If one is a regular visitor to the history section in a bookstore, it is hard to pass on Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. Despite the fact that the book first came out in 1997, it still manages to maintain popularity and influence among modern scholars. In a nutshell, the main argument of the book revolves around the idea that geographic factors, as opposed to economic or cultural, predetermine the development of modern civilizations. In his novel, Jared Diamond asks a question of why Eurasian civilizations have been successful in their development in comparison to other cultures around the globe: “The differences extend to most other significant technological advances, from printing presses to glass and steam engines. Why were all those inventors Eurasian?” (Diamond, 1997, p. 241).
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According to the ideas Diamond laid out in the book, geographic location is the main reason why some cultures manage to achieve a technological breakthrough or become colonizers of other less powerful countries. Physical location, in his opinion, can set in motion the chain of events that help civilizations to either grow or stay underdeveloped (Radford, 2010).
Iron ore, a fertile type of soil necessary for agriculture, along with the availability of other natural resources on the land can be successful in determining how evolved and rich a certain civilization will become. Therefore, Diamond held a view that all human beings came to this world with a similar set of abilities; however, the inequalities in countries’ development came with the progress of agriculture in a small part of the world, the so-called Fertile Crescent in western Asia (Radford, 2010). Agriculture can be very useful in stimulating the density of the population by imposing diseases to which people subsequently acquire immunity. Furthermore, civilizations need a surplus of food that can only be provided by the agricultural sector; it also increases the demand for specialization and the development of technologies to advance the sector.
When discussing agriculture in the context of civilizations’ development, a question of “why the Fertile Crescent in Asia was so special?” arises. As mentioned by Diamond (1997), the region was successful in cultivating emmer around 8500 B.C., which subsequently caused this species of wheat to mutate and thus survive. Rather than spilling their seeds on the ground, the stalks of emmer maintained the seeds on the stem even past ripening (Radford, 2010). Such a unique accident made crops very popular for foragers and hunters that later contributed to the launch of the human civilization after the ice age. The breakthrough of the Fertile Crescent farmers with their primitive pestles and mortars, mattocks, and sickles helped them start making cheese, butter, bread, and beer, as mentioned by Radford (2010) in the Guardian. However, not all places were as fortunate as the Fertile Crescent. Despite the fact that Africa produced some plants such as coffee or yams, these species did not share the same climate, and thus they could not be grown in the same region of Africa. Moreover, none of the large mammals that populated Africa have ever been domesticated by civilization. On the other hand, in the Fertile Crescent, there were pigs, cows, and sheep that all contributed to the agricultural and farming development of the region.
The emergence of surplus food-producing civilizations with higher densities of population allowed humans to become more resistant to diseases and more open to technological advancements, especially in the spheres of metallurgy or socio-economic organization predominantly within the supercontinent of Eurasia and the closer regions of northern Africa and the western Pacific, where the environment alongside with the patterns of migration and trade were supporting the spread of the advancements (Tomlinson, n.d.). In this context, the idea of diffusion plays an adamant role: specific continents and geographical regions were much more likely to be accepting of technological changes due to the external and internal connections with other regions where those changes had already occurred (Tomlinson, n.d.).
The main concern Diamond (1997) made in his book was to reject the racial explanation of the differences between different cultures that live in the various regions on the map. Particularly, he argued that there was no significant difference in human intelligence of societies: “sound evidence for the existence of human differences in intelligence that parallel human differences in technology are lacking” (Diamond, 1997, p. 19). Furthermore, he argued that those civilizations that could survive in dangerous environments such as New Guinea can be more intelligent compared to cultures that have a sedentary lifestyle in a sheltered environment such as the U.S. (Tomlinson, n.d.); therefore, the survival of civilization needs more skills in dangerous rather than safe circumstances.
With the rising popularity of the book, many historians and anthropologists wanted to take a closer look at the opinions laid out by Diamond. For example, Jason Antrosio (holding a Ph.D. in Anthropology) (2013) once wrote: “contemporary historians broadly verify that Jared Diamond’s account in Guns, Germs, and Steel is inadequate” (para. 26). While Diamond’s approach was still appreciated, historians stated that it was not that surprising that the most developed and progressive societies originated in Eurasia. For example, historian J. R. McNeil stated that Eurasia accounted for approximately eighty percent of the entire global population over the past three thousand years; even if the success of civilizations was distributed randomly, it was expected that it would be found in Eurasian societies than in any other place (as cited in Antrosio, 2013). Therefore, critics stated that Diamond had a too narrow of a focus and that the emergence of successful modern civilizations cannot be fully attributed to geography.
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Apart from the narrow focus on geography, Diamond was criticized for its overly deterministic viewpoint that did not take into consideration the impact human agency had on the development of civilizations. Critics argued that Diamond’s book made it seem as though certain cultures were already predetermined to fail or succeed based on their geographic positioning (Sullivan, n.d.). The decisions made by the rules of those civilizations along with the impact of numerous inventions did not receive any attention in the views presented by Diamond. Therefore, the key criticism of his work was supported by the opinion that people had an ability to make different decisions that would influence their developmental outcomes, but Guns, Germs, and Steel did not take this theory into account, making Europeans accidental but absolute leaders and conquerors of other civilizations (Sullivan, n.d.).
While the intention of Diamond was to write a book that would go against racism and racial determinism, many critics argued that he had done the opposite. Racial determinism states that the success or failure of cultures and civilizations depends solely on their race. Therefore, Diamond was criticized for opening the door to some forms of racism due to the focus on the geographical position as a determining aspect for cultures’ development (Sullivan, n.d.). Thus, to some extent, Diamond (1997) unintentionally promoted the ideas of racism by suggesting that certain people groups were “predetermined” or “destined” to be weak and become conquered by the Eurasians (p. 68). From the beginning to the end of his book, Diamond underlined his realization that some efforts to compare one society against another is a tool often used by racists and nationalists with an intention to justify the mistreatment of certain groups (Jaschik, 2005). He tried to argue that his comparative analysis was, in fact, anti-racist because it illustrated that the white population of the planet that can nowadays enjoy all benefits of modern life was luckier than others, but no more deserving.
Despite the much-deserved criticism, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a literary work that managed to unite the ideas about the modern history with the understanding of past events that can have a direct influence on the future. While the book was criticized for its narrow focus and the ideas of determinism, it is still considered one of the most prominent pieces of historical work that told its readers about the interactions between the advanced and primitive groups that started a chain of events that led the global societies to become what they are today. If one is to disregard to unintentional ideas of racial determinism presented in the book, the key theme of all human beings being born with equal abilities but there are factors that make their lives different is still relevant to this day.
Antrosio, J. (2013). Eric Wolf, Europe and the people without history – Geography, states, empires. Web.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jaschik, S. (2005). Guns, germs, and steel reconsidered. Web.
Radford, T. (2010). Guns, germs, and steel – And a ploughman’s lunch. Web.
Sullivan, N. (n.d.). Guns, germs, and steel criticism. Web.
Tomlinson, T. (n.d.). Review of Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Web.