture. Diamond’s sake. The answer is entirely environmental, and it can be traced back to the dawn of settled agriculture 13,000 years ago.
The last ice age had ended by then, humans had spread across most of the globe, and we were on our way to populating North and South America. At the time, the world population was only a few million people, and we were all still hunter-gatherers. Diamond writes that in the 13,000 years since the end of the last ice age, some parts developed literate industrial societies using metal tools. Others retained hunter-gatherer societies with stone tools, while others developed only nonliterate farming societies. Because literate societies with metal tools conquered or exterminated other cultures, those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world.
And history took different paths for different peoples because of differences in their environments, not because of biological differences between them. And quote, he spends most of his 500-page book arguing that environmental differences between continents gave Eurasians a massive head start over everyone else in the race for global dominance. What were the distinctions? And how did they make it possible for Eurasians to develop guns, germs, and steel before everyone else?
Diamond begins by inspecting the food. The agricultural revolution, which started around 12 or 13,000 years ago in what is known as the Fertile Crescent, which is centered in modern-day Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is one of the most significant events in human history. This marked the transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, which in turn unleashed a slew of political and technological changes that led to the rise of civilization. People no longer had to move from place to place searching for wild food once agriculture was established. In addition, they could build permanent shelters, accumulate more goods, and have more children because they no longer had to transport cargo and dependents all the time.
Diamond contends that fertility rates skyrocketed as people began having many more children due to their sedentary lifestyles. Having more than one child every couple of years was completely unfeasible. Strength in numbers was highly influential on its own. But, more importantly, settled agriculture enabled our forefathers to regularly accumulate food surpluses for the first time, allowing some people to spend their days doing things other than foraging or hunting, and we all know what happened next: society became more stratified, and a ruling class emerged to control and distribute surpluses and govern the community.
Warriors typically emerged alongside the ruling class to facilitate that order and maintain security. Craft specialists of all kinds became practical for the first time, enriching and empowering settled agricultural communities with more advanced pottery, metalworking, medicine, engineering, writing, and so on. This type of development has tended to occur wherever settled agriculture has taken root. It manifests itself in various ways.
However, the complexity of society and the increasing stratification and specialization of its members are relatively typical in history. After 100,000 years of living in small nomadic tribal groups, ancient civilizations that achieved settled agriculture suddenly embarked on more powerful development paths.
But here’s the catch. Different populations worldwide had significantly additional environmental resources with which to do this, and Diamond contends that those living in the Fertile Crescent in western Eurasia had a vastly superior array of valuable plants and animals at their disposal. He writes, quote, that among the world’s thousands of wild grass species, the 56 with the giant seeds are the cream of nature’s crop, with roots at least ten times heavier than the average grass species. Moreover, almost all of them are native to the Mediterranean or other seasonally dry areas.
Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Fertile Crescent or other parts of western Eurasia’s Mediterranean zone, which provided a massive selection to beginning farmers, accounting for approximately 32 of the world’s 56 prize wild types of grass. In contrast, Chile’s Mediterranean zone had only two species, while California, Southern Africa, and southwestern Australia had one. There are none. That fact alone helps to explain the course of human history, and quote this is an incredible historical insight, but Diamond’s analysis becomes even more compelling.
He explains that agriculture in the Fertile Crescent grew from the domestication of eight native crops that are still important sources of food around the world today. They’ve been exported from the Fertile Crescent to various other locations. Wheat, barley, lentils, peas, chickpeas, and flax were all critical in the production of cloth and rope. Only flax and barley were found in the wild outside of the Fertile Crescent. So Eurasians had a significant head start when it came to crops. What about animals that could be domesticated? Yes, Eurasians have struck gold here—the wild ancestors of most of the world’s domestic animals.
Similarly, we are dispersed very unevenly throughout the world. Diamond identifies 14 large mammal species that could have been domesticated and would have been valuable animals. Sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and horses are examples among the 14 South American societies.
North American, Australian, and Sub-Saharan African societies had only one practical option, the Lama, whereas communities in North America, Australia, and Sub-Saharan Africa had none. However, 13 of the 14 were native to Eurasia, with the Fertile Crescent alone home to seven, including sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and horses. It may appear surprising that Sub-Saharan Africa did not have more options, given that many of us associate that region with one of the most severe threats to big mammals anywhere on the planet. Still, none of them are suitable for domestication.
Zebras, for example, are too aggressive and unpredictable, according to Diamond. Elk and deer are difficult to control because they panic easily and can leap 50 feet in a single bound. Cheetahs do not breed in captivity, while hippos develop into combative juggernauts. Riding a giraffe is ridiculously difficult, and so on. As a result, Eurasians had access to far more nutritious native crops and far more native animals to domesticate. Diamond argues that, compared to other continents, Eurasia’s exceptional resource endowment has accelerated both population growth and civilization development.
But these two advantages, greater population density and more significant interaction with domesticated animals lead to a third advantage that would make Eurasians especially lethal to societies on other continents, quote, the major killers of humanity throughout our recent history have been infectious diseases that evolved from animal diseases and quote, smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, cholera, all appeared to have originated among your Asia’s dissenters. These zoonotic diseases, of course, wreaked havoc on Eurasian societies. Millions were wiped out by plagues regularly.
This isn’t in Diamond’s book, but consider the Justinian plague, which swept through Eastern Mediterranean societies between 541 and 542, killing 25 to 50 million people. At its peak, around 5000 people died every day in Constantinople alone. Almost half of the city’s population died in the 1340s, nearly a century and a half before Europeans began exploring the Americas. Another infamous plague outbreak, known as the Black Death, killed between 75 and 200 million people across Eurasia, killing half of Europe. Both plagues were caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, which was spread by fleas and appeared to have originated in rats, camels, or other Eurasian mammals.
Diamond contends that through millennia of close contact with such diseases, Eurasians developed genetic resistance that other societies did not, citing the importance of lethal microbes in human history and European conquest and depopulation of the New World. Eurasian germs killed far more Native Americans in bed than Eurasian guns and swords did on the battlefield. These germs weaken Indian resistance by killing most Indians and their leaders.
And by eroding the survivors’ morale and quote. Eurasian germs were far deadlier than Eurasian guns and steel. It is estimated that Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, typhus, and influenza killed 95 percent of the original population of North and South America. That’s amazing. In my mid-30s, I was raised to believe that America was a pristine wilderness populated by a few Native Americans who lived in harmony with nature. That is entirely incorrect. Historically, tens of millions of Native Americans thrived in some of the world’s most populous cities.
The Mississippian civilization of the eastern United States, for example, was one of the largest and most influential North American societies. Millions lived there, and sprawling cities are now well documented by historians like Charles Mann in his book 1491 new revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Yet, the Mississippian civilization vanished between 1492, when Eurasians first began exploring North America, and the 1700s, when they started to settle the Mississippi Valley. They were all killed by epidemics. So, the first European explorers of the Mississippi Valley did not come across a pristine wilderness. Instead, they discovered ruins and bones that extended as far as the eye could see in some cases. This had not been well documented because the remnants mainly had disintegrated when European settlers arrived. I got there. Mississippian cities were built of mud and wood and quickly eroded two or 300 years later.
Overall, the uneven distribution of food, livestock, and disease was blamed. That was the ultimate reason why history unfolded in such disparate ways on different continents. Eurasians, according to Jared Diamond, won the environmental lottery. This allowed them to establish civilization much earlier than anyone else and build more populous and powerful societies. In addition, diamond technology set them on a path to develop more complex technology than anyone else, such as writing to facilitate resource accounting, commerce, and bureaucratic administration, and metallurgy to build advanced states’ tools and weapons. It’s a comprehensive view of history.
And I believe Diamond deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize for illuminating the extent to which variable environmental factors determine the destinies of human societies; however, Diamond’s argument has some flaws, not the least of which is the way he glosses over technological development. But let us return to his primary geographical unit, Eurasia, which includes Europe and Asia. True, this is a single contiguous landmass, but it’s a massive landmass with extreme variations in historical development, which Diamond largely ignores for the sake of his argument. Here’s my main objection. If you could travel back in time, say 1000 years, you would never guess that one of Eurasia’s societies, Northwest Europe’s, would rise to dominate the modern world. Europe was a backwater in terms of technology, economics, and politics. It was 1000 years ago.
No, you would have bet on China or the Arabian Islamic caliphate. That was back then. Those were the societies on the cutting edge of civilization. China was a technological powerhouse, inventing cast iron, the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing, water clocks, and many other breakthroughs. Under the opposing caliphate, the Muslim world was the most cosmopolitan civilization globally, supporting the most advanced medicine, philosophy, and astronomy. So why hasn’t China led the modern world’s dominance? Why aren’t we speaking Arabic in North America instead of English and Spanish?
What happened over the last 1000 years that caused Europe in general, and Northwest Europe in particular, to make such transformative advances in science, technology, and economics that it unexpectedly raced ahead of the rest of Eurasian societies and exploded onto the world stage armed with guns, germs, and steel? The solution to that question, unfortunately, cannot be found in Jared Diamond’s book, which is a disappointment.
Because of this, we will have to go elsewhere for an answer to that query. Another excellent resource is The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, written by David Landes, a Harvard economic historian who is well-known for his work on the subject. What causes some people to be extremely wealthy while others are extremely impoverished?