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Summary of Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'

Sai Kardile Aug 17, 2020
Scientist Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer and Aventis-prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel decrypts seemingly cryptic questions about civilizations and continents. Through this summary, we discuss Diamond's viewpoint of societal development that essentially pivots on geographic advantage.
Jared Diamond is a celebrated American Scientist who started his scientific journey in the field of physiology. He is a professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles and branched out in the fields of evolutionary biology and biogeography, which has won him equal acclaim.
Jared Diamond assumes the existence of the belief that dominance of one continent over other or one civilization over other solely rests with their geographic and environmental aspects. He opines that for any human society to flourish, its location is of foremost importance.
A human society can be reckoned prosperous only if it is economically productive, which hinges on its local animals and plants. Be it for technological advancements or empire establishment, for any new thing to thrive, it must have enough to feed its experts and people.
This is intrinsically linked to its geographic location and the favorable accompaniments of animal domestication, immunity to diseases, development of agriculture, etc.

Summary of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Let us now delve deep into Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' that reveals the most fundamental yet fascinating facts that has led to the dominance of certain parts of the world than the others.

Prologue: Yali's Question

A charismatic politician named Yali who was ever inquisitory with quenchless curiosity quizzed Jared Diamond that why is it that the White people had developed so much cargo (goods) and brought it to New Guinea and the Black people had little cargo of their own. This question was seemingly simple but not actually that simple.
Yali's question reflected lifestyle discrepancies between the average New Guinean and an average European or American. Diamond's explanation to this question is embedded in geography.
He takes us back in time illustrating historic events and primitive human societies to prove that genetics and intelligence has little role to play when it comes to the supposed superiority of one society over other.
He even goes to say that the New Guineans are more smart than their American or European counterpart by dint of stimulated childhood activities that furthers mental development. He also elucidates how geographic luck eventuated in advances like that in agriculture, metallurgy, writing, etc.
He, in a brief paragraph also disabuses us of the notion that complex societies resulted into complex irrigation systems. Though political centralization and agricultural advances developed almost during the same time, they still cannot be intertwined in terms of origin and outcome.


In the first chapter, Diamond transports us back in time, many many millions of years back. He chronicles the evolution of mankind - our separation from our simian relatives (chimpanzee, gorilla, and bonobo), attainment of upright posture, and appearance of human fossil that bore close resemblance to the modern homo sapien.
He also talks about the Great Leap Forward, a period which gave evidences of the early man's artistic and behavioral traits in the form of jewelry and artifacts. He believes that it all happened in Africa first, i.e., the human species originated from Africa.
He then goes on to explain how mankind moved beyond Africa and how they got themselves acclimatized to new environment and landscapes.
Diamond also explains the influence of environment by giving an example of Polynesia. He expounds how Maori and Moriori, who came from the same Polynesian descent were so different from each other owing to the environmental variables.
Since the Moriori people lived on a relatively sequestered archipelago, their needs remained basic as opposed to the Maori people who came from an agricultural and densely populated island of New Zealand. The Maori people were naturally more equipped than the placatory denizens of the archipelago and thus were able to usurp the islands.
Through Collision at Cajarmaca, Diamond gives an important example from the past that shows how a society with superior weapons, armor and horses could easily overpower other which had only primitive weapons to fall back on.
Pizzaro's army, which was in hundreds could easily make mince-meat of the Inca army who were in tens of thousands not just because of a more advanced armory but also because of the small-pox epidemic.
The Inca army lacked both armaments and immunity that led to their downfall. Diamond tries to explain how Europe through its military, maritime, and centralized organizational skills could triumph over the New World.


Diamond believes that Europe's food production gave them a leg up on others. He believes that for any area to thrive, it needs plants and animals, which can support a number of people. Availability of edible food greatly redounds on population.
Similarly, those who settled in one place could cultivate crops and store foods, contrary to the hunter-gatherer society. Likewise domesticated animals provided meat, cloth, served as burden carriers as well as came to be used in transportation.
As a repercussion to owning animals, infectious diseases evolved from them. Societies with domesticated animals developed resistance to them but those who had never had any previous subjection to them easily died on contracting it.
Diamond states that for any kind of agricultural or domestic activity to happen in a given area, its geographical and climatic factors play a cardinal role.
This is the reason why some places could grow wheat, peas, olives, etc., as well as support livestock while others could not. Places like the Fertile Crescent in Western Eurasia, the Eastern United States, New Guinea, China, etc. could have independent food production from their local plants without any outside influences.
As far as domestication was concerned, it came to be adopted from neighbors, sometimes peacefully, while sometimes violently.
Diamond goes on to explain the factors that propelled certain people to take on food production, which were - decline in the availability of wild food, increased availability of domestic plants, development of technology that enabled food storage and processing,
relation between population increase and food production increase, and increased population of food producers that gave them an advantage over hunter-gatherers.
How many of us knew that the wild version of almonds was poisonous? Some domesticated descendants tend to be different than their cultivated varieties, as in the case of almonds. Diamond puts forth his theory that domestication of certain plants was a result of natural gathering which was based on the way they tasted.
He also explains certain mutation aspects that influenced the domestication of specific plants over others.
The earliest food production happened in Fertile Crescent because of a number of reasons, chiefly - because of Mediterranean climate, which was conducive to the growth of major crops. Some of the crops were already fecund and abundant and thirdly, most of the plants were self-fertilizing.
Diamond also explains various aspects of Eurasia that places them in a favorable position than others like - diversity of plants and animals, climatic variation, and extensive range of topography and altitude.
Jared Diamond uses the Anna Karenina principal to explain how all domesticated animals are similar, how they share corresponding traits, and how undomesticated animals are undomesticated in their own way.
Using this principal, he describes how zebras, despite seeming like domestic animals could never be domesticated. Similarly, he also explains why elephants can be tamed but can never make good domestic animals. It will also be astonishing to know that Eurasian animals were naturally endowed with characteristics that were required for domestication.
Orientation of axes, too had significant effects in continents - absence of geographical barriers, latitude adaptability of plants and animals and day-night life-cycle, all seemed to favor Eurasia and Fertile Crescent that led to easy spread of food production.


Diamond discusses how domestication of animals is invariably linked to diseases.
Since Eurasians, from thousands of years have lived in close proximity with domestic animals, they became susceptible to animal diseases which infected humans and in some cases mutated and passed on as human disease. Those with repeated exposure to the diseases developed immunity and acquired antibodies.
Diamond further goes on to explain how agriculture played a role in disseminating crowd diseases.
Writing, a breakthrough achievement made in the history of mankind, again, happened in certain parts of the world. When social complexity developed, it necessitated the invention of language so that the information could be relayed to other people.
He explains the fundamental strategies that came to be used for writing, namely- alphabetic (one sign for one sound), logo-graphic (one sign for one word), and syllabic (one sign for one syllable). World's first ever independent languages emerged in Sumer, Mexico, China, and Egypt.
The languages and its adaptations developed because of the complex society, and political institutions necessitated it for record keeping, propaganda, etc.
For any society to broaden its realm or conquer other societies, it needs to be primed with technology and sophisticated weaponry. Eurasians were at it again - right from guns and swords to ships. However, not all inventions were products of need, some of them were serendipitous happenings that yielded useful products and technology.
But it doesn't just stop with the invention. If a society needs to reap fruits from an invention, it is but obvious for it to be receptive of it. However, there were some societies who chose not to embrace the inventions and thus paved way for their own doom as others with them were easily able to vanquish them.
Diamond expounds how religion and government have been intertwined throughout the history. He says when a conquest is planned, it is carried out by government, in the name of religion.
He then divides the complexity of human societies into four categories - bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states and explains how some of them, owing to their structure were egalitarian (promoted equality of all people in all aspects), while some grew kleptocratic (governments which were financially self-interested).
He points to the leaning of complex societies to supplant the simpler ones. He also explains the relationship between food production and irrigation and complex structures.


In this part, Diamond discusses how Australia and New Guinea in spite of having an advantage over others couldn't flourish as Eurasia. As per the aforementioned concept, for any society to prosper, its geographic location acts as the major affecting factor, and Australian and New Guinea were largely isolated from other parts of the world.
Europeans were able to overcome Australia and New Guinea because they had guns, germs, and steel.
It would be quite interesting to know that the Chinese, despite appearing as rigidly uniformed are in fact, different (language-wise).
The reason why China is so unified genetically is because of its varied landscape. Since, China was one of the first places to have independent food production, the system of states developed early, for which unification of the entire society became a requisite.
This facilitated spread of culture and technology seamlessly and ensured China's dominance in Eastern Asia.
Diamond talks about world's one of the largest population movements in the course of history, which was the Austronesian expansion. He further explains how diversity in culture and languages followed as people migrated and settled in other parts of the world.
He also approaches the most important question of all, why the Europeans were able to get the better of Native Americans and not the other way round. The answer lies in food production, diseases, metallurgy, latest technology, and writing.
Diamond goes on to dispel our notion of Africa as the continent of black people only. He says that Africa was inhabited by five different groups, and even before the Europeans colonized Africa, there were considerable number of white people living in Northern Africa.
During the Austronesian expansion, many Indonesian people intermarried with the black Africans. There were two major genetic populations in Africa - Khoisan and the Pygmies who, however, today, can be found in fewer areas. The reason behind Africa's 'black people' association was same as that of other cultures with complex societies.
The Bantu-speaking black Africans had an evolved social structure and technology than other groups, hence they wound up occupying larger areas of Africa.
In the last part of the book, Jared Diamond recapitulates all the factors that put Europeans in the role of conquerors and others as underdogs.
At last he even poses a question to all to ponder - Why did China despite making headstart through food production lost momentum in the competition? Why didn't it gain control over Europe in spite of its unified structure?
Jared Diamond through his extensive analysis in 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' peels off many layers of fallacies concerning human development, race, and dominance.