Guns, Germs and Steel
Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize Winning, National Best Selling book Guns, Germs and Steel, summarizes his book by saying the following: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." Guns
is historical literature that documents Jared Diamond's views on how the world as we know it developed. However, is his thesis that environmental factors contribute so greatly to the development of society and culture valid? Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History is the textbook used for this class and it poses several different accounts of how society and culture developed that differ from Diamond's claims. However, neither Diamond nor Traditions are incorrect. Each poses varying, yet true, accounts of the same historical events. Each text chose to analyze history in a different manner. Not without flaws, Jared Diamond makes many claims throughout his work, and provides numerous examples and evidence to support his theories. In this essay, I will summarize Jared Diamond's accounts of world history and evolution of culture, and compare and contrast it with what I have learned using the textbook for this class.
Jared Diamond begins Guns with a prologue which sets the stage for the rest of the book. Approached in New Guinea by his friend and local politician Yali, he is posed a question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Yali's question flared a nerve in Diamond. This question brought about the thesis of his book, that environment is more persuasive on development of civilization than people may have once thought.
In the first chapter of Guns, Diamond establishes two main arguments that will become crucial to his thesis later on in the book. First, he goes in depth about mass extermination and further extinction of large mammals that occurred in New Guinea and Australia which were important for food and domestication, and secondly he argues that all the first civilized peoples in the world each had the ability to out develop one another, but were hindered or helped by their environment.
Diamond continues to provide evidence for his thesis that environmental factors play a significant role in the development of society by citing the Maori and Moriori incident of 1935. In 1935, the Maori killed and enslaved the Moriori peoples. Initially, each tribe came from common backgrounds, yet developed in different regions of the world. The Moriori lived harsher, hunter gatherer type lives, while the Maori were able to expand and flourish in New Zealand. The difference in environment allowed each tribe, who were vastly similar, to develop at a different paces and allowed for the Maori to eventually destroy the Moriori. This example also showed how population is affected by environment. Where the environment allowed for agriculture and domestication of plants and animals, populations were higher because the ability to provide for more members of a society was present. Larger populations also allowed for more complex societies to develop. The Maori and Moriori are a great example that substantiates Diamonds claims, because each shared common knowledge and ancestry, but one was disadvantaged due to environment and failed to develop.
As far as the development of weaponry, Jared Diamond claims that because of certain cultures and the environments in which they flourished, it was easier able to develop guns, germs and steel. When populations lived in close quarters with high volumes of people, infectious diseases were easily spread. Diamond also brings up a point about how different countries developed food production. Certain areas were ecologically better suited to develop agriculture. By domesticating plants and animals in particular, societies were able to create militaries that utilized horses and could conquer other nations. Diamond argues that the availability of domesticated plants and animals is a direct contributor to how quickly a civilization will develop.
The next example Diamond uses to further his argument that environment is a contributor in civilization development is the example of the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent is an area where domestication of plants was high due to mild, wet winters and long, hot summers. Also, the plants that grew here cross pollinated and took care of themselves. The people of this area utilized these advantages to the fullest and became well known for being hunter gatherers. Other areas where plant domestication may not have been so easy had natives that eventually gave up the hunter gatherer lifestyle and chose a different way of life. These people's behaviors were directly influenced by their environment in this case.
Another example is that of the development of writing in certain parts of the globe. Diamond states that writing first emerged in places where food production was located, due to the need to keep track of livestock. Areas where food production was high were more likely to have developed a writing system. Societies that developed writing were able to advance quicker than societies that didn't, and it gave a significant advantage because those with writing abilities could gain knowledge of other civilizations and record it.
Further on in the book, particularly in Chapter 17, Diamond examines and compares the development of Austronesians to the people of New Guinea. Again reiterating the importance of environment, Diamond states that the Austronesians and the New Guineans came from a common set of ancestors yet developed differently in different regions. They each made use of the best things they could find in their environment. Also, Diamond shows how each culture adapted to their environment and how these adaptations either helped or hurt them in the long run. The advantages that each of the cultures had more or less out weighed each other, and when the Austronesians attempted to invade New Guinea, they found they had little to no advantage and instead decided to co exist.
One major difference in the way that Diamond presents the world's history is that he centers so whole heartedly on environment, ecology and location as a dominant factor that he tends to forget about other contributors to societal development. Traditions seems to give a more broad, all encompassing tale of world history. Instead of focusing primarily on one factor, it instead incorporates different factors and summarizes how they all tie in together. Different world leaders, world powers, wars, technological development, and agricultural development are all touched upon in Traditions and explored to the fullest, whereas they are briefly mentioned if at all in Diamond's Guns. This is also Diamond's major flaw. He seems to be very narrow minded and wants very badly to prove his point that environment is the deciding factor in how a society or civilization develops.
Each book poses varying yet similar accounts of history as a whole. Jared Diamond tends to be a bit one sided while the text book is a bit more broad. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each argument is persuasive in and of itself. Finding a medium between the two is difficult, but if one can appreciate that each is telling the same story of history from a different perspective (which often happens), then one can take each for what they are worth.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is a literary work that details history from an environmental point of view. In contrast, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History encompasses both what Diamond is trying to accomplish while tying it into other, broader reasons for why the world is the way it is. Each book offers a perspective on history that should not be ignored. What one chooses to take out of each is up to the individual themselves. I am choosing to believe pieces of each text, because as George Santayana said, "History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten."
Bentley, Jerry H., Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets. Traditions & Encounters: a Brief Global History. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Santayana, George. "Quotes About History." History News Network. 20 Mar. 2007 .