Guns, Germs & Steel

March 14, 2015
Jared Diamond

In 1533, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa met each other in the Andean town of Cajamarca, where the emperor was resting. Pizarro had about 180 Spanish adventurers with arquebuses, rapiers, steel body armour and horses. Atahualpa had 80.000 Inca warriors armed with copper and stone axes, spears, clubs and slings; he was resting after the final battle of a civil war that had raged after a terrible smallpox epidemic had decimated the Inca empire and killed Atahualpa's father with most of his court. Within an hour of Pizarro and Atahualpa meeting each other, Atahualpa was in chains among piles of dead Inca warriors, without a single Spanish casualty. Why was it that it was Pizarro who captured (and later murdered) Atahualpa, and not an Inca adventurer who sailed to Spain and captured King Charles I after rampaging his way through the disease-ridden ruins of Europe? This is the question Jared Diamond sets out to answer in Guns, Germs & Steel.

The obvious answer is to list the proximate causes: The Incas didn't have oceangoing ships, so they couldn't sail to Spain. They didn't have firearms or steel armour, so even if they could go to Europe, their copper age military equipment would have been useless against the Europeans' firepower. They had no resistance to European pathogens like smallpox and influenza, so even if they had both guns and ships, their invasion would have ended in much the same way as the ill-fated Martian invasion from War of the Worlds. To add insult to injury, they themselves didn't carry any pathogens that could have wiped out millions of Europeans. That answer, however, doesn't address the ultimate cause: Why was it that the Europeans had all those things, and their contemporary Incas (or Australian Aborigines and African Khoisan) didn't?

Diamond frames the book in terms of a question once asked to him by the New Guinea politician Yali: "Why is it that white people have so much cargo and black people have so little?". He quickly dismisses racist attempts at an answer. His own experiences working in New Guinea has given him ample evidence that native New Guineans are just as intelligent as Europeans, and many of them even more adaptable. He presents a number of historical examples of non-European people using acquired technology to have conquests just as one-sided as that of the Spanish vs. the Incas (such as when musket-wielding Maoris from New Zealand subjugated the stone age Moriori hunter-gatherers of the Chatham islands). Diamond's answer is that the ultimate reason for the global division into haves and have-nots has little to do with the people — rather, it has to do with places, with biogeography.

In brief and simplified form, the argument goes as follows.

  1. Hunter-gatherers are unable to support large and dense populations, because they are unable to generate a large storable surplus of calories.
  2. The best sites for early agriculture have Mediterranean climates. This is because Mediterranean climates favour annual plants (due to the winter rains), and the best survival tactics for annual plants (growing very large, protein-rich seeds) also make them uniquely well-suited for domestication and consumption by humans. Furthermore, a mostly dry climate makes it easy to store food.
  3. Domestic animals can, depending on the animal, provide a stable supply of meat, milk, muscle power (further improving food production efficiency), swift transportation and military assault vehicles.
  4. Societies with a safe food surplus can support specialists not directly involved with securing the food supply, such as artisans and bureaucrats.
  5. Such specialists lead to more complex social systems and technological innovation (weapons, metallurgy, literacy, etc.).
  6. Since domestic animals transmit zoonotic diseases, and diseases spread much more rapidly in dense populations than in sparse ones, citizens of dense societies with domestic animals will eventually develop immunities to a wide range of pathogens (albeit with terrible casualties along the way).
  7. Societies with lots of easily-reachable neighbours at roughly the same level of technical sophistication will have even higher levels of technical development, because they also have access to all their neighbours' ideas (whether by trading for them, reverse engineering them, or stealing them).

In other words, the question of how to get guns, germs and steel reduces to the slightly less dramatic question of how to get books, bread and cheese.

Eurasians (specifically Mesopotamians) were the first to get any of those things, and this is precisely because they got dealt a geographically fortunate hand. The Mediterranean-climate zone in Eurasia (plus North Africa) covers a much larger land area than the corresponding zones in California, Chile, South Africa and Southwest Australia. Of all the world's most protein-rich self-pollinating plants (which are the easiest to domesticate, because they won't lose desirable genetic characteristics to cross-pollination with wild relatives), more come from Mesopotamia alone than from Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas combined (in fact, the only successfully domesticated plant from Australia is the Macadamia nut). Of Earth's 100+ large mammals, only 14 were successfully domesticated, and only one of those (the llama) is not native to the Old World. Both crops, domestic animals and technical ideas easily diffused across Eurasia, because the continent's primary axis is east-west, and has much less climate variation compared to the north-south axis of Africa or the Americas.

I'm not a historian (and neither is Jared Diamond), and am not in a position to judge the veracity of Diamond's factual claims. His argument seems, in broad strokes, compelling to an interested and reasonably well-read layman. The weak point, it seems to me, is that the argument doesn't tell us why the British colonized China, rather than the Chinese colonizing Britain. China also had guns, germs and steel, and had a considerable head start on West Europeans. Diamond argues that this is also due to geography; specifically that Europe's complex indented coastline led to a much more politically fragmented subcontinent than the highly-unified China. This meant that Zheng He's oceangoing expeditions could be halted by court intrigue, whereas Christopher Columbus could go shopping among the many competing courts of Europe. To me, this seems to be a case of "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", particularly because many of China's early technological leaps and wars of conquest happened while it was already a highly unified, centralized state.

Still, I'd definitely recommend the book. Apart from its main aim of educating about the influence of geography on history, I find it also has two other uses: As an idea generation vehicle for alternate history fiction ("why didn't rhino-mounted Bantu shock troopers topple the Roman Empire?" is an actual sentence from the book, and is also probably on the top 10 most awesome questions ever asked), and as an aid for fantasy and sf worldbuilders to avoid some of the sillier blunders in the field.

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