Guns, Germs And Steel: A Book Review

It’s usually hard to go wrong reading a Pulitzer Prize winner and this book is no exception. Some books concentrate on a particular point in history, a particular event, or even – sometimes fascinatingly – the life of a single person. This book is on the opposite side of that spectrum. The author, Jared Diamond, attempts no less than describing the story of human social and technological development since the end of the last Ice Age, a span of about 13,000 years, in one 500 page volume.

But this is not a “normal” history book. You will not read about the Assyrians or the Hapsburgs. That is a scale so fine as to pass easily through this book’s filter. This book is better described as historical science. Diamond tackles the big, macro-scale questions of “How?” and “Why?” did the human race get to where we are today.

In the preface to this book, Diamond describes the book’s scope:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only non-literate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies.

In 1972, Diamond encountered a bright, charismatic politician in New Guinea named Yali who asked him that very 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?” Diamond wrote GG&S twenty-five years later in an attempt to answer him.

And the answer is far, far more complicated than you might surmise. Diamond digs deep, continually asking – and more importantly, answering! – the question, “But why? Why did it happen then and not some other time? Why did it happen there and not somewhere else? Why didn‘t this or that invention simply spread from this group to that one?” Hard as it may be for some to believe until you read this persuasive book, the answers are as deep as they are subtle. It often boils down to the absolute basics: geography, climate and the local flora and fauna. Those were the take-off points, setting in motion a series of cascading social and technological developments that eventually led to the wide disparities in human society we see today.

As an example, let me recount a little of Diamonds research into the question, “To farm or not to farm?”

Formerly, all people on Earth were hunter-gathers. Why did any of them adopt food production at all? Given that they must have had some reason, why did they do so around 8,500 BC in the Mediterranean habitats of the Fertile Crescent, only 3,000 years later in the climatically and structurally similar habitats of southwestern Europe, and never indigenously in similar Mediterranean habitats…

Before we can answer those questions, we must dispel some misconceptions about the origins of food production…What actually happened was not a discovery of food production nor an invention, as we might first assume. There was often not even a conscious choice between food production and hunter-gathering. Specifically, in each area of the globe people could not have been making a conscious choice…because they had never seen farming and had no way of knowing what it would be like. Instead, as we shall see, food production evolved as a by product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.

It’s not until the next chapter, How To Make An Almond, that specific answers begin to emerge as to why certain plants lent themselves to agricultural production while others – which includes the vast majority of plants, including edible plants – did not lend themselves and still do not. The key lies in the genes of plants. And particularly in the genetic makeup of grasses that are native to Mesopotamia. I won’t give away the answer here because it’s just such a pleasure to read why. He unfolds it like a well told mystery story.

Other interesting aspects of the book include:

1. The way animal germ exposure led to disease and immunity among European communities with large domesticated animal populations and the huge impact that had much later in time when they encountered the hunter-gather societies in the New World.

2. Why certain animals lent themselves to domestication and others did not, and the huge impact that had on the development of societies who existed, coincidentally, around those specific animals.

3. The cascading effects of social and technological developments giving rise to huge disparities in power among societies.

4. How certain political, social and economic organizations of societies can encourage or inhibit technological and social development. Specifically, how dictatorial and centralized structures as well as overly loose and chaotic structures both inhibit development and expansion of those societies.

5. There’s also lots of more mundane (to me) information, such as how language and writing can be used as a research tool to track related peoples, or how various waves of immigration throughout history replaced various earlier waves with more advanced groups.

All in all, it was enlightening. Highly recommended.

Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology, evolutionary biology and biogeography at UCLA’s School of Medicine. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is the recipient of the National Medal of Science in addition to many other awards. His research was partly funded by the National Geographic Society, The World Wildlife Fund and the University of California. He’s authored more than 200 articles for Nature, Natural History, Discover and Geo magazines, as well as several previous books, including the award winning The Third Chimpanzee.

14 thoughts on “Guns, Germs And Steel: A Book Review”

  1. I read this book some years ago and it still retains a place of honor on my bookshelf. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Combined with David S. Lande’ss “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” and Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital” it provides an explanation of the history and current distribution of knowledge and material wealth in the contemporary world.

  2. Thanks, Hiteshew, and your summary really helps. I love that book – it suddenly made sense of so many things. The importance in terms of germs of domesticated animals & germs has been one of those organizing principles that began to help me understand – and prepared for the much less interesting if horrific Pox Americana.

    But, of course, it is wonderful to see how much more we can accomplish in a world that is neither restrictive nor chaotic – the good is also the practical.

    You’ve made me want to pick it up again – I never read things sufficiently closely, but here, that is partly because of the depth of riches.

  3. Great book! I wish it could be included in High School curriculums as it gives such a broad understanding of our prehistory – although some creationists probably wouldn’t like it

  4. Think of GGS as an imagination stimulator. Much of the speculation is almost certainly wrong, but it serves as a useful springboard for thought and research.

    Diamond’s rejection of the possibility that genetic differences between peoples might influence cultural differences is quite politically correct. Any speculations to the contrary and there would be no Pulitzer, no favorable discussions in academia and mainstream journalistic circles. Many drinks would be thrown in Diamond’s face at fashionable parties, assuming he was invited in the first place.

  5. people interested in this stuff should also read William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, and The Rise of the West. These are between them better treatments of the same issues than Diamond’s.

  6. I want to strongly second Jim Bennett’s recomendation of the two books by William H. McNeill, as they address issues, particularly the influence of disease in human history and social development, which are left out of most conventional histories.

    Also, Bill Hight brought up the issue of possible genetic differences in human populations affecting the development of cultures and civilizations. Shame on you, Bill, you will get your hand slapped by all of the officious and proper thinkers, right along with Steve Sailor and “La Griffe du Lion”. Those of you who are willing to poison your souls and social relations with what is (probably) the truth, should also go off and read Lynn and Van Hanen’s “I. Q. and the Wealth of Nations”.

  7. The left loves this book for many reasons. Primarily it supports the notion that Europeans and Asians dominate the world politically and economically solely due to their superior geographic circumstances. He maintains that luck, not culture, determined our history. Diamond claims that because the people of Europe and Asia had highly fertile land, easy access to metals, and domesticatable animals (while the people in Africa, the Pacific and the Americas did not), they had an earlier development of civilization. They then used this early lead to dominate the globe by guns, germs and steel. Superior cultural tools apparently explained nothing. Easy access to oxen somehow (sans much proffered evidence, notably) was the trump card to global success.

    Balderdash. Diamond overlooks far too much in his gross oversimplification of history. The best refutation of his thesis comes from the fact that Native Americans tribes ranged over land that is arguably among the most fertile in the world and contains vast mineral riches, and yet American Indians, despite this very geography, did not progress as did European nations. Diamond has no explanation for this.

    His thesis apparently still has a firm hold in colleges. You might ask yourself, a la Diamond, “How did this come to be favored in generally left-leaning colleges, while other books did not?”

  8. Even if you’re looking at genetic influences, that’s not the end of the story.

    Once you reach the conclusion that genetic differences exist, the next logical question is “where did they come from”? What selection pressures were different between this group of humans and that group of humans?

    And one obvious difference would be – the set of tools available for different human groups to exploit. If one area has fertile land, then human beings in the area gain an evolutionary advantage by farming the land, while human beings in another area would not gain such an advantage by trying to farm unsuitable land. If one area has domesticable animals, again, human beings in the area who can domesticate animals will have an advantage over those who cannot, while the same would not be true in another area where such animals are absent.

    Any way you look at it, the environment is going to have a long-term influence over the kinds of activities that the locals are good at. Positing genetic differences simply throws in another mechanism by which the environment exerts this influence; it doesn’t refute Diamond’s point that the environment does in fact exert this influence.

  9. McNeill’s books that Bennett recommended are fabulous. Landes’ book recommended by Shannon is quite good, since, along with de Soto’s book explains why some sets of economic constraints lead to prosperous societies and some don’t.

    For the truly brave, Lynn’s book on Wealth and the IQ of Nations goes where most men and angels fear to tread. All of the above books together might explain how Zimbabwe went from being one of the richest nations in Africa to one of the poorest in twenty years. And why South Africa is seated firmly in the same downward groove.

    Ken, no one is looking for the “end of the story.” Clearly environment helped shape genetics, just as genetics helps shape cultures and civilizations. It’s the interaction, you see.

    Just as no one denies the influence of environment, so no one should deny the strong influence of genetics. But since political correctness determines who wins Pulitzers and who is lauded by the press and academia, a lot of people do deny genetics. That’s why Stephen Pinker wrote the book “The Blank Slate.” Have you read it?

    Flat earthers, blank slaters . . . People who value conformity for what rewards it can give them personally.

  10. I want to strongly second Jim Bennett’s recomendation of the two books by William H. McNeill, as they address issues, particularly the influence of disease in human history and social development, which are left out of most conventional histories.

    See the word “Germs” in the title, above. Diamond, doesn’t leave this out. In fact, Diamond posits that disease, not genocide, probably accounts for the death of most native Americans after initial contact with Europeans.

    Diamond claims that because the people of Europe and Asia had highly fertile land, easy access to metals, and domesticatable animals (while the people in Africa, the Pacific and the Americas did not), they had an earlier development of civilization.

    Diamond doesn’t make that claim. It had nothing (nothing!) to do with the fertitlity of the land.

    It had everything to do with the genetic makeup of particular grasses in Mesopotamia. That was the reason farming began there. The one genetically suitable grass in the Americas, corn (maize), was domesticated. However, it was not nearly as protein rich as other cereals and so was of much less value as a food source. IIRC, the original native American plant from which corn is descended has a cob only several centimeters long. In other words, for most of history, corn was only fringe food source. Beans and squash were widely cultivated by Eastern tribes in the Americas. On the Great Plains, there were vast but moving herds of game. Lots of protien, but you had to chase it around.

    Most of the worlds animals both worth domesticating and able to be domesticated are native to central Asia, including the ox family, sheep, goats, horses and chickens. Most African animals are unsuitable for domestication. Note that they STILL have not been domesticated. Diamond goes through the list an explains why that is so.

    What Diamond claims, reasonably I think, is that the Euro-Asian populations got a head start on the rest of the world’s humans in farming, animal domestication and the building of city-centered societies. That led to a cascade of events which later led to large disparities in power and social development. Why is that hard to understand or accept?

    I do think it’s probably true that once those events were set in motion, that the Euro-Asian populations (Indoeuropeans) began to select for IQ more than those in other societies. Only societies which are able to produce large surpluses of storable foods are able to support populations dedicated to arts, crafts and sciences. In hunter-gather populations, it’s more likely that strength and speed will be selected for. In isolated populations, like Polynesia, time will select for those body types, skin types and metabolisms most suited to the local climate and available foods.

  11. Michael,

    Both you and Mr. Diamond employ circular reasoning. The basic argument is that certain plants and animals were domesticated because only these types could be domesticated, and these all happened to grow in the Eurasian Fertile Crescent. This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. While Diamond does ponder why certain animals seem today unsuitable for domestication, this is refuted in his own work wherein he acknowledges that the bison or buffalo was ripe for domestication (why not the African water buffalo?), but was not. Corn was not explited until the Europeans came, and then was massively farmed. Why?

    The real answer is culture.

    Diamond’s argument is silly. Dogs were domesticated because they could be, while other animals could not. This isn’t proof or even reasoning. This is a simple expansion of the nature vs. nurture argument, and Diamond falls heavily towards the nature theory. I disagree.

  12. Pogo, Diamond doesn’t reason that way at all. And your claim that he reasons that since those grasses were domesticated, then only those grasses could be domesticated, is just plain false. What diamond asserts is that specific genetic mutations occuring in several of the grasses in the Fertile Crescent made them domesticatable. Let me quote:

    The first such change affected wild mechanisms for the dipersal of seeds. Many plants have specialized mechanisms that scatter seeds (and thereby prevent humans from gathering them efficiently). Only mutant seeds lacking those mechanisms would have been harvested and would thus have become the progenitor of crops.
    A clear example involves peas, whose seeds (the peas we eat) come enclosed in a pod. Wild peas have to get out of the pod to germinate. To achieve that result, pea plants evolved a gene that makes the pod explode, shooting out the peas onto the ground. Pods of occasional mutant peas don’t explode. In the wild the mutant peas would die entombed in the pod on their parent plants, and only the popping pods would pass on their genes. But, conversely, the only pods available to humans to harvest would be nonpopping ones left on the plant. Thus, once humans began bringing home peas to eat, there was immediate selection for that single gene mutant.

    Diamond then goes on to discuss similar genes in wheat, barley, oats, ect. He then discusses four or five other characteristics that make those plants suitable for agriculture, especially their sexual reproduction qualities, and specifically, whether they will or will not pass on the necessary mutant genes or will simply pick up airborne pollen of wild plants and revert to their pre-human-selected selfs.

    He then discusses studies of wild grass distributions done by geographer Mark Blumer:

    Among the world’s thousands of wild grass species, Blumer tabulated the 56 with the largest seeds, the cream of natures crop: the grass species with seeds at least 10 times heavier than the median grass species. Virtually all of them are native to Mediterranean zones…and are ovewhelming located in the Fertile Crescent…32 out of the 56. Chile offered only two of those species, California and southern Africa just one each, and southwestern Australia none at all.

    So Diamond marshalls fact after fact in support of his conclusion that there were good reasons certain plants in certain places lent themselves to food production. He does the exactly same for animals. No circular reasoning involved.

    You, by comparison, simply explain it by what? Culture? The Mesopotamians spontaneously evolved farming and animal husbandry and art and philosophy and law and engineering and literature and metallurgy and the scientific method one day by the Tigris? Hey guys, instead of chasing antelopes and gathering nuts, let’s make a civilization! What d’ya think? Great idea, no?

    The ‘culture’ was an end result of those previous events, not their cause. You’re the one guilty of the post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning problem.

  13. Actually culture has a lot to do with the disparate developments in the America’s versus elsewhere, but not for reasons Diamond touches on.

    Cultures develop in response to their environment and the America’s were a really tough place for civilizations to develop.

    I saw this 39-page draft anthropology article a few years ago and pulled it up after the Sumatran Tsunami event:


    E.P. Grondine

    The “Impact Events” referred to in the title are by cometary debris or small asteroids in the western hemisphere. These events had a period of about 5,200 years meaning the Mayan civilization survived two such impacts and multiple coastal cultures and civilizations in the Caribbean basin and American North and South Atlantic seaboard were wiped out by impact Tsunami. In addition, a South American mound building civilization in the Amazon basin that originated pottery in the America’s was essentially wiped out by a low angle space debris impact whose heat pulse set the whole of the Amazon basin on fire.

    This selected passage will give you a taste of the articles contents:

    “One thing which Hoopes could not visualize, but which we can, is that nearly the whole of Amazonia was set on fire sometime before 2,000 BCE by the entry and explosion of the Rio Cuarto impactor, and that this led to the jungles which we know today. As for the irrigation agriculturalists, what appears to me to have happened after the Rio Cuarto impact event is that gradually, over time, those few manioc cultivators who survived it, those living in the far north west of Amazonia, gradually managed to re-establish themselves:

    Verifying this would involve ground survey and excavations on the headwaters of the Orinoco River, an area which today is largely under the control of cocaine traffickers.


    In the mountains of South America, around 2,600 BCE the arboriculture of the coastal peoples was supplemented by the cultivation of beans, lima beans, and squash:

    One of the most distinctive items of this culture is their construction of large mounds in the center of their urban complexes. In as much as their cultivation appears to have been based on networks of channels for irrigation, this implies some measure of organization of labor, and thus of a hierarchical organization to their societies, a hierarchy demonstrated very convincingly by the existence of these large mounds. These cultures aquatics roots may be seen in their heavy use of sea-food, and besides the use of irrigation, it is more than likely that they may also have used some forms of aquaculture.


    While the Rio Cuarto impact event appears to have put an end to the South American mound builders of the Amazon headwaters and the mountains, mound building cultures survived on the west coast of South America, and enjoyed dominance there until the rise of the Inca. More to the focus of this survey, the mound building culture appears to have spread north, with these arboreal, raised field, and aquaculture technologies forming the basis for the coastal Zoque (Olmec) societies and other societies both along the eastern coast of Central America as well as along the shores of the highland lakes of the region.

    That this technology transfer was water borne is indicated by the existence of large mounds in Cuba (no longer existing, but reported by Daniel G. Brinton, in The Archaeology of Cuba, American Anthropologist, Vol 10, 1898), as well as the appearance of a large mound culture first seen in North America at the mouth of the Mississippi River, particularly at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (For a discussion of these, see last year’s survey.) Whether this technology transfer was done by paddle powered dugouts or by sail powered craft is unknown, but the cultivation of both cotton (possibly used for sails) and hennequin (possibly used for ropes for rigging) spread.


    Sometime between 1150-1050 BCE nearly all of the Atlantic cultures suffered a tremendous setback. In Atlantic North America, the Late Archaic comes to an end, and shell ring cultures pretty much disappear from the Atlantic Coast, while survivors appear to have hanged on in Western Florida.

    In the Caribbean Islands, the early shell cultures come to a stop, as does inter-island trade. Peoples immigrating into the islands a 1,000 years later would find a few technically primitive survivors who told tales of their ancestors surviving a great flood from the east by hiding out in caves.”

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