The racial explanation of civilization’s development has been the cause of a great deal of suffering in the world. Many see countries dealing with severe poverty or embroiled in continuous war between factions as evidence of some important racial differences. They use this world perspective to rationalize their biases (or flat out bigotry) and perpetuate hate. This is the issue at the heart of Jared Diamond’s acclaimed book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Diamond’s thesis is that the cause for the differences we see today between civilizations is not racial in origin, it is geographic.Through a review of the research done in anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and geography, covering the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadic life to the sedentary chiefdoms to major civilizations, Diamond makes a comprehensive and convincing case for his theory.
The prologue opens the book with a personal anecdote about a New Guinean named Yali that asked Diamond why white people had more possessions than the New Guineans. Having spent many years in New Guinea, Diamond’s experience with the New Guinean people were that they were surprisingly clever and quick learners. This rules out — in his experience — a racial explanation of why white people had more possessions than New Guineans. Could it be cultural? Again, Diamond points out that the New Guineans happily adopt new technology, fashion, and food introduced by foreigners. They are not, generally, a close-minded or conservative people. So it was Yali’s question which ignited a lasting interest in Diamond to solve this riddle.
The cover art depicts the capture of the Incan Emperor Atahuallpa by the famous conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro’s party of 168 soldiers was surrounded by as many as 80,000 soldiers and royal guards at the time of his capture. How could this be? More importantly, why is it the case that the Spanish were capturing an Incan Emperor and not the other way around? Why not the Peruvians capturing the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V? Why were the first Europeans giving diseases to the Native Americans and not the other way around?
Throughout the book, Diamond argues it is simply due to geography. As they say, “location, location, location”. The geographic resources (the animals, plants, and minerals) of certain parts of the world enabled some humans to develop complex societies where others remained hunter-gathers (like the Aboriginals of Australia remain to this day). I will not go into a lengthy point-by-point explanation of his theory and the evidence he provides. If this is a subject you are interested in, I recommend you pick up the book from your local library. However, I do want to mention a few very fascinating insights in the book.
So why were the Europeans infecting the Native Americans with diseases and not the other way around? Diamond’s research suggests it is the result of a chain of developments in favor of the Europeans. Europe had access to the cereals originating in the fertile crescent as well as a number of domesticable animals. This enabled the Europeans to become sedentary and develop densely populated urban areas while remaining in close proximity to animals such as pigs and rats. Much of the research done in the origins of infectious diseases suggests they originated with animals before transferring to humans. Over the course of centuries, the Europeans lived with these ever evolving diseases. They developed antibodies and the diseases adapted to survive. The result was diseases very deadly to Native Americans.
Another thought provoking question was how Francisco Pizarro’s group of 168 managed to kill a reported 6,000 Incan soldiers and capture the Incan Emperor despite being outnumbered 500 to 1? Again, the geographic resources available to the Spanish caused a chain of developments that enabled this remarkable disparity. First, the Spanish brought with them horses (62 of the 168 Spanish soldiers were mounted) giving them a significant combat advantage over the Incans. Second, due to the animal and plant resources available to the Spanish, they developed a more complex society and economy. This allowed for more specialized divisions of labor that produced not only more well crafted tools/weapons but allowed for more free time (away from worrying about basic survival needs such as food and shelter) spent by people to innovate and develop new technologies and materials. The Spanish had steel plated armor, swords, and spears versus the cloth/fiber armor warn by the Incans. Additionally, the Spanish had primitive but effective guns which simultaneously made them much more lethal but terrifying as well. Lastly, the growing populations in Europe as well as the increasingly complex societies led to many more wars. Besides the human loss of these wars, European military tactics far exceeded that of the Incans. The Incan soldiers may have been just as battle-hardened as the Spanish soldiers, but their traditional battles did not help them prepare for the vastly more lethal combat that the Spanish soldiers were familiar with.
Diamond’s book has certainly altered the way I think about the course of human history. It has caused me to reflect on some thoughts beyond the scope of his theory. Perhaps these reflections are entirely unoriginal but I’d like to share some closing thoughts. I believe there is good reason to believe in American exceptionalism. The US has undoubtedly had an influence (whether good or bad is besides the point) on the world that has been rarely seen in other nations throughout history. However, the cause of this exceptionalism, I think, cannot be traced back entirely to founding principles, our legal system, or liberal politics (liberal not in the American political sense). These things certainly have contributed but not to the extent as many argue. Rather, its success, it seems to me, can possibly be considered circumstantial. The untapped resources of this land enabled rapid growth and expansion. Additionally, the established cultures, politics, and economies of European and Asiatic nations has made them inherently conservative. Only through extraordinary revolutions or horrific war has dramatic change taken place in those countries while the culture, politics, and economy of the United States has relatively untethered to the past. In other words, perhaps the exceptionalism is just the luck of the draw in the same way the Spanish had the advantage over the Incans millenia before their confrontation in the 16th century.