If you are familiar with Jared Diamond, you know what to expect in this book with a very catchy title. If you aren’t familiar, here is a quick introduction for you.
Jared Diamond is an American geographer, historian, and anthropologist. He is the author of popular books in human evolution and human history. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is a Pulitzer Prize winner work of fiction. In the book, he talks about how the environment played an important role in favoring some societies.
In New Guinea, a friend (Yali) asked Jared:
Why is it that the white people developed so much cargo and came with it to New Guinea, but we black people have little cargo of our own?
In response to that, Jared presents a more specific question.
One should rather ask why did white Eurasians dominate over other cultures? And
‘Why did the rate of progress differ so much for cultures on different continents?’
The book is a ‘nontechnical account of human evolution’ in which Jared tries to answer this question. There are four parts to the book.
Part I- From Eden to Cajamarca
From its appearance on the planet, the human species underwent many evolutionary changes. In the first chapters, you will read a quick recap of the history from over 7 million years ago to 13000 years ago, when the human civilization started rising in different regions of the world.
In Australia, people were experimenting with watercraft. This had a great role in extending the range of humans. At the same time, there was a mass massacre of almost all the large mammals in Australia as well as America.
In the ancient Polynesian society, the environment had a great impact on lifestyle. The island life was the most important factor in determining the progress of different cultures.
Part II- The Rise and Spread of Food Production
In the second part ‘The Rise and Spread of Food Production’, Diamond shows how the environment played an important role in determining the methods of food production.
Under these influences, different cultures adopted their unique properties. The environment then determined which cultures chose to be farmers and which chose to be hunter-gatherers. The tools and weapons they developed as well as the skills they adapted were also the product of their environment.
The choice of food gathering then had an important role in determining how a civilization succeeded. Diamond says that hunting and gathering was a better method with less effort.
However, agriculture allowed food production for an area. As a result, the population thrived in those areas. The societies with agriculture grew stronger and could defeat the hunter-gatherer societies because of their larger population. Therefore, agricultural societies spread in the world.
The next shift was the domestication of wild plants and wild animals. As humans tried to domesticate all the mammals, certain species evolved, and some disappeared.
In short, this chapter answers the question by stating what immediate factors were behind the success of the British. Also, this tells how they developed those factors throughout history.
Part III- From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel
In this part of the book, Diamond explores the rise of germs in the world at that time. In Great Britain, with the industrial revolution, came unwanted guests-the black moths. The dirt, smoke, and debris all around supported the growth of moths.
Likewise, as societies focused on domesticating animals, they got exposed to more and more germs. The germs wiped out some hunter-gatherer societies, while the agricultural societies survived and developed immunity against them. He explains the ‘science’ behind this geographical inequality in this part of the book.
As societies advanced, they developed writing skills. Writing at that time was considered as a symbol of an advanced society. This made way to the advent of technology and inventions.
The societies with larger populations and better life expectancy had more opportunities to advance in technology, invent new things and make new experiments.
The geographical positions then determined the advancement of the societies. You can see that the environment once again favored societies with better methods of food production. The advancement that reached the other societies actually diffused through these primary centers.
Politics followed technological advancements. People developed belief systems and followed them religiously. The ones who followed the same myths and beliefs started uniting in the names of politics.
The increased interest in politics leads to the formation of groups, bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. This also made it necessary to form armies and expanding their explorations.
Part IV- Around the Word in Five Chapters
In the final chapters, Diamond applies all the notions learned and explored in the previous chapters to Australia, New Guinea, and China. Moreover, he explores the history of the last 13000 years of the world, and more specifically, the rise of the Europeans and their collision with the Native Americans.
These chapters provide further evidence to support what we had been reading so far, the role of the environment in the history of the societies and the landscape of the world.
What’s fascinating about the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is the story-telling way in which Diamond takes step by step through the course of history. He tells you in a very interesting way that it was intelligence or smartness that lead to the success of the Europeans over the Native Americans in history, it was the geographical location that favored their rise.
Serving since 28th December 2008.