Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - by Jared Diamond
Posted on February 6th, 2015
This anthropology book goes back in time before mankind was a dominant species and explores how we evolved the way we did.
The book starts off with a question which guides the book's line of thought: Why did Eurasians came to be the dominant human group and not native Americans, New Guineans, Australian Aborigines or SubSaharian groups?
The rest follows as a very summarized historian account of human evolution around each continent trying to identify various different paths each group took and when major breakthroughs happened. The book is divided into four parts that roughly move along human history: pre food production, food production start, growth after food production, the state of the world through Australia, New Guinea, China, Polynesia and Africa.
The main line the author follows is that evolution of human groups was shaped by the environment in which they established themselves. He starts describing how and where early humans distributed themselves throughout the world.
Mankind is supposed to have evolved from 3 ape species in Africa around 7 million years ago. It took 3 million years to achieve an upright position and about 1.5 million years later we reached larger (yet small compared to modern) brain sizes. That's when stone tools started to appear. All of that evolution was restricted to Africa.
It was only about 1 million years ago that we have evidence of humans outside the African continent.
About 500 000 years ago, humans reached the Homo Sapiens stage that we are part of with similar brain sizes and posture. Around that time, humans are in African and all of Eurasia (continental Europe and Asia). No boat technology yet available so Polynesia or Australia are unpopulated. Cold resistant technology was also unavailable so Siberia and the northern parts of Europe and Asian are mostly uninhabited too as well as America (which could have been reachable through the Bering straight in Ice Ages due to lower ocean levels).
Neanderthals appear between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago and show first signs of burying their dead and caring for the sick. Around 50,000 years ago came what the author calls the Great Leap Forward. It is marked by an evolution in the stone tools used along with jewelry and bone tools (which can be shaped more easily than stone). It allows for specialization of tools making them much more efficient at their task and, therefore, making us more productive and effective.
Around 35,000 years ago, evidences are found that humans are found in Polynesia, Australia and New Guinea. Ice Ages could explain how humans got there without watercraft or we simply didn't find early watercraft evidence due to its crudeness. That time period also marks the disappearance of big mammals in Australia and New Guinea. Roughly during that time, humans start appearing in colder areas and, with some disputes, move towards the Americas via Bering Straight.
Around 15,000 years ago, the large mammals in America met the same fate as the ones in Australia and were extinct. Reasons are unclear but the coincidence with human arrival is shocking in both places.
About 13,000 years ago, the world was mostly set when it comes to having humans in the major land areas and a start of a 'race' towards world domination. The author argues that, at that point, Eurasia and Africa were likely to be considered the most likely dominant continents since their human history is much older than that of Australia/New Guinea and Americas.
Those 13,000 years are the focus of the book. The author goes along to show reports of human interactions that we either have written evidence of or have seen ourselves to formulate hypothesis around motivations for archeological evidences found for earlier human groups.
The central point is that food production was the major technological improvement that made Eurasia become the dominant continent. Thanks to its east-west shape, lack of major natural barriers and large landmass, Eurasian populations had an easier time growing, expanding and sharing knowledge. Along with the fact that it is the continent with most large domesticated mammals and that it was home to 5 out of 13 best domesticated plants, it means that food production was born in the Fertile Crescent (now the Arabias) and spread quickly from there to Europe and West Asia. The same food production arose in China with different plants and also spread to the West quickly.
With food production came animal domestication with cattle and horses being the most useful ones due to their ability to plow the land and, therefore, increase the amount of calories generates by a single farmer. Thanks to the food surplus caused by this domestication of plants and animals, farmer populations grew considerably faster than that of hunter-gatherers that previously populated the whole world. With population growth, society stratification started to happen and specialized work is born. This allowed for larger constructions to happen as well as crafts to evolve along with writing and other technologies like metal (bronze, iron and finally steel) tools.
Living with animals and large quantities of humans also fosters disease spread. While those may sound like a disadvantage, they helped develop societies whose individuals were resistant or immune to multiple diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, bubonic plague and others.
With those in hands, Europeans were capable of arriving in 1532 with Pizarro some 100 Spaniards in Cajamarca and capture Atahualpa, Inca emperor, surrounded by 80,000 Inca warriors. And, a few years later, to essentially wipe out the entire Inca population. As the author points out, when Pizarro arrived with his 100 soldiers, the Incas were recovering from an internal war caused by a fight for power between two brothers trying to seize the throne left by their father who died of a "mysterious" disease introduced by Spaniards some 30 years ago. Along with that, Pizarro had steel armors and guns which allowed his soldiers to resist to virtually all attacks by Inca soldiers who only had clubs and quilted armors. Horses also allowed Pizarro's soldiers to outrun as well as out-power the walking or running Inca soldiers. Finally, guns allowed for a few Spaniard soldiers to take down many Inca soldiers from a safe distance.
The result is that Pizarro's 100 soldiers army effectively defeated Atahualpa's 80,000 soldiers army while being in foreign territory in a matter of minutes or hours. Guns, germs and steel being the direct causes for the Inca's defeat. Society's structure, religion, and watercraft technologies being the indirect ones.
The author argues that all of those reasons, both direct and indirect, are outcomes of food production evolution. The book provides many "isolated" historical events that support the logical thought to reach this conclusion. It shows how repeated societies encountered similar fates when in similar situations regardless of 'race'.
One point that may not be very clear due to short summary is the fate of Africa (which also reflects in the fate of America). As said, America and Australia/New Guinea didn't host any large domesticated mammals to allow for better food production. Africa, however, is known to be the land of large mammals. It also benefits from two very commonly explored paths to Eurasian (the Gibraltar straight and the middle eastern region). One major difference between Africa (and America) with Eurasia is its north-south distribution. North-South axis means that the continent is subject to very different climate types and that moving plants throughout the continent is much harder than trying to move them along a east-west axis with similar climate conditions. This also impacted how America had a very hard time spreading food production (which arose in possibly 3 different locations in Americas). Africa also suffered from being divided by the Sahara desert and being home to both summer rains and winter rains regions which greatly affect plant development. As a result, food production in Sub-Saharan Africa developed summer rains crops which were unsuitable for winter rains regions common in Eurasia. As a result, African populations in the very South of Africa remained hunter-gatherers until the arrival of European boats in Cape of Good Hope with European winter-rains enabled crops. Thanks to such, Europeans had a stronghold for Sub-Saharan African conquest when facing food productive populations that, although less technologically advanced, still posed serious resistance through germs (yellow fever mainly) and iron tools.
Australia is, by itself, a case of study due to its isolation and inhospitable nature for crops production. The virtual disappearance of Australian Aborigines upon European arrival is very much due to the same factors as in the Americas. Germs wiped out the vast majority of the Aborigine population and guns under European hands did the rest. The lack of societal organization in Aborigines stopped them from even having a chance to resist. The same didn't happen in food producing New Guinea which managed to survive and still maintain a certain majority even though their lack of steel and guns didn't stop Eurasians from becoming mostly dominant.
The author goes into great details for all continents and provides very good accounts into continent interactions as well as human movements. The reasoning as well as archeological, linguistic and historical evidences are presented in great lengths and details. The epilogue touches on how those are part of a scientific method for what the author calls historical sciences, i.e., sciences that depend on time/evolution such as evolutionary biology, climatology, ecology, geology and others. It also looks at other unanswered questions about other factors that influenced history. Specifically an interesting one about China and Europe's contrasts with unity and disunity and the benefits and issues that arise from each.
The second edition of the book brings and extra chapter about Japan and its history which is very interesting. Japan is unique in that archeological evidences and linguistic evidences seem to be conflicting as to how Japanese people became who they are today. A long lasting animosity between Korea and Japan may be clouding some evidences but it is very much worth learning more about it.
Finally, the author concludes with some afterwords into where research as gone in the years after original publications and where it can still go. Nothing that noticeable here.
Overall the book is very long (around 450 pages) but covers a great deal into human evolution. It explains a lot about current politics in the world as well as our current society organization. The rationale in the book is a lot more systematic than usual anthropology or history books.
The author is, however, biased when it comes to analyzing what is "better" for humans. There is an obvious assumption that current power lies in the countries that have adopted a western European "lifestyle" with capitalism and exploitation of poorer groups as a technology, innovation and power source. Although he does present historical evidences that show that this lifestyle can provide such results, there is little account to other life styles inability to provide the same results or even the lack of failures from this style to provide the same results (as faced by many European populated or dominated societies in the New World or Africa).
I still recommend the book to anyone interested in human society and its evolution. It provides great understanding into our current world's shape as well as decisions being made everywhere to both maintain the current status or to try to become more similar to the powers that arose in the 20th century.