Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human society

The documentary video Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was based on the book written by Jared Diamond in 1997, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book in 1998. In this work which Diamond also would have alternatively titled “A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years”, Diamond attempts to explain the reasons behind the dominance of select cultures, specifically of the Eurasian civilizations, throughout human history.

The main thesis of the book is the fundamental difference between Eurasia, composed of Europe and Asia, and other landmasses in terms of their main geographical locations. While Eurasia is located in the west – east axis, the North America – South Africa and Africa are located in the north – south axis. Aptly tiled “Guns, Germs, and Steel’, Diamond discusses the many factors affecting the development and spread of weapons, diseases, and technologies.

According to Diamond, the development of a civilization is dependent not on the intellectual, genetic and moral capacity of its citizens but rather on the geographical and environmental factors. Diamond argues that the ecological difference between continents is what determines which of the continents will most likely rule over the other. Although his discussion did not specifically centered in a single continent or civilization, his years of stay conducting scientific study in Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand was evident in his occasional subjective illustrations of these areas.

In his attempt to explain how the Eurasians came to rule over Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians, Diamond identified four factors related to environmental differences. Members of the earliest human societies have lived as hunter-gatherers. As they started to live as a civilization, there was a shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture. This started the domestication and farming to wild crops and animals. The unbalanced distribution of domesticable plants and animals among continents is according to Diamond the first aspect of environmental differences affecting the rise of power of a civilization.

The second factor that Diamond identified is the differing rates of diffusion and migration. With its large landmass and the long east-west distance which Diamond identified as the third factor, transfer and exchange of both innovations and diseases is easier and quicker in Eurasia. The fourth factor that Diamond identified is the total area and population size of a continent, which greatly affects the capacity of the continent to adopt and retain innovations.

With all these characteristics of the Eurasian continent, it was able to support a larger and denser population. It has also facilitated easier trade and has allowed faster technological progress. While Eurasia has seemingly perfect geographical and ecological components based on Diamond’s claim, useful animals in Australia became extinct and diffusion and migration of domesticated crops from one latitude to the other in America is difficult.

Africa on the other hand is fragmented that it is difficult to transfer and exchange resources. China, being a large continent and provides the largest agricultural output is a good example of for Diamond’s claims. The development of agriculture in China has played a key role in the development of the Chinese civilization. With its progressive method of farming, China was able to sustain and support its large population which is considered as the largest population of a country in the world.

However, in his brief examination behind the non-dominance of early civilizations that discovered agriculture, specialization and urbanization, Diamond cited the intense agriculture in China which has damaged the environment and the fertility of soil. He also argued that few geographical barriers in China makes early Chinese civilization unified which led to political homogeneity resulting to stagnation.

Reference: Diamond, Jared. Guns, germs, and steel. United States: W. W. Norton, 1997.