guns, germs, steel

by Jim Devine

09 April 2000

(book review)

I've finally finished with a very long (425 pages) but extremely interesting, well-written, and informative book of archaeology and anthropology, Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL (Norton, 1997). The book argues for a reasonable theory about why the occupants of Eurasia have conquered the other continents (especially the New World) during the last 500+ years rather than being conquered by the rest of the world. In the end, we of Eurasian extraction were lucky, having the right kind of geography, access to wild plants and animals that could be domesticated, plus a relatively small number of ecological or geographical barriers which allowed diffusion through trade, migration, or conquest. This allowed us to grow in population, grow geographically, and take over almost all of the world. BTW, Brad DeLong has a good review of the book at As he notes, the book is "truly a work of complete of total genius." He's at least a genius at synthesizing others' research. But not being a professional archeologists or anthropologist, I don't know how original this book is. (I've heard rumblings that say the book "isn't new," though that may be a protective response to a field being invaded by a non-specialist.)


One thing that is clear from the beginning is that Diamond, despite his origins and his residence (here in L.A.), makes a big effort to avoid Eurocentrism. In a strange way, he comes off "New Guinea" centric instead, even asserting that he thinks the residents of the New Guinea highlands are superior to us White Americans. He doesn't see the Eurasian conquest as a good thing, though he does see it as one example of a more general phenomenon that includes the Austronesian conquest of much of Southeast Asia, the Bantu conquest of most of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Maori conquest of the Morioris in the Chatham Islands in 1835.


And as Brad says, the book really doesn't explain why those from Europe have dominated the rest of Eurasia during the last 500+ years. Diamond's focus is on broadly defined ecological zones (roughly, continents). For example, he defines Eurasia as including North Africa. His time scale is even broader, dealing with the 13,000-year time period before 1600 C.E. (A.D.) or so.


Diamond's theory is ecological, inspired by evolutionary biology. At one point he summarizes it as embracing "geographical determinism," though that determinism is at a very abstract level over very long periods of time, leaving a lot of wiggle-room for specific differences in different areas and time periods. To summarize his story, it's a bit like the spread of "opportunistic species" of plants and animals (like those invading Hawaii now or the "killer bees" entering my neck of the woods), taking over all other possible geographical zones. As I read the book, I began to think more and more of  a quote from Stephen J. Gould's concerning the worldwide spread of McDonald's and similar restaurants. It "introduces standardization at the wrong level by usurping the smaller spaces of immediate and daily use, the places that cry out for local distinction and an attendant sense of community. McDonald's is a flock of pigeons ordering all endemic birds to the block, a horde of rats wiping out all the mice, gerbils, hamsters, chinchillas, squirrels, beavers, and capybaras" (Eight Little Piggies, p. 244). When I looked up the quote, I found the reference to rats and pigeons was not a description of fact. But the real world seems to imitate Gould's fantasy: the process of urbanization seems to wipe out all sorts of native species, allowing the pigeons to take over. International transportation allows the spread of fire ants, "Dutch" elm disease, and various weeds and germs, that wipe out or out-compete native species, so that eventually we'll see pretty much the same plants and animals ruling the roost in similar ecologies all around the world. Human cultures and technologies follow a similar pattern, while bringing opportunistic flora, fauna, and microbes with them. (You can see why I don't think Diamond is Eurocentric.)


Though genetics plays a role in Diamond's theory, he basically assumes that all varieties of humanity and culture are equal in their inherent or biological ability to innovate and spread world-wide. Further, the Eurasian conquest, like related conquests, wasn't done through a Darwinian process of competition of species and propagation via genetics as much as through competition of ethnic groups and propagation via organizational and technological advantage. The development of agriculture created an advantage over the surviving hunter-gatherers, so that the hunter-gatherers were shoved aside into the hinterlands. Farmers -- especially those with access to a wide variety of wild seeds and potential load-bearing animals -- could produce surpluses, encouraging the development of large, densely-populated, sedentary societies that developed technology further, including guns, steels, swords, ocean-bearing ships, political organization (the state), and writing. (The graph on page 87 summarizes this for all of us who think in pictures.) His story basically ends with the triumph of the farmers organized by states over other groups, since he has little to say about industrialization or capitalism, not to mention the industrialization and capitalization of farming.


The process of conquest wasn't totally a matter of technology or social organization, so that Diamond's description of the European conquest doesn't fit "social Darwinist" conceptions. One of the most interesting parts for me was the discussion of how the domestication of animals gave people various diseases, like small-pox, that spread in crowds. Those who were lucky enough to have a lot of animals at hand to domesticate (the Eurasians) suffered dramatically from such diseases. Since the Native Americans and other extra-continental forces couldn't take advantage of the plagues to conquer them, the children of those who survived often had immunities. This made them a bunch of "Typhoid Marys," facilitating the conquest of the populations in the "New World" who hadn't been lucky enough to have lots of animals available to domesticate (and to catch diseases from). It wasn't simply the horses, armor, guns, and organization that allowed Pizarro to conquer the Incas: the Incas had been weakened by European-borne diseases that killed the head Inca and spawned civil war. (The Incas had also been isolated not only from Eurasian germs but from competing cultures of a similar level of development such as the Mayas and were thus relatively inexperienced at war with equals. Again, isolation is a problem, setting a culture up for a fall.) Diamond argues that 95 percent of the Native Americans were killed by Eurasian diseases.


Of course, diseases didn't simply help the Eurasians, since tropical diseases blocked their spread to much of Africa and the rest of the tropical zone for centuries. The African natives, however, had developed immunities to tropical diseases.


For some reason, Diamond doesn't mention the possibility that human diseases might spread to animals (or between species of beasts via humanity). I'm no expert on this issue, but it seems like a possibility. It also might help us understand the mass extinction of large animals when humans enter their ecological niche. By the way, Diamond is agnostic about the hypothesis that when the Native Americas invaded the New World, they hunted the native "megafauna" to extinction (which would have been easy given the fact that those creatures had lived for millions of years without encountering people), suggesting that their deaths might have been a coincidence. But isn't it possible that some of the extinctions were due to germs? (Linking with the discussion above, in Diamond's story the extinction of the megafauna gave the Native Americans a big disadvantage when the Spaniards arrived, not only in terms of germs but war.)


The Eurasians had an advantage because they started with a large zone of origin that was unified by similar ecologies and climates, not blocked by large deserts or jungles. Since the megacontinent's axis runs east-west, uniting temperate zones there were few long-term ecological barriers to the spread of cultures, technologies, and germs. (Note the qualifier "long-term": that's Diamond's frame of reference.) Within this large zone, some cultures, technologies, and germs could beat out others. This gave them the ability to conquer areas with similar climates outside Eurasia once adequate transportation was developed (and eventually the ability to conquer the tropics, once modern medicine took off).


In the end, the book reminded by of Frank & Cook's The Winner-Take-All Society, in which in many labor and product markets, there are a very small number of winners who get the lion's share of the winnings, while the vast majority get just enough to survive in the market. Their examples are often from professional sports (such as tennis), where a small elite get big salaries, lucrative product endorsement contracts, etc., while the rest, including those who are only marginally worse than the elite, get almost nothing beyond the cost of staying in the field. In their book, the phenomenon of winner-take-all markets becomes worse when the market gets larger. For example, before inexpensive recording technology developed, there were a large number of local orchestras and a variety of different styles of music. But with mass communication and cheap recording, only a few orchestras and styles could survive, while the elite of highly-paid Big Stars arose. They see this as part of the explanation of increasing inequality in labor incomes in recent decades: increased marketization encourages inequality.


Diamond isn't talking about market competition, of course, since markets connecting various ethnic societies did not really take off until after his period of analysis. But military and political competition can and do have similar "winner-take-all" characteristics, encouraging increasing inequality (along with death and destruction). The alternative to economic (market) competition and military (political) competition is democracy, or more correctly, socialism, a generalized version of Frank and Cook's "positional arms control  agreements" that prevent winner-take-all (positional) competition from having its destructive effects. But this is getting us beyond Diamond's concerns...


At the end, Diamond qualifies the main theme of his analysis to suggest that the existence of a large unified ecological zone can actually go too far. He suggests that because of the natural unity of China, an empire could arise that could suppress innovation. In contrast, Europe was naturally disunited, and therefore was driven by constant military/political competition to innovate. This is the beginning of his incomplete discussion of why Europe won out in the competition amongst all the Eurasian subregions. Within the context of his framework, however, one could easily say that Europe just happened to be lucky, to conquer most of Eurasia before some part of the rest of Eurasian conquered it, especially given the advantage of being relatively close to the New World (which in his framework was destined to be conquered by some part of Eurasia). If Europe had been further from the Americas, perhaps a continent-wide empire could have been solidified which ended intra-European competition, so that non-Europeans could have won.


Though his writing is lucid, Diamond doesn't really make it clear what his theoretical framework is. It seems to be a matter of different groups of human beings competing within ecological/geographical boundaries, then developing new technologies that break down those barriers (as when the invention of the outrigger canoe allowed the Austronesians to spread out from Taiwan to become Polynesians, Indonesians, Malagasies, etc.) But Diamond doesn't tell us what type of unit it is that is competing. Families, extended or otherwise? or individuals? I guess it makes sense to leave this vague, because human organization has changed so much over the millennia. It's good that he doesn't focus on individuals, the way economists do, since it's only recently (in his time frame) that individualism has become dominant.


This book is far from being about cultural anthropology. Instead, he basically sees culture as a "wild card," a random factor in the ecological competition. Some cultures are technologically or organizationally progressive whereas others are regressive (as with the Japanese suppression of firearms after 1600). The former eventually win out over the latter in the competition, unless they have the advantages of isolation, as Japan did until the advent of Admiral Perry. So in the end, the cultural factors don't play a big role.


Diamond presumes that people are, by their very nature, inventive, developing new ways of surviving. Maybe. We should remember that "innovation" has different meanings in different societies. There is kind of innovation that favors human survival (which Diamond emphasizes), but innovation under capitalism only includes those that promote individual profitability and advantage in a competitive battle that can be destructive. A couple of times, he hinted at a naive belief in the benevolence of technological change. Luckily, this is not relevant to his subject matter. Given his focus, technical and organization "progress" increases the ability to win in competition with other cultures. But when we start thinking about a future world in which such conquest has become irrelevant, this kind of definition of progress means nothing.


Diamond also seems to presume some sort of Malthusian mechanism in which a given situation encourages innovation, migration, and conquest. I guess that makes sense, since it's only recently that Malthusian theories have been rendered obsolete by technological changes.


It would be interesting to see what the similarities and differences are between Diamond's book and the Marxian tradition. (As a liberal, he might be upset by the similarities of his vision to that of Marx.) He is clearly a materialist in his method. His discussion of the rise of the state and organized religion seem very close to that of Marx. A lot of the book's discussion is similar to the old Marx-inspired anthropology book by V. Gordon Childe I read in college, Man Makes Himself, though obviously the two books try to answer with different questions and Diamond has the advantage of access to a lot more information. As noted,  the time period he deals with ends roughly in 1600, so Diamond really doesn't deal with capitalism, unlike the Marxian tradition. At one point, in a table on page 269, he asserts that modern religion doesn't justify kleptocracy. But this ignores secular religious such as neoclassical economics, that justify a kind of kleptocracy that's diffused beyond the bounds of the state to be shared among individual capitalists.


I was frustrated by the way that Diamond does documentation. It's like a textbook, with a "Further Readings" section at the end. I don't mind the absence of footnotes, but the lack of bibliography is a problem. Lacking the patience to slog through all the pages of suggested readings, I couldn't see if Diamond had ever read Man Makes Himself. (He did read another book by Childe, though.) Further, at one point I felt that Diamond was either quoting or paraphrasing an article by Robert Carneiro on the origins of the state. He does cite Carneiro in the back, but it veered toward plagiarism, something we should discourage. I can imagine that a lot of professional archaeologists are a little miffed at this book as a result, seeing much of it as the same old stuff.


At the end of the book, as his discussion begins to be overly-repetitive, Diamond begins to ponder methodological issues, concerning "historical sciences." Here the sense of deja vu really took over, since his discussion seemed quite similar to that of Stephen J. Gould or long-established discussions amongst Marxists and even among economists. His discussion of "comparative method" seemed naive compared to that of Theda Skocpol (who herself learned from Barrington Moore and John Stuart Mill). Despite his efforts to eschew physics envy, he doesn't seem to be acquainted very well with the social sciences. So he re-invents the wheel.


In the end, I think the book is very worth reading. Marxists and non-Marxist leftists can learn from it.

Jim Devine &