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Guns, Germs, and Steel by J. Diamond and Its Critique

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History of humankind is consisted of conquest and exploration. Mostly, Western European countries possessed enormous amount of wealth and power, while people in Africa and South America stayed rather behind. So why exactly did humans on different continents develop at such different rates? Although the reasons behind this remain controversial, Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, tried to answer this question by stating that the differences among people’s environments, rather than their biological differences, affect their rate of development. Although this book received lots of compliments, famous historian McNeil raised the issue that while emphasizing the environmental factors, this book neglected the potential cultural aspects to answer this question. His criticism added great points to Diamond’s view, which provided a more well-rounded explanation for the question.

In the prologue of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond stated clearly that this book was framed around the question from Yali, who was a politician from Native New Guinea and wanted to know why the Europeans, not them, possessed more advanced technology. This conversation took place when a few island political leaders tried to gain independence from Australia, which was essentially a microscopic view of what Diamond intended to explore in this book: the inequalities of wealth, power and technology. Historically, there has been many theories that tried to answer this puzzling question, with the most prevailing explanation that differences between societies could be traced to genetics, especially natural selection and evolutionary descent. Diamond, nonetheless, believed that although innate abilities can be a possible explanation, natural environments actually played a more significant role.

To prove this point, he gave an example of the natural experiment happened to the Moriori and Maori people on two pacific islands. While Moriori people had to be hunter-gatherers because the climate’s not suitable for agriculture, Maori people practiced agriculture and had food surpluses for their suitable geography and environment. According to Diamond, “food production is an indirect prerequisite for guns, germs and steel.” (Diamond, page 86) Indeed, food production and the domestication of wild animals brought enormous advantages over hunter-gatherer tribes, including food storage, denser populations, technology advancement, and political development. Animal products such as meat and milk yielded more available consumable calories allowed for shortened birth intervals, meaning denser populations on the Maori island. Additionally, farming and herding permitted food storage, which became a huge military advantage during wars. These huge advantages eventually resulted in a “settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative” society. That after all explained why literacy, weapons and germs evolved in more stable societies rather than hunter-gatherer tribes. In this case, it was not surprising that the Maori people had greater population density, developed more complex social and political structure, including chiefs and kings, produced fine tools as well as other aspects of material culture and eventually conquered the Moriori. Through this example, Diamond illustrated an apparent global pattern, that is, a more advanced culture would always seek a way to conquer another if given the opportunity.

Famous Historian McNeil, however, stated some criticism in his review of Diamond’s book. He argued that Diamond neglected the distinct culture of each country and simply attributed every process to be the “natural, inevitable result of geography interacting with increasing human numbers.” (McNeil, page 8) McNeil objected the negligence of culture autonomy and cultural idiosyncrasy, which Diamond claimed to be “a mere reflection of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of difference plants and animals in different parts of the world.” However, for McNeil, distinct culture does influence the development of human societies. People born in a country will be exposed to vastly different cultures than those born in another, which in turn had varied world views.

The invention of language, for example, allowed the ancestors to communicate and understand each other in a symbolic and abstract way, creating a shared meaning that distinguished one society from another. Historically, scientists have always believed that languages don’t differ from one another because they share a universal grammar. However, after decades of work, well-known cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky proposed that language shaped our way of thinking and constructing reality. In her Wall Street Journal, she first suggested that people grown up in different cultures have fundamentally different ways of shaping space, which leads to various ways of interpreting more complex concepts, such as time, numbers, and emotions. (2010) Then, she argued that “Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities”, which affects cultural values. (2010) These values created vastly different societies that prioritize distinct cultural aspects of the civilization, influencing the rates of development in different areas around the globe.

Furthermore, McNeil claimed that wealth and power also depended on the way ancestors reject or accept information, which had nothing to do with the environment. He emphasized people’s ability to learn, which affected the rate of development. According to him, although environments did play a role in early phases of human history, they were no longer significant factors when people adopted more effective approaches. For example, after people domesticated horses and other wild animals, they not only became the main source of transportation for Western countries, but also provided a source of protein for the hunter-gatherer tribes. Thus, through the course of human development, people gradually started to “reshape actual environment to suit their purposes.” Lastly, he argued that Diamond didn’t present the whole historical picture. Diamond started on the history when food production was getting started and attributed all the “contemporary differences among human societies” to the environment without explaining what happened in between. 

All in all, Diamond’s book provided a rather brief and direct explanation of why different continents had different rate of development. For him, the gaps in power and wealth originated from environmental differences rather than genetic superiority. In my opinion, McNeil pointed out the cultural aspect that Diamond had left out when answering the question, which raised excellent points that added on to Diamond’s view and provided a more well-rounded explanation in attempt to answer Yali’s question. In other words, while environmental conditions did play a role in early human history, culture and other social aspects became more crucial when looking at the whole historical picture.

Works Cited

  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
  • McNeill, William H. “History Upside Down.” The New York Review of Books, 15 May 1997, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1997/05/15/history-upside-down/.
  • Gregory, Frederick. “Science and Religion in Western History.” History of Science Society — Topical Essays, The History of Science Society, 1995, http://depts.washington.edu/hssexec/newsletter/1998/gregory.html.
  • Boroditsky, Lera. “Lost in Translation.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 23 July 2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.

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