Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

How is it that one civilization advances to the point of putting a man on the moon and another civilization is still using stone tools? Jared Diamond has provided the answer in a most fascinating book called Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In this book, Diamond took me through a multi-continent journey, where he explored various civilizations. He explained why some civilizations advanced and dominated other civilizations throughout the course of history.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is 480 pages long, spread across four sections and nineteen chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue. The major sections of this book include:

  • From Eden to Cajamarca
  • The Rise and Spread of Food Production
  • From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Around the World in Five Chapters

This book is academic in nature, yet Diamond shared some fascinating stories throughout the book. One of the stories Diamond included was about how Pizarro with a 168-man army was able to win a battle against tens of thousands of Aztec warriors.

Diamond’s story began approximately 13,000 years ago when man was starting to control his world. Up until this point, man was a hunter-gatherer, but different civilizations began to domesticate both plants and animals. This led to the formations of villages and cities. Because with the domestication of plants and animals man was able to produce food that could support others. The non-food producers could focus on other tasks such as commerce, exploration, invention, and governance. One of the key inventions was the development of writing and language.

The hunter-gatherers did not have the time or the resources to support inventions. For example, because of their mobile nature, they could not carry around a loom or pottery and still try to hunt wild animals. These inventions were better suited for a non-mobile life.

Being non-mobile had its drawback. It seems to be near animals, other people, and waste resulted in the proliferation of germs. Epidemics would run rampant through large populations. It would decimate the populations, but individuals who survived developed an immunity to these germs. Yet when these germ carriers ran into other populations, they would spread the germs and cause another epidemic.

Hunter-gatherers because of their mobile lifestyle and small numbers did not have a problem with the spread of germs, except when another civilization introduced the germs into their society. When the first non-native explorers introduced germs in crippled the Americas.

Another topic that jumped out at me was how the domestication of plants and animals played out. Diamond went into great detail explaining how this domestication came about through different regions of the country. One key factor in the diffusion of domestication was the orientation of the continents. The Americas are in a north-south configuration. Africa is in a north-south configuration. Yet, Euro-Asia is in an east-west configuration. This east-west configuration allowed for the diffusion of domesticated plants much easier because they were all in the same temperate zone. Whereas in the Americas and Africa, there was a tropical band that slowed the diffusion of domesticated plants and animals throughout the continents.

As a result, Europe and Asia developed cities and a greater level of technology than did Africa and the Americas. Because of the invention of ships and steel, European explorers were able to dominate the civilizations in the Americas. The greatest weapon the explorers brought with them was germs, which decimated indigenous populations.

In this book, Diamond also had a fascinating chapter on the evolution of writing. At least I thought it was fascinating. He looked at the various types of writing systems throughout the world and showed how civilizations spread and adopted them.

The last section of the book focused on different geographical regions. Diamond explained how the civilizations moved into the areas and why one civilization dominated over the other. He also outlined how technologies, languages, and domestication of plants and animals spread from one area to another.

The most important thing that I learned in this book appeared in the very first chapters. Diamond explained that when man moved into an area he destroyed all the large animals within a thousand years. Wanton destruction and man go hand-in-hand. It seems that we still have not learned any lessons in the last 13,000 years.

If you like history, civilizations, or the diffusion of technology then I recommend that you read Guns, Germs, and Steel. This book is a fascinating book about change and the diffusion of new ideas. I can understand why it was a Pulitzer Prize winner, it kept me engrossed from cover to cover.


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