What is History 9: Jared Diamond Guns, Germs & Steel Overview

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What is History 9: Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, 1997: Overview & Critique

1 Overview


I read Guns, Germs and Steel 1997 within a year of its publication and was strongly influenced. I had been looking for something about human history that was more scientific in its approach and that linked history to the evolution of human kind. It is now twenty years later.

I’ve mentioned before it is important that we start to look at history from a multidisciplinary view and certainly at least link it to our biological heritage. Jared Diamond says much the same thing in his introductory Prologue:

Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing, and political organization.

I would have added more categories at the time. In my 1995 Travel Journal in Pakistan inspired by the Taxila Museum, I wrote:

It is amazing how [our understanding of] history has improved in the past fifty years as the yoke of European ethno-centricity has been thrown off. Scholars knew some of these things before, but outside expert fields the knowledge was remote, and a belief in the superiority of Europeans masked enormous elements of human history. The contributions of science, anthropology, psychology and sociology have been enormous in the twentieth century…

Today I’d add economic history and ‘big data’ to the list.

Summary of Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond begins with a question from Yali, a New Guinea politician he meets on a trail in the highlands of New Guinea, about why white people like Diamond have so many goods while his people have so few. Or, Why do people of Eurasian origin dominate the world in wealth and power?

Diamond tries to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that European hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. (Wikipedia)

To do this he goes back to the last 13,000 years of human history. Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, as of opportunity and necessity (Wikipedia).

The beginnings of agriculture, animal husbandry and settled life were necessary for populations to increase above hunter-gatherer levels. Diamond argues that the suitability of domesticable animals and plants and suitable geographical conditions were more advantageous in Eurasia than other parts of the globe. He also argues that east-west axes (Eurasia) were more beneficial than north-south axes (Africa and the Americas). He provides a great deal of evidence on these and other issues.

Regarding germs, the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals and growing populations provided fertile grounds for the development of diseases, as did the growth of trade and later trade between empires. Similarly, one needs the development of multilayered societies for the rapid development of new technologies (e.g. steel, gun powder, cannons).

When the Eurasian West invaded other parts of the world, old world germs did untold damage to naive societies; as did steel weapons, guns and horses to societies that didn’t have them.

This is a cursory summary, necessary to make sense of the discussion for those not familiar with the book.

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