Book Club

The Chair read for you Guns, Germs and steel. The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Published on 24 November 2023

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies [1], which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, is one of the most influential works by American biologist, physiologist, and geographer Jared Diamond. The writing project for this work began in 1972, when Jared Diamond, at the time a biologist studying bird evolution in New Guinea, met Yali, a Papuan who asked him the following question: “Why is it that you, the Whites, developed all this cargo and brought it to New Guinea, while we, the Blacks, have very little?” This question can be reformulated as follows: “Why didn’t humanity develop at the same pace on different continents?” While there is no generally accepted answer within the different disciplines that have addressed this question, an immediate explanation remains fairly clear: some peoples developed firearms, steel tools, and certain germs before others. However, this explanation only partially addresses Yali’s question, as firearms, steel tools, and germs themselves are the consequences of more distant factors. Hence, Diamond’s proposal in this work is to explore the distant origins of inequality between human societies by examining the last 13,000 years of our existence through a multidisciplinary analysis. He challenges a preconceived notion that attributed these development differences to genetic traits. The central idea advocated here is that “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples.”

The first part of the book, “From Eden to Cajamarca,” sets the stage by providing an overview of human evolution and the distribution of our ancestors across the planet up until the end of the last ice age, 13,000 years ago. It then focuses on a specific population from 13,000 years ago onwards: the Polynesian population. A crucial question in Diamond’s work is how to demonstrate the causal links between the continental environments thousands of years ago and the inequality observed today. The method he employs is to narrow the temporal horizon and the area of observation. A relevant case study, the settlement of the Pacific islands by ancestors to the Polynesians, helps to understand how a once unique Polynesian society gave rise to a wide range of societies on various islands, with different ways of functioning, within just a few millennia. Finally, this part introduces the encounters between populations from different continents. One of the most significant of these is the encounter between Spanish conquistadors and the first inhabitants of the American continent. The immediate factors that played a role in the divergence of development trajectories and the outcome of collisions between inhabitants of these two continents are presented: the possession of firearms, steel objects, war animals, and certain germs by the Spaniards.

In the second part, the most important distant causes of inequality between human societies are identified, namely food production, and the domestication of animals and plants. The third part explains the chain of causality that led to the development of food production, domestication, the development of certain germs by some peoples before others, and how these changes gave them an advantage. Analysing these chains of causality leads to the invention of writing, which was decisive and characteristic of more advanced societies. These innovations and their diffusion were facilitated by the local availability of certain types of animals and plants and by the orientation of continental axes that favoured the emergence of denser, sedentary societies with specialized artisans and professional armies capable of maintaining bureaucracies. Thus, these two parts highlight four sets of objectively quantifiable ecological continental differences that affected the trajectory of human societies: continental differences concerning the plant and animal species that constituted the starting point of domestication; continental features affecting the rates of intracontinental diffusion or migration; continental factors affecting intercontinental diffusion and migration; and differences in size and population between continents. Finally, in the fourth part, Diamond applies the lessons learned from the second and third parts to the major continents and main islands of the world. In each of geographical areas that were studied, the historical roots of different societies’ economic evolution are quite similar to each other, with some notable distinctions.

It is important to emphasize the complexity of the exercise undertaken by Diamond, and the significant methodological effort employed, which allows him to present relevant but still non-exhaustive explanations. In fact, a significant portion of the questions raised by Yali remains unanswered. He also provides indications on other aspects that could shed additional light on the question, which this work does not address. For instance, he cannot explain why it was the Western Europeans who conquered and dominated America and Australia, and not the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, China, or India. Indeed, when looking at the geographical conditions and the level of development of these two regions of Eurasia before 1450, Europe’s final (current) dominance was the least likely outcome because it was the least advanced region of the three between 8500 BC and 1450. Concerning the Fertile Crescent, Europe gained a great advantage once this region faced an ecologically fragile environment. The overuse of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent’s resources led to what Diamond calls ecological suicide. Europe was not advantaged because it made more virtuous use of its resources but because it benefited from a more robust environment. Compared to China, Europe’s advantage began in the 15th century after power struggles occurred in China.

Diamond ultimately concludes on the significant role that a scientific pursuit of human history could play in understanding what shaped our modern world, similar to other historical disciplines such as astronomy, evolutionary biology, or climatology. He acknowledges the difficulty implied in dealing with human questions when individual variables are significant and the methodological challenges it would entail. He provides elements to understand the distribution of inequality between societies, but readers can also perceive it as an introduction to factors affecting the very survival of societies due to collisions with other peoples, as well as their own actions. These elements are discussed in more detail in two other works: “The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal” (1991) and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005), which together form a triptych with the present essay.

Edith KouakouResearch FellowRisk, insurance and carbon offset in agriculture.

[1] Diamond, J. (2017, 20th anniversary edition), Guns, Germs and steel. The Fates of Human Societies, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, pp 528.