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Analysis of William Mcneill's Critique of Guns, Germs, and Steel

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 In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the author shares his hypothesis for why some parts of the world are not as technologically advanced as others. Diamond argues that the shortcomings of one society compared to another in development are a result of less than beneficial environmental factors inflicted upon the less advanced of the two. Separately, in a review of this piece, William H. McNeill takes it upon himself to both criticize the faults and acknowledge the truths revealed by Diamond’s simplistic lense on the matter. However, in this review of Diamonds work, McNeill both adds and subtracts from the hypothesis mentioned, and creates additions that act against the singular motif, that environmental factors are not the sole origin of these developmental inequalities, and in doing so, creates a more dimensional answer to the question Diamond is trying to answer, while also creating a weaker answer from Diamond alone.

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Diamond introduces his book in the form of an answer to a question. A question asked of him back in 1972 by a New Guinean man named Yali, and went like so, ‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?’ (Diamond, 14). The ‘white people’s cargo’ refers to the many material objects we possessed more advanced to their own, like steel tools, machines, and the like, while their own ‘cargo’, or tools, were still made of stone. Diamond believed whole-heartedly that the New Guineans and other people in their situation were smarter than Eurasians because the New Guinean’s intelligence-related genes were refined by natural selection for survival from murder and environmental hazards, while Eurasians were only faced with threats like disease, which only made natural selection act upon immuno-related genes that helped fend off bacteria. Since he believes this, Diamond finds that the best explanation for the difference in advancements comes from a society’s environment. Eurasians only flourished in the way they had because these populations had the advantages of being able to domesticate beneficial plants and animals from their particular environments, which allowed for agriculture to take root. Diamond emphasizes that ‘by enabling farmers to generate food surpluses, food production permitted farming societies to support full-time craft specialists who did not grow their food and who developed technologies’ and as a result, societies and their progress in technological advancements were closely tied to their means of food production (Diamond, 30). Without advancing methods of food production to sustain the population, individuals wouldn’t have opportunities outside the agricultural realm, and so the advancement of tools, centralized political organization, writing, and other important parts to advanced societies wouldn’t have had the chance to form. It’s in this frame of thinking, that Diamond had created his argument, and concedes that culture may have a small role in societal development, but only just, and that the most prominent leading factor in differential development rates are that of the environment a population resides in.

McNeill wrote a review of Guns, Germs and Steel to argue that Diamond’s piece, though a unique, insightful one, has too narrow a lens to accurately explain why societies are in the different stages that they are. He also makes it clear that Diamond’s scientific view of history is too simplistic and strict to capture the cause of the rate of human development of culture and technology as a whole. McNeill starts by disagreeing with Diamond’s main argument, as it shows Diamond’s simplification of cultural growth to only really be the result of environmental factors. It is under this sole factor that Diamond’s argument neglects to see the shaping of the ‘ symbolic… world’ outside of the ‘tyranny of natural environments’ (McNeill, 3). This caused McNeill to view Diamond’s stance as ‘misguided’. McNeill also found that due to Diamond’s biological science background, Diamond viewed the growth of culture outside of food production and the environment as less than significant, and saw the distribution and density of people as the cause for the ‘contemporary differences’ between populations (McNeill, 3). McNeill felt that the ‘accepting and rejecting of new ways of thoughts and actions’, which were done in generations upon generations of people, had nothing to do with environmental factors (McNeill, 4). McNeill pointed out that many of these ‘cultural idiosyncrasies…. came into their own’ and were much too important for Diamond to dismiss as ‘wild cards’ for cultural development. Discerning the foundation of history to be more fluid and interpretational, McNeill finds that even describing some cultural factors as wild cards made history unpredictable, and concluded that it must be ‘irredeemably unscientific’ (McNeill, 4). McNeill ends his review by basically saying that a ‘science of history’ will never give us satisfaction in explaining the modern world.

However, there were some points that McNeill would concede to Diamond. He believed Diamond’s piece to be ‘artful, informative, and delightful’ and had to say that going at this argument from the view Australia and New Guinea ‘full of surprises’ (McNeill, 1). He found Diamonds account of ‘domestication of plants and animals and the subsequent expansion of linguistically distinct groups of food-producers at the expense of older populations of hunters and gatherers is a brilliant tour de force’ and he did find his rendition of paleolithic history ‘very convincing’ (McNeill, 5). He also acknowledges that Diamond doesn’t completely rule out culture as a factor, and that his chapters on domestication are persuasive, and that Diamond isn’t completely wrong.

Personally, I find that McNeill’s perspective, through a historian’s eyes, creates a much more fuller answer to why societies grow at different speeds. It’s through McNeill’s opposition of just environmental factors and his emphasis on how behavior, the interaction between generations, ‘conscious purposes and shared meanings’ also play a role, that the fuller answer begins to take shape (McNeill, 10). He also supports parts of Diamond’s argument in how he acknowledges the importance of the domestication of plants and animals to form better food sources, food surpluses, and the ability to specialize. He concedes that ‘those initial constraints’, environmental factors, ‘were never entirely overcome’ and this is shown in how the American

Indians ‘never caught up with Eurasians’ (McNeill, 5). However, because of the juxtaposing views and McNeill’s counterpoints toward Diamond with his ‘dubious statements’ about some of history itself, Diamond’s intentional message was weakened by McNeill, as McNeill can even point out a blatantly wrong statement about Alexander the Great in Diamond’s book (McNeill, 10-11). Even catching a small mistake such as this, makes some of his other evidence seem less credible, pushing readers more toward what McNeill has to argue.

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Jacob Diamond argues that environments are the major reason why societies have technologically and culturally developed at different rates. Through McNeill’s review, the reader is given the pros and cons of Diamond’s piece. When combining these two ideas, McNeill’s review and Diamond’s book serves as an extremely respectable answer to the question raised those years ago by Yali, but without the combination of these ideas, Diamond is weakened by McNeill and Diamond’s argument proves too singular and simple without it.

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Analysis Of William Mcneill’s Critique Of Guns, Germs, And Steel. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from
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