Book: Guns, Germs and Steel

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Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Author: Jared Diamond
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

A global account of the rise of civilization that is also a stunning refutation of ideas of human development based on race.

Until around 11,000 b.c., all peoples were still Stone Age hunter/gatherers. At that point, a great divide occurred in the rates that human societies evolved. In Eurasia, parts of the Americas, and Africa, farming became the prevailing mode of existence when indigenous wild plants and animals were domesticated by prehistoric planters and herders. As Jared Diamond vividly reveals, the very people who gained a head start in producing food would collide with preliterate cultures, shaping the modern world through conquest, displacement, and genocide.

The paths that lead from scattered centers of food to broad bands of settlement had a great deal to do with climate and geography. But how did differences in societies arise? Why weren’t native Australians, Americans, or Africans the ones to colonize Europe? Diamond dismantles pernicious racial theories tracing societal differences to biological differences.

He assembles convincing evidence linking germs to domestication of animals, germs that Eurasians then spread in epidemic proportions in their voyages of discovery. In its sweep, Guns, Germs and Steel encompasses the rise of agriculture, technology, writing, government, and religion, providing a unifying theory of human history as intriguing as the histories of dinosaurs and glaciers.


Explaining what William McNeill called The Rise of the West has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist’s answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye—and his heart—belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years.

Life isn’t fair—here’s why: Since 1500, Europeans have, for better and worse, called the tune that the world has danced to. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explains the reasons why things worked out that way. It is an elemental question, and Diamond is certainly not the first to ask it. However, he performs a singular service by relying on scientific fact rather than specious theories of European genetic superiority. Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals and the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government and communication—and increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China did not. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns and subjugate the New World.) Diamond’s book is complex and a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth—examining the “positive feedback loop” of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation, and on and on—makes sense. Written without bias, Guns, Germs, and Steel is good global history.

Barnes and Noble

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Jared Diamond argues that both geography and the environment played major roles in determining the shape of the modern world. This argument runs counter to the usual theories that cite biology as the crucial factor. Diamond claims that the cultures that were first able to domesticate plants and animals were then able to develop writing skills, as well as make advances in the creation of government, technology, weaponry, and immunity to disease.

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