251,256 Pages

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Dust jacket cover of the first edition, featuring the painting Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru by John Everett Millais
Author Jared Diamond
Country United States
Language English
Subject geography, social evolution, history of civilization, ethnology, cultural diffusion
Publisher W. W. Norton
Publication date March 1997 (1st edition, hardcover)
Media type Hardcover, Paperback, Audio CD, Audio Cassette, Audio Download
Pages 480 pages (1st edition, hardcover)
ISBN 0-393-03891-2 (1st edition, hardcover)
OCLC Number 35792200
Dewey Decimal 303.4 21
Library of Congress Classification HM206 .D48 1997

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 transdisciplinary nonfiction book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1998, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book, and produced by the National Geographic Society, was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.[1]

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations (including North Africa) have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. When cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example, written language or the development among Eurasians of resistance to endemic diseases), he asserts that these advantages occurred because of the influence of geography on societies and cultures, and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes.


The prologue opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any genetic superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term "cargo" for inventions and manufactured goods, "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?" (p. 14)

Diamond realized the same question seemed to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, after having thrown off colonial domination, still lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) The peoples of other continents (Sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, and the original inhabitants of tropical Southeast Asia) have been largely conquered, displaced and in some extreme cases – referring to Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and South Africa's indigenous Khoisan peoples – largely exterminated by farm-based societies such as Eurasians and Bantu. He believes this is due to the societies' military and political advantages, stemming from the early rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age. He proposes explanations to account for such disproportionate distributions of power and achievements.


The book's title is a reference to the means by which farm-based societies conquered populations of other areas and maintained dominance, despite sometimes being vastly out-numbered – superior weapons provided immediate military superiority (guns); Eurasian diseases weakened and reduced local populations, who had no immunity, making it easier to maintain control over them (germs), and centralized government promoted nationalism and powerful military organizations (steel).

Diamond argues geographic, climatic and environmental characteristics which favored early development of sedentary agricultural societies ultimately led to immunity to diseases endemic in agricultural animals and the development of powerful, organized states capable of dominating others.

The theory outlinedEdit

Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of superior intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.

The earliest human societies lived as hunter-gatherers. The first step towards civilization is the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, with the domestication and farming of wild crops and animals. Agricultural production leads to food surpluses, which supports sedentary societies, specialization of craft, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which may lead in turn to the organization of nation states and empires.[2]

Although agriculture arose in several parts of the world, Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. In particular, Eurasia has barley, two varieties of wheat and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; goats, sheep and cattle. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow and easier to store than American maize or tropical bananas.

As early Middle Eastern civilizations began to trade, they found additional useful animals in adjacent territories, most notably horses and donkeys for use in transport. Diamond identifies 13 species of large animals (over 100 lb / 44 kg) domesticated in Eurasia, compared with just one in South America (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species) and none at all in the rest of the world. Australia and North America suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, probably by human hunting, shortly after the end of the Pleistocene, whilst the only domesticated animals in New Guinea came from the East Asian mainland during the Austronesian settlement some 4,000–5,000 years ago. Sub-Saharan biological relatives of the horse including zebras and onagers proved untameable; and although African elephants can be tamed, it is very difficult to breed them in captivity;[2][3] Diamond describes the small number of domesticated species (14 out of 148 "candidates") as an instance of the Anna Karenina principle: many promising species have just one of several significant difficulties that prevent domestication. Eurasians domesticated goats and sheep for hides, clothing, and cheese; cows for milk; bullocks for tilling fields and transport; and benign animals such as pigs and chickens. Large domestic animals like horses and camels offered the considerable military and economic advantages of mobile transport.

Eurasia's large landmass and long east-west distance increased these advantages. Its large area provided it with more plant and animal species suitable for domestication, and allowed its people to exchange both innovations and diseases. Its East-West orientation allowed breeds domesticated in one part of the continent to be used elsewhere through similarities in climate and the cycle of seasons. The Americas had difficulty adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at other latitudes (and, in North America, adapting crops from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other). Africa was fragmented by its extreme variations in climate from North to South: plants and animals that flourished in one area never reached other areas where they could have flourished, because they could not survive the intervening environment. Europe was the ultimate beneficiary of Eurasia's East-West orientation: in the first millennium BC, the Mediterranean areas of Europe adopted the Middle East's animals, plants, and agricultural techniques; in the first millennium AD, the rest of Europe followed suit.[2][3]

The plentiful supply of food and the dense populations that it supported made division of labor possible. The rise of non-farming specialists such as craftsmen and scribes accelerated economic growth and technological progress. These economic and technological advantages eventually enabled Europeans to conquer the peoples of the other continents in recent centuries by using the "Guns" and "Steel" of the book's title.

Eurasia's dense populations, high levels of trade, and living in close proximity to livestock resulted in widespread transmission of diseases, including from animals to humans. Natural selection forced Eurasians to develop immunity to a wide range of pathogens. When Europeans made contact with America, European diseases (to which they had no immunity) ravaged the indigenous American population, rather than the other way around (the "trade" in diseases was a little more balanced in Africa and southern Asia: endemic malaria and yellow fever made these regions notorious as the "white man's grave";[4] and syphilis may have spread in the opposite direction[5]). The European diseases – the "Germs" of the book's title – decimated indigenous populations so that relatively small numbers of Europeans could maintain their dominance.[2][3]

Diamond also proposes geographical explanations for why western European societies, rather than other Eurasian powers such as China, have been the dominant colonizers,[2][6] claiming Europe's geography favored balkanization into smaller, closer, nation-states, bordered by natural barriers of mountains, rivers and coastline. Threats posed by immediate neighbours ensured governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly, such as the counter-progressive Polish regime, whilst the region's leading powers changed over time. Other advanced cultures developed in areas whose geography was conducive to large, monolithic, isolated empires, without competitors that might have forced the nation to reverse mistaken policies such as China banning the building of ocean-going ships. Western Europe also benefited from a more temperate climate than Southwest Asia where intense agriculture ultimately damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility.

Intellectual backgroundEdit

Diamond was not the first to argue that environmental factors had a decisive influence on human history. In the late 1850s Henry Thomas Buckle sought to discover laws that governed history, and wrote that favorable climate and soils, and the plentiful food they produced, were important contributors to a population's accumulation of wealth. He believed that freedom from natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods made people less prone to superstition and therefore more likely to make rapid intellectual progress.[7]

In the 1930s, the Annales School in France undertook the study of long-term historical structures by using a synthesis of geography, history, and sociology. Scholars examined the impact of geography, climate and land use. Although geography had been nearly eliminated as an academic discipline in the USA after the 1960s, several geographically based historical theories were published in the 1990s.[8] In addition, environmental history has arisen as a field taking account of man's activities in nature.


Guns, Germs and Steel met with a wide range of responses, ranging from generally favorable to rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, in recognition of its powerful synthesis of many disciplines, and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books.[9][10] The National Geographic Society produced a documentary of the same title based on the book that was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.[1]


Critics of the book argue that it is derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julian Steward, and Ester Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.

Criticism can be grouped into three main lines of reasoning, as follows:

Eurocentrist determinismEdit

In his last book published in 2000, the anthropologist and geographer James Morris Blaut criticized Guns, Germs, and Steel for reviving the theory of environmental determinism, and described Diamond as an example of a modern Eurocentric historian.[11] Blaut criticizes Diamond's loose use of the terms "Eurasia" and "innovative", which he believes misleads the reader into presuming that Western Europe is responsible for technological inventions that arose in the Middle East and Asia. Blaut states that Diamond ignored or underestimated the nutritional value of several staple crops that grow naturally outside the temperate parts of Eurasia, overestimated the difficulty of adapting crops to new conditions by selective breeding, and ignored the separation of agriculturally productive regions within Eurasia's temperate belt by deserts and mountains.[12] Blaut noted examples of North-South diffusion of crops in the Western Hemisphere, most significantly the cultivation of maize in Mesoamerica and its adoption in North America. He stated that in Europe, the major economic and technological developments of the last 500–600 years took place in Northern and Western Europe; as the area is generally flat, this weakens Diamond's suggestion that Europeans benefited by competition among societies that developed separately due to geographic barriers, such as mountains.

David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity terms all societies before the Enlightenment as static societies, where technological improvement was slow and mostly a result of memetic emergence rather than intentional human endeavour. Thus Deutsch takes a contrary view to Diamond and argues that the knowledge to develop new technology rapidly to solve problems that arise could have happened anywhere in the world regardless of the local resources, not just Europe, it just happened to arise there first, aided by the knowledge of previous short-lived proto-enlightenment movements such as those from Ancient Greece and Renaissance Florence.[13]

Political factorsEdit

Clifford Pickover pointed out that in the 15th century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes between the Orient and Europe. Merchants responded by developing new routes, primarily by sea, to restore trade with the Orient. This process accelerated the development of cartographic and navigational technologies, which allowed Europeans to dominate the globe in less than a century.[14]

Weaknesses in argumentsEdit

In a review of Guns, Germs, and Steel that ultimately commended the book, historian Professor Tom Tomlinson wrote that, "Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamond uses very broad brush-strokes to fill in his argument," but regarded Diamond's sketchy coverage of social, political and intellectual history (a handful of pages), especially in the last 500 years, as a notable weakness. He stated that Diamond's approach ignored "much of the current literature on cultural interactions in modern history" and Diamond omitted "almost all of the standard literature on the history of imperialism and post-colonialism, world-systems, underdevelopment or socio-economic change over the last five hundred years." Tomlinson also stated that, "The European empires of conquest in Asia, especially those of the British in India and the Dutch in Java, were not based on clear technological superiority in armaments, nor on the spread of disease."[15]

Another historian, professor J. R. McNeill, was on the whole complimentary but thought Diamond oversold geography as an explanation for history, noting several exceptions and inconsistencies. McNeill also faults Diamond for underemphasizing cultural autonomy.[3][16]

Responses to criticismEdit

Anticipation of criticismEdit

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (page 17):

  • "If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?" His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. "[Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.
  • "Doesn't addressing the question 'automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of Europeans ...?'" According to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to Europe." And Diamond specifically and repeatedly states that the advantages that Eurasians had in development were primarily due to a fortuitous mixture of climate, crops, and animals, and not due to any inherent advantages of the people themselves. Given time (without exposure to Eurasian culture), he posits that other societies would have eventually made the same technological leaps, they just didn't get to the starting line at the same time due to the above factors.
  • "Don't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, ...?". On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes. In addition any preconceived semantic boundaries of the words 'civilization' and the spatial to mental apprehension of the meaning 'rise' will all be individually encountered. The word "rise" in the sense used in the question does not warrant the assumption that it is "positive" but only representing the subject, civilization, coming into existence; that is to say "arise".

Response to political factorsEdit

Supporters of Diamond, have argued that these cultural aspects were created because of the environment and resources at Europe's disposal. Diamond attributes the evolution of complex socio-political structures as a yield of the increased resources and environment which benefited western Europeans.[citation needed]


Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published by W. W. Norton in March 1997. It was subsequently published in Great Britain under the title Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years by Vintage in 1998.[17] It was a selection of Book of the Month Club, History Book Club, Quality Paperback Book Club and Newbridge Book Club.[18]

See alsoEdit


Books and television:


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lovgren, Stefan (2005-07-06). ""Guns, Germs and Steel": Jared Diamond on Geography as Power". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2011-11-16. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 McNeill, J.R. (February 2001). "The World According to Jared Diamond". Archived from the original on 2012-08-02. 
  4. Ross, R., and MacGregor, W. (January 1903). "The Fight against Malaria: An Industrial Necessity for Our African Colonies". Oxford University Press. pp. 149–160. JSTOR 714548. 
  5. The origin of syphilis is still debated. Some researchers think it was known to Hippocrates: Keys, David (2007). "English syphilis epidemic pre-dated European outbreaks by 150 years". Independent News and Media Limited. Retrieved 2007-09-22.  Others think it was brought from the Americas by Columbus and his successors: MacKenzie, D. (January 2008). "Columbus blamed for spread of syphilis". news service. 
  6. Diamond, J. (July 1999). "How to get rich". 
  7. Buckle, H.T. (1861). History of Civilization in England. Appleton & Co.. ISBN 1-4326-6143-4. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  8. Cohen, P. (March 21, 1998). "Geography Redux: Where You Live Is What You Are". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  9. "The Pulitzer Prizes for 1998". 
  10. "Prizes for Science Books previous winners and shortlists". The Royal Society. 
  11. James M. Blaut (2000). Eight Eurocentric Historians (August 10, 2000 ed.). The Guilford Press. pp. 228. ISBN 1-57230-591-6. Retrieved 2008-08-05. 
  12. Blaut, J.M. (1999). "Environmentalism and Eurocentrism". American Geographical Society. pp. 391. Digital object identifier:10.2307/216157. JSTOR 216157. Retrieved 2008-07-09.  full text
  13. Deutsch, David (2011). The Beginning of Infinity. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 978-0-7139-9274-8. 
  14. "Why Did Human History Evolve Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years? (comments)". 5-12-97. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  15. Tom Tomlinson (May 1998). "Review:Guns, Germs and Steer: The Fates of Human Societies". Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  16. Jared Diamond; Reply by William H. McNeill (June 26, 1997). "Guns, Germs, and Steel". 
  17. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London: Vintage, 2005 [1997], ISBN 0-09-930278-0
  18. "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies". December 30, 1998. Retrieved October 7, 2012. 

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