Critical Summary of Guns, Germs, and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Seminar Paper, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Diamond’s chain of causation
2.1 The starting position
2.2 The proximate factors of differing development
2.2.1 The role of food production
2.2.2 The dual capacity of domesticated animals
2.3 The ultimate factors of differing developments

3 Availability of ultimate factors
3.1 Eurasia
3.2 The Americas
3.3 Africa
3.4 Australia
3.5 Conclusion


List of literature

1 Introduction

The starting point of Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, And Steel” is a question he was asked by an indigenious New Guinean friend of his called Yali. His question was: “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?”1, adressing the obvious inequality in wealth and power of today’s world. With his book, Diamond tries to provide an answer for this question.

According to Diamond, the immediate causes for the inequalities in the world today are to be found in the different stages of development between the continents as of around A.D. 1500. By that time, only societies of Eurasia, the landmass that constitutes Asia and Europe, and there especially the Western Europeans, possessed ocean-going ships, population-decimating germs, steel weapons, horses usable for warefare, easy spread of information by an efficient writing system and many other means that come in handy decimating, subjugating or in some cases even exterminating the originial inhabitants of other continents. Diamond calls these advantages the proximate factors of differing developments that led to the inequalities. The book’s title “Guns, Germs, And Steel” can be understood as a summary of these proximate causes.

In chapter three of his book, Diamond cites as a prominent example of the inequalities the conquest by the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro and a few hundred soldiers over the Inca emperor Atahuallpa at Cajamarca/Peru in A.D. 1532. The Spanish got there and won because they possessed the above stated proximate factors.

He then turns the point around and asks why, for instance, the Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians were not the ones who possessed these proximate factors and used them to conquer Europe.

As will be pointed out below, the author sees the fundamental causes as environmental, resting ultimately on ecological and geographical differences between the continents. He writes: “Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: ‘History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological difference among peoples themselves.”2

The purpose of this paper is to examine to what extent Diamond’s view of things suit to explain “Yali’s question”.

2 Diamond’s chain of causation

2.1 The starting position

In order to explain which ultimate factors led to the differing endowment with proximate factors, Diamond first goes back in time to the end of the last Ice Age around 11.000 B.C. By that time, humans had moved from their origin in Africa to all continents.

The societies that were prevalent at that time were those of hunter-gatherers, using stone- and bonetools to hunt wild animals and gathering wild plants. Since the share of edible plants and animals in the wild is usually rather low, this way of alimentation implies that all able members of a group of hunter-gatherers had to engage in hunting and gathering, so none of them had the time to think of inventing anything leading to the proximate factors alluded to in the introduction.

As Diamond points out, relying on wild habitats does not yield enough calories per acre of land to sustain any denser population. This explains why hunter-gatherers were typically organized in small bands and tribes. Not being able to move beyond the level of bands and tribes also explains the fact that hunter-gatherer societies tended to be egalitarian and to regularly lack any kind of political organization.

Another aspect of this lifestyle is the fact that hunter-gatherers had to change sites when the surrounding habitat was no longer nutritious. This non-sedentary life impedes for instance any possessions other than those that can be carried around, as well as it results in rare child-bearing, because the offspring had to be carried until it was capable of walking.

To sum up the above mentioned aspects, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle made it impossible to develop towards the proximate factors.

2.2 The proximate factors of differing development

2.2.1 The role of food production

As Diamond explains, the crucial element that allowed the move beyond the huntergatherer lifestyle was the domestication of wild plants and animals. In the following, the chain of causation that Diamond gives, leading from food production to proximate factors such as guns, germs and steel, will be set out.

Diamond explains that food production with domesticated plants and animals yields far more calories per acre than do wild habitats with most species being inedible to humans. As a result of those food surpluses, population densities of societies relying on food production are typically ten to a hundred times greater than those of societies relying on hunting and gathering.

The sedentary lifestyle allowed for more frequent child-bearing, food storage and the accumulation of possessions. But most important is the fact, that food production allowed for the support of people who did not produce their own food. That way craftspeople supported by farmers and herders could devote themselves to developing the technology that led to such things as writing, guns and ocean-going ships.

With the food surpluses permitting the development of large, dense, sedentary, stratified and politically centralized societies, governing elites were able to organize and support for instance the conquest of other continents.

Diamond concludes that these aspects alone prove that societies of hunter-gatherers regularly did not have the slightest chance against societies relying on food production.

2.2.2 The dual capacity of domesticated animals

As Diamond explicates further, domesticated animals not only provided nutrition and workforce, but in combination with large and dense societies domesticated animals also led to another proximate advantage for food producers conquering huntergatherers, namely epidemic diseases.

For example, infectious diseases like smallpox and measles introduced by the Spanish Conquistadores to America killed an estimated 95% of the Indian population. It was neither immune to them, nor hosted equivalent diseases..

Diamond explains that most of the familiar epidemic diseases can sustain themselves only in large and dense populations relying on food production. Furthermore, he pinpoints that most human epidemic diseases evolved from similar epidemic diseases of domesticated animals with which humans came into close contact. Studies by molecular biologists show for instance, that measles evolved from the cattle-plague and influenza from a disease of pigs and ducks.

2.3 The ultimate factors of differing developments

After illustrating how the domestication of wild plants and animals and the produced food surpluses allowed for the move from hunter-gatherers to large, dense, sedentary, stratified societes capable of reaching the proximate factors allowing them to conquer other continents, Diamond moves on to ask why the point of time and the extent of the step from hunting and gathering to food production differed such greatly between the continents.

By around A.D. 1500, the time of the beginning of Europe’s overseas expansion, peoples of the different continents differed greatly in technology and political organization. Most parts of Eurasia and North Africa were for instance occupied by large states relying on food production which possessed many, if not all, of the proximate factors. The Incas and Aztecs in turn stepped to food production to a certain degree, but didn’t invent metallurgy by that time and ruled over their states with simple stone tools. And the Aborigines of Australia were still living as huntergatherers with stone tools when they were conquered and nearly exterminated by the English.

For Diamond, differences in the availability of suitable wild species of plants and animals, as well as the shape of the continents, are the ultimate explanation for these drastically differing developments.

First he points out, that the availability of suitable wild species of plants affects both time and extent of the move to food production with the consequences mentioned above.

As will be shown under bullet 3, only a fraction of edible wild plants are adequate for domestication. Furthermore, the allocation of adequate wild plants was quite unequal around the globe.

Second, he demonstrates that the availability of wild animals suitable for domestication was even more unequal around the globe. He reasons that animal domestication requires that a wild animal fulfils many prerequisites. Diamond enumerates for instance that the animal has to feed on a diet that humans can supply, the willingness to breed in captivity and the lack of a tendency to panic when fenced in, as well as a social structure involving submissive behaviour towards dominant animals and humans. These prerequisites make the number of potential candidates for domestication rather low.

Concerning the shape of the continents, Diamond points out that continents with the main axis being east/west allow the easy spread of domesticated species of plants and animals from the point of their first domestication to a large area lying at the same latitude and for this reason providing similar conditions. This can supply parts of continents that lack suitable candidates with the basis to adopt food production. Another aspect of the shape of continents he mentions, is the flow of inventions from one society to another by diffusion which is easier without major barriers like deserts or rainforests between the societies occupying the continents.


1Diamond, Jared (1999), p. 14

2Diamond, Jared (1999), p. 25

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Critical Summary of Guns, Germs, and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
University of Hamburg  (Centre for Sea and Climate Research)
Seminar Contemporary Environmental Problems
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
396 KB
Critical, Summary, Guns, Germs, Steel, Fates, Human, Societies, Jared, Diamond, Seminar, Contemporary, Environmental, Problems
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Dennis Bergot (Author), 2004, Critical Summary of Guns, Germs, and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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