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A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
You’ve read that right:
“Guns, Germs, and Steel” tells everything about everybody.
In 500 pages.
Here summarized in about 1,500 words!
Who Should Read “Guns, Germs, and Steel”? And Why?
The main reason why Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs, and Steel” was a conversation he had with a New Guinean politician called Yali.
Yali asked Diamond: “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?”
If you want to find out the answer to this question – then read “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
Because this book does give the most widely accepted one.
About Jared Diamond
A professor of geography at UCLA, he is one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world.
Read more at http://www.jareddiamond.org
“Guns, Germs, and Steel PDF Summary”
“It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves,” writes Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in a sentence which sounds controversial despite the italicized verb.
But, nevertheless, it’s difficult to dismiss it simply because it is not politically correct.
After all, there are some questions which seem unanswerable without a “convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad pattern of history.”
For example, why almost all of the hunter-gatherer societies disappeared even though the ones we could study until recently seemed non-violent, lawful in the absence of laws, egalitarian, and, for all intents and purposes, more content than us?
Why did practically every technological innovation you can think of was made either by a European or a Chinese for millennia?
Even more controversially: why did the white people enslave the African-Americans and not the other way around?
In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Diamond attempts to answer these – and numerous similar – questions by taking a wide interdisciplinary look of history, biology, and – possibly most importantly – geography.
In fact, the main thesis of the book, in the words of the author, is the following one:
History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.
In other words, it does matter where you are born; not because of the who; but because of the where.
The main environmental difference between the conquerors (Europe and Asia) and the conquered (Africa, the Americas) is the primary geographic axis.
Namely, as opposed to the Eurasian east-west latitudinal axis, the African and the American axis is longitudinal, i.e., north-south.
And, unfortunately, that is the direction in which climate changes.
Consequently, European and Asian countries were able not only to communicate easily between them even before the proper sailing and marine technology was developed, but they were also able to almost inadvertently share each other’s progress in agriculture as well.
For example, domesticated crops could easily spread from Europe to Asia and vice versa via one domestication, few bugs and a little bit of wind; contrary to this, cotton or squash had to be domesticated over and over again in Mesoamerica in multiple individual areas, because the crops couldn’t spread by themselves in north-south direction.
As Diamond notes, “all human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions than other environments.”
And this, logically, meant many different things in the long run, best summed up in this cycle: more food → more people → more intellectual power → better technology → more food…
Less intuitively, it also meant better immunity, due to the domestication of numerous animals and the subsequent exposure to deadly germs.
Which is why far more Native Americans, Australians, and South Africans died from infectious diseases than from knives and guns.
Speaking of which, Jared Diamond points out four primary reasons why the Europeans conquered the Americans and the Africans and not the other way around:
#1. Opportunities for domestication of plants and animals.
Europe and Asia had by far the best prospects in this area, as opposed to, say, Australia, whose chances to become a superpower were always going to be slim to none. We can place Africa and America somewhere in the middle.
However, the fact that Europeans and Asians could eat far better food and in far larger quantities (these continents were inhabited with a far larger number of domesticable animal and plant species) meant that they were able to reproduce in larger numbers when compared to the inhabitants of Africa or the Americas.
#2. Agricultural and technological expansion.
In addition to having more domestication-worthy/viable animals and plants, the Eurasians also had the luxury of domesticating them at a faster rate, due to the primary direction of the continent’s geographic axis (east-west) and the absence of any significant geographic barriers (deserts and mountains).
#3. Intercontinental diffusion.
Since Eurasia is one large (easily traversable) landmass, it was always easy for ideas and technologies to spread from China to Portugal – even in the absence of direct contact. The northern parts of the African continent profited from this communication as well.
However, such communication was all but impossible in the Americas which are connected by an almost inhabitable area notorious for its susceptibility to floods, landslides, and earthquakes.
#4. Population size.
This is self-explanatory: you can’t have a large army if you don’t have a large population. And you can’t profit from competition if you don’t have someone to compete against:
In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa [and America] had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography — in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species.
Key Lessons from “Guns, Germs, and Steel”
1. Geography and Progress
2. The Anna Karenina Principle
3. Centralized Power vs. Fragmentation
Geography and Progress
The main thesis of Jared Diamond’s transdisciplinary classic “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is that “history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”
Throughout the book, he attempts to show that Eurasians had the opportunity to develop more and better than the Americans or the Africans simply because they lived on the better continents.
In a nutshell, the fact that Eurasia is one large landmass and that its primary geographic axis is east-west meant better diffusion of technology and culture and more efficient communication between the people living on these continents as opposed to the ones living in the Americas and Africa whose geographic axis is north-south.
The Anna Karenina Principle
According to the Anna Karenina principle – inspired by the memorable first sentence of the Leo Tolstoy classic – in order for an endeavor to be successful, all factors must be met; in other words, if any one of these factors remains unmet than the endeavor is doomed to fail.
Jared Diamond uses this principle to explain why there are only 14 (out of 148 possible candidates) domesticated species.
In his opinion, the factors which must be met for an animal to be domestication-worthy are at least six: diet (it must be easy to feed), growth rate (it must grow fast enough), captive breeding (it must be able to breed in captivity), disposition (it must not be ill-tempered), tendency to panic (it mustn’t take flight), and social structure (lonely animals are not good candidates).
Very few animals – in Diamond’s opinion only the 14 we have already domesticated – meet all six criteria.
Centralized Power vs. Fragmentation
Interestingly enough, the only reason why Europe crossed the Atlantic first – and not China the Pacific – to colonize the Americas was the social structure of the continents.
China, in other words, had the technology, but about half a century before Columbus set sail, a local political dispute resulted in a national ban on transoceanic expeditions. This was possible because one man had the power to do that.
In Europe, Columbus was turned down by four different kingdoms before Spain decided to fund his trip. A Chinese sailor with an idea to cross the Pacific didn’t have another country to look funds from but China.
In other words, a little fragmentation is good; too much centralized power is not.
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“Guns, Germs, and Steel Quotes”
It's striking that Native Americans evolved no devastating epidemic diseases to give to Europeans in return for the many devastating epidemic diseases that Indians received from the Old World. Click To Tweet
One way to explain the complexity and unpredictability of historical systems, despite their ultimate determinacy, is to note that long chains of causation may separate final effects from ultimate causes lying outside the domain of that… Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“Guns, Germs, and Steel” won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998 and was turned into a National Geographic documentary seven years later.
About a decade after this, we didn’t think twice before including it in our list of top history books ever written.
But, simply put, because we have been as well.
One of our favorite books.