Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.21


Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. $27.50. ISBN 0-393-03891-2.


Reviewed by John B. Van Sickle , JVSickle@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

"... an ambitious, highly important book." -- New York Time Book Review (June 15, 1997, p.13), James Shreeve.

Two parables make the point behind this book. After Polynesian farmers colonized fertile New Zealand around 1000 BCE, one fraction, the Moriori, sailed 500 miles further southeast, arriving at the chillier, less hospitable Chatham Islands. Here the environment forced them to give up farm culture and figure out how to survive by gathering and hunting off the land, which they did in a peaceable, egalitarian fashion until 1835, when an exploring party of their New Zealand cousins, the Maori, who in the meantime had intensified farm production and assimilated complex technology, arrived "armed with guns, clubs, and axes" and began killing and eating or enslaving them. The second parable tells how in 1532 Pizarro at the head of 168 men captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa at Cajamarca in spite of his 80,000 troops.

What, asks Diamond, made such a powerful ruler so vulnerable? Why, for that matter, weren't the Incas laying siege to Madrid? Seeking answers, Diamond starts with proximate causes. The Spanish had steel armor and weapons, horses, ocean going ships, also written reports and propaganda, with wily, steely minds. Above all they had diseases that had already weakened the Incas and, far more than steel, were to wreak genocide in the new world.

So what ultimate causes gave steel and germs to Europeans? Was theirs a superior race? No, argues Diamond, merely heir to ancestors who happened into environments that facilitated certain kinds of development over others: the gradual shift from hunting-gathering to food production by domesticating plants and animals, so population grows in sedentary communities that get diseases from their animals, but also develop specialized forms of work, ever more complex socio-political organization, and concomitant forms of communication. In Diamond's final analysis, the illiterate Pizarro triumphs as the cultural heir of bands of hunters who had been first induced to settle by the natural abundance of heavy-seeded grasses and pliable animals that was uniquely to be found in parts of western Asia and gradually came to be exploited in the last 13,000 years with the combination of ingenuity and ferocity that characterize human behavior at every place and time.

The complex and integrated argument unfolds in four parts, framed by questions: why have different continents and regions developed so differently as to lead to results like those the parables describe. The first part, "From Eden to Cajamarca," sketches developments on all the continents before 11,000 BCE, approximate date for the earliest shifts to food production, which Diamond reports in part two, under the themes of "Farmer Power. The roots of guns, germs, and steel," then "Geographic differences in the onset of food production" followed by studies of why some peoples chose not to farm, why some did not domesticate animals, and why production spread at different rates on different continents: primarily because differing axes of communication offer differing facility for the transfer of animals, plants, and accompanying arts -- relatively easy where the climate of origin stretches along the broad East/West axis of Eurasia, relatively difficult on the North/South axes of Africa and America, where any domesticate (crop or creature) would have to evolve to survive sharp climate change.

With one of his most telling insights, Diamond in part three argues that the settled communities made possible by production of plant and animal food allowed diseases to leap from domesticated animals to humans. He also links success in food production to the inventions of writing and its spread, identifying modalities of cultural exchange that apply, often, to the spread of technology. These he relates, also, to the twin regulators of government and religion, which he somewhat tendentiously characterizes as "kleptocracy," even though he documents the need for hierarchy and discipline as populations expand.

Armed by now with a formidable array of analytical tools, Diamond returns to reconsider the course of human development on each continent, starting with Australia and New Guinea (treating them together, already a clarification for me), then going on to the precocious inventiveness followed by insularization of China, the explosive diversification of Polynesia, the contrasting histories of the Americas and Eurasia, and finally the history of "How Africa Became Black," which makes it possible for me to see in historical perspective a headline in today's New York Times, "As the World Intrudes, Pygmies Feel Endangered" (June 16, 1997, p. A4), about one of the latest clashes between hunter-gatherers and farmers (if not so explosive as the Maori invasion of the Moriori).

With unflagging energy and patience, lucidity and good-nature, Diamond gathers his points and weaves them into a picture of the human experiment as a whole. Different parts of his information will be familiar to different people, in more or less specialized form. When his model makes communication crucial, especially the sharing and exchange of objects and ideas radiating out from western Asia, spilling over into Egypt, Greece, Italy, and then Europe, those who study the relations between ancient Greece and Asia (in writing and in visual and narrative forms) will find a powerful context for their work, as will those who take the study further to consider the working of Greek culture in what would become the Roman West. Indeed, the study of those interactions and constructs acquires especial point, since the Greeks and Romans appear to be a crucial link in the development from Eden to Cajamarca, having capitalized on earlier discoveries, reshaping them under new conditions into new formulations that would be taken up and carried yet further in the Renaissance and modern world. In particular the Greeks, with their fierce particularity and competitiveness, more tenuous unifications, seem to presage the diversity of Europe, likewise divided by geography which favored competitive diversity, unlike China, which as Diamond points out, fell into a uniformity favored by its more compact, more insular geographic form.

As a reader, I was fascinated by the connectedness that Diamond made me feel: so many typical developments in cultures I know, present and past, paralleled by others; the actual count of how few plants & animals have been domesticated for human use, of where and when and how it happened. Such an accounting, I think, was overdue and forms the necessary historical background to the current taking of stock performed by the Worldwatch Institute in its yearly reports on progress (or the lack thereof) towards a sustainable society in the world. As a classical scholar, meanwhile, I was fascinated to realize even more clearly how anthropological were Homer, Thucydides, Plato. Grimly I reflected, Diamond shares Thucydides's estimate of human nature, that one rules whomever one can, joined with the assumption that humans, like every other organism, seek to maximize their survival and reproduction.

Here the questions become long even as time shrinks: although Diamond does not make the case, his analysis suggests that in a world now effectively one, much behavior that favored survival and expansion can become counterproductive. The environment, which rewarded expansion now punishes it, more immediately for those most exposed, who already lack water and fuel, but in the long run potentially for all, so that yet a further level of human self-government needs inventing, along with a new consciousness and new discipline, if there is to be further survival. Communications may reach the rapidity and scope of the Internet, yet the son of a communications mogul can be murdered for a bank card by a youth never assimilated into a constructive community of any kind. The old conquests of humankind found their ideological justifications in the older gods (Pizarro in the name of god and king). The necessary new conquest will need a different set of ideologies and, human nature being what it is, myths. Will the slogan be "One world, many systems"? Diversity brings both advantages and dangers, as Diamond shows in his analysis of China and Europe. If the systems do not render full accounts of their environmental cost, the final chapter in the history of humans, like most of those before, will be written by unbridled and self-destructive folly, indifference, and greed.