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Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, is an unquestionable contribution to debates attempting to explain global economic inequalities through detailed historical narratives. A ponderous recollection of seemingly dense but important details, the book offers the reader and extremely in-depth incursion into the economic history of the world, in an effort to pinpoint the root causes of progress and innovation in certain societies. More than race, religion and culture, the author argues that the core reason behind the advanced development of certain civilisations on the “Eurasian” continent is geographic opportunity. This paper will dissect the strength of Diamond’s argument by firstly situating the book in a multidisciplinary field, then by providing an analytical synopsis of the book’s main argument, to then further delve into a critical discussion emphasising the main lacunas in his thesis, before deeming it to be a foundational interdisciplinary text in the field of international political economy.
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist, makes an applaudable attempt to answer important questions about global inequality, by combining a broad spectrum of disciplines – geography, anthropology, economics, linguistics and history – apparently out of his area of research. He makes arguments in regard to feasibility of exchange of goods, knowledge, diseases and technology, so as to explain unbalanced economic developments at a global level. To do so, he often employs archaeology and linguistics to trace back these historical theories, which denotes an interdisciplinary approach with geography and the history of economics, or more specifically trade, at its core. Diamond could be referred to as a geographical determinist, a generalist potentially often frowned upon in a world where academics spend entire careers answering obscure questions, easier to root in unquestionable evidence, that often don’t attract as much interested as the fundamental questions the author tries to tackle. Hence, Diamond takes a leap of fate and does the opposite to the mainstream – offers a sophisticated, broad argument that attempts to offer an all-encompassing explanation to global inequality. Written in 1997, the book is a skilfully crafted historical reference situated in a multitude of disciplines, with telling but different insights, depending on the reader’s disciplinary approach.
Professor Diamond aims to dispel rudimentary explanations of economic and social development, rooted in race or apparent differences in culture. To do so, the book focuses on a central question – why did Europeans come to dominate the world. He excludes the idea that European global dominance was a result of a superior biological acumen. Diamond provides arguments that aim to encompass his generalist thesis – they include bio-geographical effects, food production, abundance of domesticable animals or lack thereof, and the strong historical effects of disease. His thesis spans over 40,000 years of human history, in an effort to explain the geographical opportunism of the Eurasian continent as a much better place for food production. Endowed with a variety of domesticable animals, these aspects provided the perfect environment for civilizational development. Hence, he shapes a strong thesis on the causal relations between the environment, or more broadly geography, and civilizational success.
He traces the road to inequality from when humans stopped being hunter gatherers and started being farmers, a pivotal point in his thesis. Looking back in history to the agricultural revolution, the more able societies were in producing more food, the more developed their civilizations would be and thus more able to innovate and develop technologically. Furthermore, close proximity to animals exposed people to diseases which allowed Eurasia, the continent with the most domesticable animals, the opportunity to develop resistance to them. As a result of domesticating animals, agricultural development and the resistance to disease that followed, populations flourished, which in turn allowed societies to introduce hierarchical power relations within newly created states that eventually developed into empires.
“Goods in excess of an individual’s needs must be transferred from the individual to a centralized authority, which then redistributes the goods to individuals with deficits.” (p. 287)
Such arguments, touching on political economy, focus on redistributions and transfers as prerogatives of the government, tinting towards a socialist understanding of the social contract. The Eurasian continent was also more prone to exchanges due to its West-East axis. Unlike all other continents, this allowed its inhabitants to grow a greater variety of plants and animals which could be domesticated and exchanged. Such a phenomenon was not possible, at a scale big or fast enough for development to materialise, in the other continents that spanned on a North-South axis. Therefore, this geographical phenomenon facilitated the trade of technology, agricultural goods and diseases more than on a North to South continent. Finally, to differentiate the Asian and European continent, he argues that competition in Europe was present also due to the geographical setup which steered the continent into a more independent development. This was accompanied by a fear of being conquered which ensured competition between European states and thus a more rapid growth and development in each individual state.
Diamond’s book offers relevant, well researched and insightful introspections into the economics of trade and political economy more generally, revered in an abundance of details, which at times does tend to take away the reader’s attention, from his main argument. Professor Diamond uses a model of economic history dominated by geographic opportunity, to shape and add texture to his argument. Thus, as mentioned before, one of the major insights into economics is about how geographical setups facilitated gains resulting from trade. He thus emphasises a sensible point in favour of relative advantages in goods, knowledge and services exchange, rooted even in present day Ricardian trade models and patterns. In contrast, his argument about the inability of civilisations scattered on a longitudinal axis being less able to trade complements this. Further, his consideration that climate conditions have interfered with exchanges and to have prevented economies of scale which allowed technological developments, adds another economic dimension to his argument. However, while Professor Diamond’s personal insights from his research trips in New Guinea, sharpen and give focus to his arguments, he does seem to embark on an ambitious project, basing his analysis on a series of broad brush-strokes that fill in his generalist argument. Nonetheless, his ambition to illustrate general paradigms through specific, in-depth examples distances him from the usual approach of academics trying to explain such phenomena using focused examples to explain narrow concepts.
Moreover, for a book of such breadth there is only a succinct mention of capitalism (p. 250), which by and large, takes away from his argument through omissions of important aspects which need to be either validated or invalidated when tackling the loaded question of global inequality. His mention of capitalism is only part of a series of inexhaustible explanations as to why technological progress in Europe was superior than the one in Asia. Otherwise, while he traces unequal social and economic development to the specific moment of the agricultural revolution, he does not mention the subsequent structural or economic factors that could have shifted, or more likely accelerated, the advanced development of the Eurasian continent. Thus, his thesis could benefit a lot from less depth exploration of arguments in exchange for a bit more terrain covered.
Furthermore, Diamond’s tendency to reduce a large debate, focused on the historically rooted evidence of wealth inequality to the idea of geographic connectedness, reduce his legitimacy. He mentions that “technology may have developed most rapidly in regions with moderate connectedness, neither too high, nor too low” (p. 416), but does not acknowledge that the accidents of history paradigm cannot account for all these complicated dynamics. This could lead into a tendency towards selection bias, especially in regard to his thirteenth chapter focused on technology, which extrapolates from a limited amount of evidence that supports his view while ignoring all the contrary evidence. His game-against-nature opportunity argument is compelling, but it could really well be used to argue that technology can emerge due to lack of agricultural development, phenomenon that might require more innovation. Finally, an attempt to explain human development at a continental, regional or individual level, without employing cultural, political or religious nuances that could very well potentially hinder or advance this progress, is something that erodes the validity of his argument.
An established classic, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” is an invaluable piece that builds into the reader’s understanding of the world dynamics that produced continental inequalities. With a strong introspection into details drawn from a variety of fields, he manages to provide a comprehensive picture, only slightly eroded by a few mishaps – to be naturally expected in the case of a book with such breadth. The book remains a foundation to academic interdisciplinarity and is a prerequisite to present day anthropological arguments such as the ones of Yuval Noah Harari. More specifically, the uniqueness and resourcefulness of the book comes from its ability to shapeshift world views and historical understandings of present-day dynamics, applicable to international political economy.
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