Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997) 440 p.


On the 18th of January 1788, the forerunners of a Royal Navy fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Philip made landfall on the east coast of Australia, after a gruelling eight month voyage. By the 26th of January this fleet, comprising of eleven ships and 1, 332 sailors, marines and convicts, had sailed north to Port Jackson, founded the tiny settlement that would eventually become Sydney, and established the first permanent European presence on the Australian continent.

Over the next two centuries, approximately half a million Aboriginals would die. Whether from organised massacres or introduced British diseases or even a genocidal “breeding out” policy that the dominance of the British settlers enabled them to enact, the Australian Aboriginals were completely and utterly at the mercy of their technologically superior invaders.

The same sad story has been played out hundreds of times across the globe. Indigenous groups of the Americas, Africa, Australia, South-East Asia and the South Pacific have been Europe’s whipping boys for hundreds of years. Even today, in nations such as Australia and the United States, these natives are stuck on a much lower socio-economic rung than the ancestors of European settlers. Why wasn’t it Australian Aboriginals who built vast fleets, sailed to the other side of the world and got all up in Britain’s grill? Why did they remain primitive hunter-gatherers while Europeans invented cool stuff like the moveable printing press, flintlock rifle and hot-air balloon?

For many years the assumptive answer was that Europeans were simply genetically more intelligent, a superior race to any other. Diamond slaps a great big RACIST stamp on this assertion, and proceeds to explain exactly why Eurasia wound up as big man on campus by tracing technological developments back to their earliest roots.

The core argument he makes is that certain parts of the world have more domesticable plant and animal species: for example, Eurasia had awesome big mammals like the horse and the cow, which provided one with a sweet ride and a tasty dinner respectively, whereas Africa got stuck with the lion (which will eat you) the hippo (which will eat you) and the zebra (which willl bite you and not let go until it dies). Likewise, Eurasia had easy crops like wheat, which you can grow by just tossing the seeds around the field all day and then sitting around wanking until they grew, whereas North America only had corn, seeds of which you had to pain-stakingly plant individually under the hot sun – with no beasts of burden to help you plow. (Oh, and living around herds of animals all the time? That’s what helped us build strong immunity to diseases which originally developed in those animals, which we then unleashed on people who weren’t quite so lucky to have as many shivering, plague-ridden pets.)

Thus Eurasia was able to grow a hell of a lot more food, which led to higher population densities, which meant Spaniards and Russians and Chinese had a whole bunch of people sitting around inventing shit or deciding to build an empire, whereas in the depths of the Amazon every able-bodied man was hunting and gathering from dawn till dusk just to stay alive. I’ve generalised what was already a very general argument, but this is the gist of it.

Diamond makes a lot of outrigger arguments supporting this – even the axes of the continents were supposedly fundamental to human development. Eurasia is largely oriented west-east, while the Americas are mostly north-south, with a particularly narrow gap at Panama. This made it a lot easier for technologies (particularly animal domestication and crop development) to spread, because they were travelling along lines of latitude latitude to similar climates and day lengths – whereas anyone trying to plant Mexican corn in Canada would starve to death when the seeds sprouted expecting a Cancun  paradise and instead found themselves in Manitoba. Likewise, Chinese innvations could wind up in Britain via India, the Black Sea or Russia, whereas the only way for North America and South America to contact each other was through a very long, thin stretch of land that was mostly impenetrable swampland.

Guns, Germs And Steel needs to be evaluated on two levels: its worth as a theory, and its worth as a book. My professional scientific analysis of Diamond’s theory is “pretty good I guess.” Naturally he’s looking at things through an extremely wide window (15,000 years wide, to be precise) and makes a lot of sweeping generalisations and oversimplifications, but this is inevitable and Diamond acknowledges that. I feel that certain elements of his theory are wonky; he focuses on geography to an almost bizarre degree, even arguing that China’s historical unity is because it is mostly flat, while Europe has all these rivers and mountains and shit that empires can’t possibly cross and forge into a megastate. Shit, I just spent decades assembling this massive legion and now there’s a five-metre deep river between us and Gaul, better ride all the way back to Rome instead of chopping down that forest and building some rafts. And I’m no expert on China either, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of rivers and mountains there too. On the whole, though, he convinced me that geography played a significant (not a total) role in explaining why history played out the way it did: whites just got lucky.

As a scientific book, Guns, Germs And Steel is a fairly easy read. It’s certainly accessible to the layman, even if extended chapters on the distribution of cereal crops and carbon-dating archaeological sites might cause you to nod off on the subway. Jared is certainly no Bill Bryson – he doesn’t have the knack for peppering his writing with witty observations and jokes – but he’s readable to anyone with a passing interest in history. I suppose a large part of the appeal of this book is simple curiosity, because he does pose an interesting question: how come some ethnic groups ended up in the cotton fields with chains around their necks, while others were sitting on the porch in a rocking chair sipping mint julep? On the other hand I just managed to summarise an answer that question in about 399 less pages than he did, so if the finer details don’t intrigue you than maybe you should just check out some other fine Pulitzer prize winners.