75

Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating book that purports to explain, in a very broad way, the development of civilization. It has several explanations for the development of Eurasian civilization rather than American civilization.

Domesticated Animals: In Eurasia, there were several large domesticated animals, including the cow and horse. This had advantage for animal-powered farming and transportation, as well as infecting the Eurasians with numerous diseases the Americans had no resistance to. Diamond places great importance on diseases in human development, and likens the results of making contact with a more diseased civilization to being digested.

Direction of Expansion It's easier for a civilization to expand in a roughly east-west direction than a north-south direction, since climate is more similar east-to-west (an example would be the lack of horses in South Africa until imported by sea, since they couldn't go by land through the tse-tse fly zone). Eurasia extends more east-west, and America more north-south, as does Africa.

Food Production Wheat is a better grain than corn, in terms of nutrition supplied per unit effort.

There are other factors, but it's at least a well-written book, and superficially plausible.

How accurate, well-supported, and well-regarded is this book?

  • 10
    Nice question. The book seems to be turning up in several answers. – apoorv020 Dec 30 '11 at 20:20
  • Re cattle, what about buffalo? People ranch them for meat today, and presumably they could have been bred intentionally for domestication. It seems like an accident of history that Northern Europeans figured out dairy farming and evolved lactose tolerance. I don't see why the same couldn't have happened in the Americas. – Ben Crowell Aug 14 '14 at 15:53
  • Ironically some recent article (sorry, cannot find the link) argued that corn is better than wheat, therefore precolumbian agricultural civilizations had much more spare time to go for war than European ones. However, you can pretty convincingly argue that whatever is the main crop and whatever is the level of technology, population density growths till can fully use up all the resources (up till Industrial Age, maybe). – Greg Jan 6 '15 at 16:03
  • @BenCrowell: The book does discuss water buffalo, and several other cattle-like animal (gwar, yaks). As for bison, unfortunately I don't have my copy of G,G,&S with me, but you could raise that (why weren't bison domesticated) as a separate question. – user4139 Jan 18 '16 at 17:41
  • there is this perspective: livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/… – amphibient May 17 '17 at 20:47
39

The book is well written and well explained; Jared Diamond actually takes real pain to explain that his theories are not implacable and must not be taken as a 100% reliable blueprint for predicting success or failure of any civilization (even if we could actually define what "failure" means for a civilization).

The book, though, attracted criticism because it seems to relate indirectly to notions of geographical determinism that were used in German Geopolitik and incorporated in the Nazi ideology. That's a knee jerk reflex; Diamond's book links in no way geography to notions of human races, and its themes do not really apply to industrialized societies. In that sense, the guns, germs and steel culminate in the great showdown of the Columbian Exchange; afterwards, worldwide transportation of people, goods, ideas, and (of course) germs tends to nullify the geographical-induced effects that Diamond expands upon. For instance, there now is cattle in America, and I can eat oranges in winter (I live in Canada...).

Some points developed in Diamond's book are still open to lively debate; while they do not invalidate the whole book's thesis, they are worth mentioning. For instance, after some discussion, Diamond confidently asserts that there was no human being in America before about 12000 BC; this is the "short chronology" of the settlement of the Americas and Diamond uses it as an argument to support the overkill hypothesis, by which most big animals in America were hunted to death in a short time by human hunters, of which animals had not evolved to be wary. In Diamond's book, overkill implies no suitable large animal for domestication and food production, and therefore no evolution of germs by transfer from cattle to humans. On that question of the settlement of America and of overkill, Charles Mann's 1491, another well known and well written book, takes a different path.

I encourage you to read both books, so as to get more viewpoints and then think for yourself. Generally speaking, this is how you should read all books: not as collections of Revealed Truths, but as food for personal thought.

  • 3
    +1 for 1491 as a counterweight to Guns, Germs and Steel. – BOB Mar 2 '15 at 20:07
26

The Wikipedia entry on the book is pretty thorough. Guns, Germs, and Steel is definitely controversial, because Diamond is writing from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, and essentially is arguing that history is if not wholly determined by geography, at least heavily influenced by it.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Guns, Germs and Steel met with a wide range of response, ranging from generally favorable to rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, in recognition of its powerful synthesis of many disciplines, and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. The National Geographic Society produced a documentary by the same title based on the book, and it was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.

  • 2
    Is Diamond an evolutionary biologist? – Razie Mah Feb 17 '14 at 23:47
  • 1
    It sounds like you want to phrase that question as a statement. Here's how his personal site puts it: "He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography." - – Erik Schmidt Feb 18 '14 at 0:15
  • It was a question? Polymaths are really rare. His site is really great for the subject of the controversy over environmental determinism. Totally stealing it! Strictly speaking his book isn't evolutionary biology, even though it is similar in outlook. So I did want to correct it if he wasn't one. – Razie Mah Feb 18 '14 at 0:40
  • 1
    I'm glad for your correction, especially coming from someone who is far more versed in the subject matter than I am. You ould have just said "Diamond isn't an evolutionary biologist." The direct approach is fine. – Erik Schmidt Feb 18 '14 at 4:03
14

The book is well supported and well regarded. I want to add a caveat to the above answer, since the Wikipedia page doesn't emphasize this point. He is writing from a viewpoint of environmental determinism. This area of academics is having a bit of a revival right now, but environmental determinism has long been used to explain European (and according to Wikipedia other races as well, depending on the author) absurd and racist theories.
For example: "In the chapter "Water and Earth" (Shuidi 水地), we find statements like "Now the water of [the state of] Qi is forceful, swift and twisting. Therefore its people are greedy, uncouth, and warlike," and "The water of Chu is gentle, yielding, and pure. Therefore its people are lighthearted, resolute, and sure of themselves." Climate determinism is especially famous. "For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes and promiscuity, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes [Europe] led to more determined and driven work ethics."

It's therefore controversial to attempt to use the methodology at all when it may have such serious flaws. However, it is by no means useless, since there are real, quantifiable relationships between geography and development in the case of latitude, climate and access to rivers, ports and other features.

Diamond discusses the controversy on his website in detail here. He rejects the accusation that his theories are only based on geographical determinism.

  • 1
    Clearly, people criticizing GG&S as a work promoting those racist theories you mention simply didn't read the book, or at least severely misunderstood it. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 17 at 22:47
9

The book is very well regarded: it won a Pulitzer Price for non-fiction and figures in many lists of the more important books of the end of the 20th century.

It's impossible to say how accurate it is regarding the truth of its main thesis: that the long-term and gross differences between societies in different continents and environments, come ultimately from geographical factors. As always with History, one can think that it's plausible, but no more. "Correlation does not imply causation".

Guns, Germs and Steel is definitely controversial: the most important opponents (that I know of) are Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, who in "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty" argue that the differences in wealth and success come mainly from political and economic institutions. There is a "slow random drift" in institutions, and when a crisis comes, some regions are more likely to cope with it because they have better institutions, and the differences get bigger.

In my opinion, this other theory is more plausible, at least for the short and mid-term differences in modern times (the two Koreas, the two Germanies).

The controversy is not bitter, but it is deep.

The blog of Acemoglu and Robinson

http://whynationsfail.com/

A critique of "Why Nations Fail" by Jared Diamond himself.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/07/what-makes-countries-rich-or-poor/

  • 3
    A good crack at answering the question (so +1). I'm not sure I agree entirely about the two bodies of work being at odds with each other. GG&S deals with much larger units (continents) than does WNF (individual countries). However, Mr. Diamond happened to have another different book on the subject (Collapse) when WNF came out. He essentially used the cover of a theoretical dispute to pump his own book, so now I suspect the difference is personal. – T.E.D. Jan 6 '15 at 19:05
4

Question: How accurate, well-supported, and well-regarded is this book (Guns Germs and Steel)?

Short Answer:
Not that accurate, not well supported, pretty well regarded as a very ambitious project which necessarily sacrificed important detail as it brought together many different fields of study into one new interlocking amalgamation to answer a specific question.

Awards:

  • 1997, Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science.
  • 1998, Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, in recognition of its powerful synthesis of many disciplines the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books.
  • 2005, The National Geographic Society produced a documentary of the same title based on the book that was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.

While praised by many and well received, the book "Guns Germs and Steel" has been roundly criticized by the scientific specialists which make up the fields Diamond drew upon. The criticism notes that Diamond's book is a profound oversimplification of the topics presented and thus sacrifices accuracy.

Details
Jarrett Diamond didn't invent the theories he wrote about in his book from 1991. He just synthesized them in a new and engaging way and applied that synthesis broadly on a specific question regarding New Guinea and Britain. Why Britain and New Guinea had such different histories. The theories Diamond presents to answer this question are from many different fields of study and widely regarded individually to be good science. However; if their is one criticism of Jarrett Diamond's work it is that the broad use of these works and use as an amalgamation leads to oversimplifications of the original theories and thus inaccuracy.

The Steppe Tradition in International Relations Russians, Turks and European State Building 4000 BCE–2017 CE
International Relations scholars Iver B. Neumann (of the London School of Economics and Political Science) Einar Wigen (of University of Oslo)
"while empirical details should, of course, be correct, the primary yardstick for this kind of work cannot be attention to detail." They state, "Diamond stated clearly that any problematique of this magnitude had to be radically multi-causal and then set to work on one complex of factors, namely ecological ones", and note that while Diamond "immediately came in for heavy criticism from specialists working in the disparate fields on which he drew..... Until somebody can come up with a better way of interpreting and adding to Diamond’s material with a view to understanding the same overarching problematique, his is the best treatment available of the ecological preconditions for why one part of the world, and not another, came to dominate."

.

historian Tom Tomlinson
"Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamond uses very broad brush-strokes to fill in his argument.

3

GG&S was criticized by several scientists, including Russian biologist and paleontologist Kirill Eskov. Eskov wrote an article about the book in his blog in 2006, which was later reprinted in several online journals, e.g. here. I'm not aware of any English translations of it though.

In short, the main reason for the rebuke is the alleged cherry-picking of facts which fit into Diamond's theory, while ignoring contradicting facts. It should be noted that the criticism doesn't completely deny all of Diamond's ideas, rather, it points out that in many cases the situation is much more complex than GG&S depicts it.

Domesticated Animals / Plants

While African and American plants and animals may be not as good or as numerous as what is found in Eurasia, species suitable for domestication do exist, and the reason why they weren't domesticated or didn't become a factor in the development of the civilization could not be adequately explained by Diamond's theory. The prime example is the potato, which is native to South America, and which played a key role in the elimination of hunger in Europe when it was introduced there, yet it didn't give Aztecs or Mayas a significant advantage.

While other native American and African plans and animals are not as good as their European counter-parts, they are still good enough for domestication given no other option. For instance, Eskimos domesticated reindeer in the absence of horses and cows, and it's not clear why e.g. elands in Africa and musk oxes in America weren't domesticated until recently.

Eskov makes a comparison between such "second-grade" domestication candidates and Russian car models, which didn't stand a chance against West-European cars when the USSR fell and the border was open, yet served their purpose rather well while the country was in isolation behind the iron curtain.

Direction of Expansion

The geographical barriers described by Diamond are either not as solid as one may assume or weren't true the past:

  • South America is dominated by the Andes mountain chain which creates several climatic zones on each latitude. As a result, many such climatic zones span from North to South along the Andes, making migration and sharing of domesticated species possible.

  • The fact that the Panama jungle was impassable at the time couldn't prevent economical links via ship navigation and cabotage, which was known to the ancient Americans. If anything, cabotage (which gave rise to many trade civilizations in Mediterranean Europe) is easier than caravan trade and doesn't require having horses/camels and wheel.

  • The Sahara was not a desert at a time when domestication started, and in later times was not impassable as the Nile Valley served as the equivalent of the Silk Road.

Unused Inventions

Many technologies which according to GG&S gave European colonists a competitive edge over aborigines in Africa and the Americas were known to those aborigines, sometimes long before Europeans. Yet those technologies were never put to good use.

  • Iron artifacts in equatorial Africa predate European iron by 2000 years.

  • Americas had plentiful ore deposits, yet Maya / Aztec metallurgy didn't go further past smelting naturally found nuggets.

  • Aztecs were aware of the wheel, yet they didn't make any vehicles or pulleys.

The Price of Germs Immunity

The last argument goes against the claim that germs helped Europeans conquer other civilizations which had no immunity for them. In fact, while germs give a tactical advantage to the side which is immune to them during a war, those same germs strongly disadvantage the civilization which has them by slowing down development. For instance, the two major plague epidemics cost Europe 30-50% of the population at the time, and in both cases it took the affected countries some 200 years to recover to the pre-epidemic population levels. Considering how badly Aztecs were affected by European infections such as smallpox, we cam assume that those infections also cost hundreds of years to the early European civilizations which first contracted them.

  • 1
    I was going to give some of the shaky reasoning I was seeing reported here a pass, on the theory that the obvious holes in it were likely explained better in the book. However, the last paragraph is just nonsense. We have numerous historical examples of disease making a huge impact in favor of colonialism in the Americas and Oceana over long periods, so arguing against that is arguing against a gigantic historical record. – T.E.D. Oct 17 at 13:14
  • 1
    Let's quote from the second paragraph of the WP page on the Fall of Tenochtitlan: "it was the siege of Tenochtitlan—its outcome probably largely determined by the effects of a smallpox epidemic (which devastated the Aztec population and dealt a severe blow to the Aztec leadership while leaving an immune Spanish leadership intact)—that directly led to the downfall of the Aztec civilization" – T.E.D. Oct 17 at 13:58
  • 1
    We don't have to theorize about the effects of disease, because we have the historical record. It clearly shows European diseases were a huge factor. Anyone who argues otherwise isn't using evidence-based reasoning. – T.E.D. Oct 17 at 14:01
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    @T.E.D. The epidemic only made a difference in this particular battle, allowing such a small Spanish force to win. It's not like if Aztecs could tolerate smallpox they would have dominated the world by now. The Spanish could have easily assembled 100 times more cannons if this were a fight to the death for them. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 17 at 14:13
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    @T.E.D. In my view that's still a tactical advantage which can win a battle, while having access to a more developed industry is a strategical one, which wins a war. And records can only show correlation (Aztecs had no smallpox immunity and they lost), the causation always comes from "theoretical reasoning". IMO the whole book was written to answer the question "could other civilizations have dominated if they had X?", which is necessarily a speculation because we know for a fact that it didn't happen. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 17 at 22:14
-1

I have to admit I prefer books containing facts, rather than theories, because I am a good theorist, so I swiftly lose interest in authors who propose a lot of half-baked ideas. This Diamond guy is not a historian or even anthropologist, just a biologist with a very scattershot knowledge of human history. Nevertheless, a very smart person can make good theories from a small number of facts, if they are knowledgeable enough. The question is whether Diamond falls into that category.

Methodology

Having read some of this guy's theories and essays, I find that his method is not particularly scientific. He makes no effort to find or explain counter examples, nor does he make any effort to be comprehensive--an especially important factor for sweeping theories like this. When somebody formulates global theories based on anecdotes, it is a virtual certainty that the theory is incorrect.

Geography

For example, the vikings succeeded despite coming from longitudinal areas with sparse agriculture and lots of climate variability. So did the Japanese. Also, I see no trend. During the course of civilization you have one group sweeping around and destroying, then another. It's not like there are repeated successes from certain particular places that would indicate a pattern. Sometimes you have areas that are complete failures in one milennium, succeeding greatly in the next, or vice versa.

Animals

The idea that draft animals and wheat made the Eastern Hemisphere succeed seems naive and simplistic to me. The Eastern Hemisphere is more than twice the size of the Western. That alone gives it a big advantage.

Disease

Diamond's focus on disease is understandable, given his training, but as far as civilization is concerned, disease is not a big factor. Disease tends to kill off the weak. If anything, my experience and knowledge suggests that disease epidemics make civilizations stronger, not weaker. You can see this in herd animals. Predators kill off the weak and the herd becomes smaller, but stronger. Nietzche wrote, "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." (Twilight of the Idols) There is an element of truth to that basic idea.

Summary

Diamond's book has enough detail and interesting ideas to fascinate the average American, but I do not consider it to be a significant contribution to a new understanding about civilization, and for historical experts I would consider the book to be entirely superfluous, especially because its method and use of evidence is poor by scientific standards. The advantages of the book are that it is entertaining and for a person without much knowledge of history it may be interesting and educational as a collection of small historical essays.

For a person who wants to understand the development of civilization I think there are many books that are far more systematic, information rich, and have higher quality theories. That would include Gibbon, the Durants, Toynbee and even Spengler. These four authors all have a knowledge of history that simply dwarfs Diamond and it shows in the quality of their work. You would be far better off reading their books than this book by Diamond.

-3

I was delighted by the book and used to keep it in great regard. The only problem that after one malicious person started to fact check all the premises, big part of reasoning and my faith in Jared Diamond started to crumble.

1) I suspect that everyone here heard about Irish Potato Famine. Yes, Europe was revolutionised by an American plant because it was bringing higher yields per hectare. Somehow I also was shocked that I overlooked that contradiction with whole premise of book.

Fun part: concerning crop Europeans were clearly the least lucky, as they were not only beaten by American corn/potato but also Asian rice in yield. Thus following the theory it should have doomed Europe.

By contrast, wheat comes in at about 4 million calories per acre, soy at 6 million. Rice is also very high-yielding, at 11 million, and potatoes are one of the few crops that can rival corn: They also yield about 15 million (although record corn yields are much higher than record potato yields)

Source: Washington Post

If, as LangLangC this is a comparison of modern species - US settlers were planting corn for its higher yield than wheat (Even if one moved corn to Spain in premodern times and foreign environment it had similar yields to wheat)

2) Zebras actually could be domesticated, and in XIXth century German colonisers were successfully utilising them. Yes, it has nasty character. On exactly what premise are we assuming that wild, undomesticated horses millennia ago were nice? Domestication puts very strong evolutionary pressure on animals, including making their brains smaller and their behaviour much more docile.

German colonial zebra cavalry prior to WW1

enter image description here

3) In North America actually spread of corn among native tribes was not showing any evidence of this claimed north-south problem. Instead it was "jumping" in weird way, showing that some other factors were dominating.

4) Modern cows origin from aurochs, which in original form were a bison size animal. According to historical accounts (extinct in XVIIth century) they were not only fearsome challenge for hunters but even people did not fully grasped that were related to cows. In other words unless in this case, against Jared Diamond claims, it was not being lucky in getting nice animal, but millennia of domestication.

There is a third kind, consisting of those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this kind of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.

Julius Ceaser desription of Auroch, from Commentaries on the Gallic War, Book 6

5) The book reasoning is based on assumption that if some specie was not domesticated, then it means it was practically impossible. In last century Russians were running a breeding experiment and managed to domesticate fox as pet as they were selecting friendlier and friendlier generations. Yes, maybe a bit pointless from practical perspective, but that's exactly the point. If one does not need some domesticated animals then does not put the effort. In consequence whoever managed the domestication of useful animals first would get and edge and manage to spread them, thus making later domestication of similar species pointless.

6) The argument concerning lack of wild horses or camels in Americas is could be equally well interpreted in the opposite direction. The problem is that both species had been driven in to extinction by early hunter-gatherers. Nothing unique. In Eurasia we managed also to more or less drive in to extinction wild horses (there are some semi-wild reintroduced like tarpan or Przewalski's horse), aurochs or wild dromaders. So equally well we may use the same data and ask whether one bothers to domesticate a specie before driving it in to extinction, and reach a conclusion that the differentiating factor was some seemingly minor decision at key divergence point.

Link to link base of research articles of the above mentioned malicious guy, who run a nasty fact check: https://thealternativehypothesis.org/index.php/2019/05/05/guns-germs-and-steel-sources/

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