Why does the West have a more materialistic wealth than the rest of the world? Why did the West influence every continent and people on this planet instead of the other way around? In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist’s answer: Ecology, particularly geography, fauna, animal availability, and climate. Diamond almost seems to say that human choice and desire had little to contribute but he does explain its relative importance near the end of this 480 page book.
Diamond reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age in a style that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. He does not talk about linear progression of human history but about the handful of critical factors that pivotly change the trajectory of history for certain societies.
Diamond writes that “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” The people who domesticated plants and animals early got a head start on developing agriculture and an immunity to deadly germs. He demonstrates how this leads to the development of government, writing, and technology. Diamond further argues that human ingenuity is simply the result of the accident of having a larger population from which to draw innovations. A conducive geography leaders to larger populations. Larger populations leads to more specialized professions. Specialized professions lead to human ingenuity.
Diamond accomplishes what few historians have. He creates a grand unified theory that explains why some societies have grown and influenced and/or displaced other societies. Never again can any historian reasonably answer that it is due to race. Diamond also does not fall into the trap of believing that it is just due to large populations. Competition of ideas is critical.
Citing the example of China, Diamond explains that China had become the most civilized and wealthy society on the planet by 1400 CE. Europe was a collection of warring principalities. South & Central America had developed as far as it could with the Inca & Mayan empires. Africa and Australia continued to scrape by on subsistance hunting & gathering. China had more people, was mostly unified, and had developed a tribute system with the surrounding societies that proved it was king of its hemisphere. Yet, within the span off two hundred years, Europe had begun colonizing the world and had overtaken China as the leading civilization.
Diamond explains that the unique and diverse geography of Europe with its multitude of small kingdoms and access to seas and oceans created the intertia and continental culture of competition and philosophical diversity. Kings and Queens actively competed with each other to find an easier way to trade with China which lead to the European ‘discovery’ of America and its resulting colonization.
Diamond says that China had developed a comfortable self-assurance and complacency due to its unified cultural philosophy of Confucianism. In contrast, Europe had a vibrant philosophical system that included Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Hellenism, and Islam. Just like in ecological systems, competition and stress breeds evolution and change. Europe not only outflanked China in colonizing other continents but created an inquisitive philosophical culture that led to the Enlightenment, the Scienific Method, and further technological advances. Many critics claim that Diamond asserts a kind of determinism that denies free will and understates cultural variables such as religion and philosophy. Those critics are missing Diamond’s key point: It was the geographical and environmental factors he identified that made the development of those cultural variables possible. Choice matters far less in a culture the promotes like-thinking.
Diamond accomplishes the difficult task of taking a scientific approach to a complex issue yet write it in popular style that isn’t either condescendingly simplistic or too complex for lay readers. Diamond strikes a nice balance and uses language that is accessible and engaging. I greatly admired the way he synthesizes huge amounts of data across several disciplines to arrive at his striking conclusions.
This book is a very significant contribution to lay understanding of why the West has more material wealth than other cultures. Diamond reframed the debate about differences in progress and civilizations, moving it away from race-based inquiries into a more logical, constructive, and empirically based dialogue. Any reader who wants to better understand the world we have inherited needs to read this book.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5 – everyone should read this book