Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond provides a compelling thesis as to why European civilisation has geopolitically dominated the Americas, Africa and Asia, from the Age of Enlightenment to the present day. Diamond’s explanation centres on the premise that Europe has prevailed over other civilisations due to its environmental conditions, as opposed to any genetic predisposition. This is exemplified by his belief that the physical locations of different cultures have affected their ability to develop agriculture, domesticate animals and gain certain traits, such as immunity to disease. However, this is hardly a geographical breakthrough as it is evident that in different areas of the world there are varying rates of agricultural productivity. Furthermore, from the outset, Diamond drew criticism from many historians for attempting to use geography to explain the rise of mercantilism in Europe. Diamond did this by highlighting how the continent’s lack of natural impediments, such as mountain ranges and large bodies of water, had made the continent easily traversable, and thus encouraged both trade and development.
Prior to my critique, it is important that Diamond’s credentials as an author be assessed. Jared Diamond is regularly described as America’s best-known geographer; his popularity is mainly due to the publication of critically acclaimed books such as ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ and ‘The Third Chimpanzee’. However, popularity does not necessarily mean credibility as an author. Diamond’s credibility is unquestionable as he sits on the boards of prestigious organisations, such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This book, Guns, Germs and Steel, has been regarded as Diamond’s most well received publication with him receiving awards from the Royal Society and the Phi Beta Kappa Society, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.
In the prologue, Diamond recalls a conversation that he had, in 1972, in Papua New Guinea with a local politician. The politician asked Diamond an intriguing question; “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” (Page 14). Diamond uses this question to commence a discussion based on the history of human evolution. In particular, he seeks to explain how socio-economic and environmental conditions have affected the development of Papua New Guinea. Firstly, Diamond claims that prior to the British colonisation of Papua New Guinea nearly all New Guineans were using stone tools and relied upon hunter-gatherers for food. Diamond uses this as both a microcosm and example of how hunter-gatherer societies around the world have failed to develop into modern civilisations. He goes on to explain how the lack of sustainable agricultural systems in New Guinean hunter-gatherer societies prevented them from creating food surpluses to support and feed technological experts, bureaucrats and scribes, and therefore hindered the growth of technology, government and writing in Papua New Guinea. Moreover, Diamond correctly identifies how hunter-gatherer societies are unsustainable as their survival could be at risk if animal resources start to decline. An example of this given in the book is how most megafauna, in the New World, had become extinct by the end of the Pleistocene primarily due to overexploitation by humans. However, what Diamond surprisingly fails to acknowledge is that agriculture was independently developed in the New Guinea highlands from around 7000 BC, making it one of the few areas in the world where people independently domesticated plants. Following this, in 500 BC, a major migration of Austronesian-speaking people to the coastal regions of New Guinea, resulted in the introduction of pottery, pigs, and certain fishing techniques. Diamond’s failure to include this information may be representative of his Eurocentric views or, more likely, that he purposely ignored the fact that New Guineans had developed agriculture in 7000 BC, without the aid of Europe or Asia, as it would undoubtedly undermine his theory. In regards to socio-economic conditions, a key factor Diamond seems to overlook is that economic inequality within a country is far more prevalent than inequality amongst countries. This disregard is illustrated by Diamond’s emphasis on the present economic inequality between ’developing’ Papua New Guinea and ‘industrialised’ Australia. The reasoning behind Diamond ignoring internal economic inequality could be that his source is outdated. Diamond’s assumptions on New Guinea are based on the observations he made when he visited the country over 40 years ago in 1972. Since then, income inequality has widened, with a rich elite exploiting the countries abundance of natural resources by developing timber plantations and gold mines, whilst the remaining majority of Papua New Guineans live in extreme poverty, with about one-third of the population living on less than US$1.25 per day.
The first farming as far as we know appeared in the Middle East region, known as the Fertile Crescent, some 11,500 years ago. As highlighted in Chapter 8, the Fertile Crescent had the greatest variety of wild plants and animals, with only a small fraction being suitable for domestication. One of the most striking revelations in Diamond’s book is how the distribution of domestication-prone animals greatly favoured Eurasia. Diamond provides the convincing fact that of the 14 domesticated animals on the planet, 13 of them are found in Eurasia, one in South America and none in the rest of the world. Furthermore, most of the major food crops we consume today (e.g. wheat, barley, rice and sugar) are of Eurasian origin and of the fourteen mammals over 100 pounds that humans have domesticated, every one of the ‘major five’ (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses) is also of Eurasian origin. It must also be pointed out that one cannot argue that Eurasians were simply cleverer than Africans and Native Americans, when it came to learning how to domesticate the local flora and fauna. This is because despite Europeans eventually occupying every inhabitable continent, and advancing in technology and breeding techniques, European colonists never domesticated any new species of major agricultural importance in the lands that they conquered. Therefore, this is claimed by Diamond to be clear proof that environmental conditions (e.g. domestication of animals and plants) were the main factor in European dominance. Another important factor, that Diamond believes in, is that Eurasia’s environment is beneficial as it forms part of the ‘west-east axis’, as opposed to the ‘north-south axis’ of the Americas and Africa. The ‘west-east axis’ is based upon the principle that as Eurasia stretches from west to east, and thus its latitudinal orientation remains similar throughout the entire landmass, resulting in similar climatic conditions over which several societies could share agricultural innovations. Hence, this has allowed Eurasia to maintain an enormous, integrated area of common agricultural practices and crops, which stretches roughly 6000 miles. On the other hand, Diamond claims that, in the Americas, as there is a ‘north-south axis’ the species domesticated by the Inca civilisation in the Andes, never managed to the reach the Aztec civilisation in Central Mexico, as the retrospective animals and plants were incompatible with the tropics of Mexico. However, there are examples of north-south diffusion of crops in the Americas, most significantly the cultivation of maize in Peru, and its adoption in North America.
The transmission of diseases from European colonists to indigenous people is a key component of Diamond’s argument; this is because Diamond believes disease played a decisive role in European conquests by decimating many indigenous populations. Diamond starts his explanation by suggesting that infectious diseases, such as smallpox, measles, influenza and bubonic plague cannot sustain themselves in sparsely populated hunter-gatherer societies. This is because these infectious diseases will wipe out the entire population of a hunter-gatherer society, and therefore destroy the microbe that is causing the disease. Diamond states that in order for infectious diseases to last over a long period, they must only exist in large populations, which have close contact with other populous societies. Infectious diseases are more likely to be prevalent in these societies as the likelihood of many individuals being immune to the disease is far less, and the microbe would be able to shift back-and-forth between neighbouring populations. Diamond goes on to examine where these microbes come from and provides the plausible explanation that they are mutations of microbes that evolved to survive amidst dense populations of mammals, specifically amongst herd animals, most of which humans domesticated themselves and lived in close proximity with. Subsequently, Diamond concludes that agriculture provided the necessary conditions for the survival of these infectious diseases among humans, which through a natural mutation, made the adjustment from being hosted by domesticated animals, such as cattle and pigs, to being hosted by humans. Diamond cites this as one of the reasons for Europeans being able to subjugate Native Americans, as most Native Americans had no resistance or natural immunity to the infectious diseases that were introduced, which therefore resulted in a high Native American death rate. This strengthens Diamond’s argument as it illustrates how agriculture was responsible for the infectious diseases, which aided Europeans in their colonial conquests.
A problem consistently seen throughout the book is Diamond’s selectiveness when it comes to picking out parts of history to include in his thesis. This is evident on page 373, where in an attempt to explain why Vikings did not successfully colonise the New World, while the Spanish and other Europeans who followed them did, Diamond writes, “Spain, unlike Norway, was rich and populous enough to support exploration and subsidize colonies”. Whilst this is true, Diamond conveniently chooses to ignore the fact that Norway did successfully explore the North Atlantic, and did successfully colonise the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. The reasoning behind this omission could be that Diamond does not want to admit that Norway was able to successfully colonise and subjugate territories overseas. This is because Norway has high latitude and at the time was not as advanced in food production and technology, which therefore would have contradicted Diamond’s theory. Furthermore, Diamond fails to provide a balanced historical account as he refers to Spain as being rich and populous during the late 15th century. This is a misleading for two reasons; firstly, in the late 15th century Spain was marred by political instability as the Spanish Inquisition was taking place and secondly, the majority of Spain’s wealth came after the discovery and colonisation of the Americas. However, this seems to be the only historical inaccuracy, concerning Spain, in Guns, Germs and Steel. This is because the majority of information Diamond uses, in regards to the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, stems from the Cortes Society in New York, which is an independent organisation that publishes first-hand narratives concerning the discovery and conquest of Latin America.
In conclusion, Jared Diamond’s outtake on human history must be classified as a form of environmental determinism. The theory he puts forward, that environment not intellectuality, was the key determinant in Europe’s dominance provides a unique, insightful and refreshing outlook on human history. Diamond should be accredited for attempting to write an ambitious synthesis of history, biology, anthropology and geography. Furthermore, Guns, Germs and Steel improved my knowledge, as firstly, it provided reasons for why European countries were the first to go through the stages of development (e.g. urbanisation and industrialisation), and secondly, it highlighted the important role of agriculture in human evolution. However, the book can be easily criticised for its Eurocentrism, which is made apparent by Diamond’s loose use of the terms ‘Eurasia’ and ‘innovative’, that some believe mislead the reader into presuming that Western Europeans are responsible for the technological inventions that arose in the Middle East and Asia. Another criticism of Diamond is that he ‘cherry-picks’ what parts of history to include in his thesis, and dismisses key events that aren’t in line with his theory. This is evident by Diamond’s decision to ignore the fact that Chinese sailors traded with Africa in the 14th century, but did not to colonise the continent, as its government’s chose to reverse the policy of open exploration. This therefore brings attention to how there are other factors, such as culture, economics and form of government, aside from environmental conditions, that affect the development of societies. All of this provides basis for the argument that in Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond has oversold geography as an explanation for development of different continents. For this reason, I would not recommend Guns, Germs and Steel because whilst it claims on the front cover to be ‘a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’, Jared Diamond’s biased nature ensures that it only focuses on the last 500 years, as a means of inflating the period of time the world was under European domination.

REFERENCES 2010. “Guns, Germs and Steel”: Jared Diamond on Geography as Power. Available at: 1997. ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ by Jared Diamond | The New York Review of Books. Available at:
Swadling, P., Wagner, R. and Laba, B. 1996. Plumes from paradise. Coorparoo DC, Queensland Australia: Papua New Guinea National Museum in association with Robert Brown & Associates.
Jarosz, L. 2003. A Human Geographer’s Response to Guns, Germs, and Steel. Seattle: Blackwell Publishing. p. 7. Available through:

Contributed by Krishan Sivaneson

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