I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies
In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies Jared Diamond takes Alfred Crosby’s observation in Ecological Imperialism that European peoples have dominated and inched their way into every corner of the globe and takes it one scientific step forward. Diamond is another historian who subscribes to the idea of environmental determinism; the use of the word fate in the title, further suggests that Diamond believes that humans are fully at the mercy of nature’s forces and that they have no pull in the matter. As Diamond puts it, the piece of real-estate that one is born on determines the life you are going to lead.
The main premise of Diamond’s book is the quest to answer the question of a New Guinea man by the name of Yali. Yali’s question, Jared states is, “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?” The short answer is that the Europeans benefited from an environment that was geographically, biologically, and climatically advantageous and enabled them to develop politically and technologically faster than peoples in other parts of the world. This advantage resulted in the European triple threat that assisted them when they branched out to other continents: guns, germs, and steel. Like Kiple, Diamond believes that biological differences have developed among different groups of people due to their environment, and he believes that this concept can be presented without racial undertones. Although he does not support the concept that certain races are stronger than others, he does observe that New Guineans tend to be smarter than the average individual and he thinks that this is a result of the fact that natural selection has been a lot more brutal in New Guinea than in other parts of the world, in much the same way that Kiple describes the natural selection process in West Africa.
Echoing Crosby, Diamond places the bulk of European success on their ability to create food surpluses. These food surpluses led to a high population density and the development of a sedentary, politically and economically structured society that enabled the growth of a complex, technologically-driven culture. Diamond takes Crosby’s food-surplus theory and goes into much more detail as to why this surplus developed. The answer lies mainly in Europe and Asia’s ecological good fortune. The Europeans had wheat and other crops that were easily grown and harvested, but most importantly, they had access to animals that could be domesticated for eating and transportation, namely the cow, horse, sheep, and pig. Eurasia also had very few physical, geographic barriers, which enabled the large populations to travel by way of their domesticated animals and led to the dissemination and combination of populations and cultures across the entire continent. The peoples on other continents, such as South America, did not have domesticated animals simply because there were not any animals available that fit the bill and often times stayed very isolated due to geographic constrictions.
One must always keep in mind that Diamond is not a historian by training, but instead an evolutionary biologist, and this plays a large role in how he approaches his narrative. Having such a keen understanding of the evolutionary process, Diamond is able to elucidate the role that animals had in strengthening the European’s disease immunity. Diamond states that animals are the main source of disease, and thus, the Europeans being in close contact with their domesticated animals also brought them into contact with new microbes. Diamond argues that disease is evolution in progress, which is a thought-provoking way to describe it. While his discussion of the germ side of things is excellent, his discussion of the role of guns and steel leaves a bit to be desired, probably because their evolution resides outside of the realm of his geographical and biological expertise. Diamond admits that his theory often does not account for the “wildcards” of history, such as especially influential individuals and other cultural factors, which sometimes manipulate the progression of a society.
Feature Photo: “Guns, Germs, & Steel This Is War Album by 30 Seconds to Mars Season 3 of The Big Bang Theory” by Clemson University, Flickr