Guns, Germs, Steel, and An Alternative Explanation for Eurasian Hegemony

After 1492, Europeans were able to conquer and subjugate the people of the New World because of their access to gun technology, germs to which Native Americans were not immune, and steel manufacturing, a fact that few students of history question. But why wasn’t it the Native Americans with access to these fateful resources? Why didn’t they prevail over the Europeans instead? Drawing on the fields of geography, social evolution and ethnology, Professor Jared Diamond  of UCLA attempts to answer these and other related questions in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In contrast to the argument that Eurasian hegemony is the result of inherent intellectual and/or genetic superiority, or that present Western dominance can be explained by racial ascendancy, Diamond reasons that the inconsistencies in technological expertise and governmental power between human societies have their origins in environmental and geographic contrasts.

To summarize Professor Diamond’s enlightening scientific analysis, all societies began as small groups of hunter-gatherers, some of which, through serendipitous geological circumstances and chance availability of a higher distribution of plants and animals, began to domesticate crops and livestock. These groups are classified as food producers. Because crops and livestock can sustain a larger population, food producers expanded into tribes and eventually states with job specialization and hierarchical government. As opposed to nomadic hunter-gatherers, it was the food producers who found themselves in a position to invent guns and steel.

Their highly structured labor systems, which also supported the existence of soldiers and armies, were the perfect outlets for these new developments. The immense size of states and their animal taming practices ultimately gave rise to the evolution of germs, the spread of which requires the large, concentrated populations characteristic of stationary societies. Combined, guns, germs, and steel—the products of sheer geographical happenstance—allowed states the social structure necessary to conquer less technologically advanced, systematically organized peoples.

Juxtaposing assumptions based on race and biology with theories grounded in geography and biogeography, Guns, Germs, and Steel reflects Diamond’s realization while abroad in New Guinea that not only are native hunter-gatherers equally as intelligent as individuals of European descent, they are also far more resourceful. The work, however, is not without flaws. Diamond’s utilization of contemporary ethnographic observations of some peoples to provide explanations of the prehistoric past of all peoples can be could be considered methodologically problematic. Moreover, his failure to place the knowledge he uses in its historiographical context weakens the force of his arguments as historical explanations. Yet despite its imperfections, the piece remains an impressive achievement of imagination and exposition. In a single book, Diamond has satisfactorily explained why Eurasians conquered the world in the past half-millennium. In reading the book, it is important to bear in mind that, despite Diamond’s limited attempts to rationalize it, his principal aim is not to explain why the subcontinent at the western edge of Eurasia acquired so much power over the rest of Eurasia in the period from 1500 to 1900. He is instead concerned with the original source of Eurasian predominance.

Though criticized by the New York Review of Books for being too “reductionist” and geographically determinist and for methodically typologizing groups without regard for other influential factors such as culture, Diamond seems to understand that culture can only evolve under the proper environmental conditions and is therefore secondary to them. Culture is, Diamond recognizes, a product of peoples’ agriculturally determined societal arrangements (villages, cities, etc.) rather than the appropriate lens through which to analyze what he terms “the grand pattern of history.” This is not to say, however, that cultural idiosyncrasies are not valuable in discussing differences in the fates of diverse, distant societies over relatively brief periods of time and with respect to short-term consequences. (For instance, how would the course of Germany’s history have been different had Hitler been killed by the bomb surreptitiously placed in his office in 1944?)

In the end, Diamond’s interdisciplinary explanation for the observable divisions in societal development does not seem like an abstruse scientific theory but rather a layman’s rationalization of seemingly obvious patterns. Indeed, the arguments seem so simple at times that readers are forced to question why the book has garnered so much acclaim. However, this is only a testament to Diamond’s success at transforming years of research in a multiplicity of fields into a seamless, straightforward and readily accessible work. While there are of course numerous difficulties in framing history through a scientific perspective (the impossibility of performing replicable or controlled experiments, the complexity and number of variables and the uniqueness of each situation, the long time and spatial scales, etc.), Diamond has managed to exhaustively address and convincingly dispute the arguments associated with racial egalitarianism and hereditarianism. Having attacked the major issue of inequality between countries, hopefully Professor Diamond will now turn to the presence of inequality within them.