November 06, 1999

Review of Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did Europeans conquer Peru, Mexico, Ghana, and Australia? Why didn't Incas, Aztecs, Ashanti, or Australians conquer Eurasians. That is the question that Jared Diamond answers--largely successfully--in this book. And his answer can be summed up in one phrase: "seeds, germs, size, and guns." (Note that the answer is not "guns, germs, and steel"--a phrase that is more euphonious but less meaningful.)

  • Eurasian societies acquired a key advantage relative to other societies because of big seeds.
  • Eurasian societies acquired a key advantage (relative to other societies) in their resistance to germs.
  • The relatively advantageous biological endowment of Eurasian societies was then reinforced because of the size of Eurasia.
  • And the relative edge possessed by European societies was then amplified to overwhelming proportions by guns.
Posted by DeLong at November 6, 1999 04:17 PM | TrackBack


... overwhelming proportions by guns AND HORSES! Don't forget the poor old horses (see the bit on the Spanish encounter with the Incas). Seriously, now that most of us in the west only know of horses from watching televised horse races or being pulled around a foreign city in a carriage, Diamond's account of the historic importance of horses is fascinating.

Posted by: John Sheehy on July 9, 2002 05:13 AM

Good point...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 17, 2002 01:17 PM

I've read the book. Is there anything similarly comprehensive that deals with the last several hundred years: of how Eurasian countries have differentiated among themselves? Say Germany from Portugal from Arab countries? All of these countries had the same comparative advantages, according to Diamond's thesis, at one time.

For instance, why do some make the most of new technologies but others don't? Why did France and the U.S. take early to inventions in balloon flight, automobiles and movie production, for instance?

And are 'home-bred' technologies more useful and useable than foreign-introduced ones, as home-bred diseases are not as devastating as invading ones. Is there a 'co-evolution' of social structure (laws, class and gender structure relations) and technology in the same sense as that of immunity and disease. So that introducing technology in societies is not productive without the infrastructure to support it?

Posted by: Chris Gilbert on August 2, 2002 10:47 AM

Chris, see "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some are so Poor." by David Landes

Posted by: Matt Linden on February 20, 2003 08:43 AM

When I read Diamond's book 2 years ago, I was as impressed as everyone else. Diamond examines more comprehensively and in greater detail the origins and success of what folks previously called the "Main Civilized Belt" (see, for example, L. Sprague de Camp, "The Ancient Engineers," 1960). Diamond pins the success of the Euro-Americans on geography, seeds, etc. When I read the above comments, I had a recurrence of my unconceptualized discomfort with Diamond. It's not so much that what Diamond says is wrong, it just seems to be missing something.

Matt Linden recommends an excellent book.

David Lands' book has a pretty good clue to what is missing in Diamond's analysis. I'm thinking, for example, of chapter 14 (Why Europe?) of Landes' 'Wealth and Poverty of Nations." We must look to the phenomenon behind the characteristics Landes enumerates (accumulation of knowledge, breakthrough inquiry, adversarial methodology in inquiry, and the invention of invention).

Diamond puts the fact of literacy on a par with the influences of geography, plant / animal diversity, irregular coastlines, availability of metals, and germs, as if literacy (and what goes with it) is the equivalent of environment. Diamond's world is virtually mindfree, in contrast to Landes, who throws in numerous human activities that have their origins in the application of mind to environment. Diamond seems to go out of his way to avoid discussing mind, thought, culture, philosophy, intellectual principles. His analysis is politically correct.

So as far as Diamond goes, he's right. But to ignore the use of the mind and more importantly the use of the mind in certain critical ways is to ignore what humans did in the face of climate, coastline, plant diversity, animal potential, and other natural resources: humans think.

Diamond carefully avoids touching the concept of culture. Culture is the accumulation of what a group of humans thought and transmitted to others across time and distance. It is of necessity very complex.

Culture counts and some cultures have institutionalized rejection of thought and invention not home grown, only to find themselves living in a world far poorer than the world they reject (and in some cases poorer than the world they inherited - as in Medieval Christian Europe and the contemporary Islamic world): what Landes calls "not only the cessation of improvement, but the institutionalization of stoppage."

Take two minds and set them loose in the same environment. The actions governed by a mind that adopts rationalism will come to very different results from a mind that proceeds on emotionalism. The peoples of the world exhibit a spectrum of intellectuality. The world from which Yali gets his radio and other 'toys' is intellectually different from the world where Yali's people live.

It's not that Yali's people are inferior or innately stupid. But if their actions are not getting the results they want (radios, MRI's, travel to the moon, good health, airplanes, paved roads, or longevity) then perhaps they are using rules in their intellectual lives that do not fit the application - Secundum Quid.

I liked Diamond's analysis, but to comletely answer Yali's question it needs the phenomenon of mind and its greatest product and tool, rationality.

But that would be a very much bigger book than Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Chris Gilbert is right that the capacity of a society or culture to create technology requires an infrastructural foundation. That foundation is very complex indeed: it must include integrated patterns of thought, knowledge, and behavior (if you live in this world, then you need rational philosophy; if you live (or want to) in a world after death, then you need theology).

Posted by: George JP Jacobs on June 1, 2003 04:24 PM
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