Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: Guns, Germs, and Steel

To me, Guns, Germs and Steel is one of those books that has revolutionised our thinking about the modern world. It is in the same realm of The Selfish Gene and Sapiens, in having helped disseminate ideas with far reaching consequences among the masses. Despite the fact that Guns, Germs and Steel was first published in 1997, the majority of it still holds true to the present day. So what is this revolutionary book all about? Jared Diamond explains why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered many others throughout history. He does this while dismantling the idea that Europeans had any form of superiority in terms of intellect. Diamond provides evidence to demonstrate that the gaps seen in power and technology between differing human societies, originates due to environmental differences instead. So why is it that Eurasian societies have been the ones that have tended to invade and colonise others? They were the ones that first abandoned the previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle, developed agriculture and formal political structures based around their growing populations. Due to the geography of Eurasia, being mainly East-West in profile, it meant that animals and plants that were domesticated, could easily spread along the same latitude, where geographic barriers such as mountains and deserts were not obstructing the flow of such technology.

This may all sound pretty far-fetched, but Diamond works hard to keep the reader informed with data and examples which back up his claims. Of the fourteen species of large domesticated mammals (including cattle and sheep), thirteen were confined to Eurasia. North America and Africa lacked suitable candidate species for domestication, which meant that it was much harder for their societies to give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. When a society domesticated an animal, such as a cow or a donkey, they were used for food as much as they were for transporting goods (creating trade networks), and for ploughing the land, to increase the amount of food that could be grown. Technological advancements tended to take place in societies with a larger population (fed by ever complex cultivation methods discovered by trial and error), including writing, metallurgy and warfare. One of the unintended consequences of having so many domesticated animals around, was exposure to those peoples by their pathogens, such as measles and smallpox, which when spread to naïve populations in the New World, killed more people than guns and swords combined.

I wish I had read Guns, Germs and Steel a lot sooner, it is a very densely packed book and extremely difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs. However, if you’re a big fan of Sapiens, then in my mind, this book is a complementary read for the time period after that, discussed by Yuval Noah Harari. Guns, Germs and Steel is also able to combat any racist notions about the superiority of Europeans over the rest of the world. It is just coincidental that we managed to form large structured societies first, although if we’d left the other societies around the world alone for long enough, it is likely that they would have reached those same stages of development. We’re also fortunate in that as well as a large number of domesticated mammal species, Eurasia has by far the greatest diversity and number of candidate species of grasses for domestication. Diamond reiterates throughout that the geography of Eurasia is what helped it rise to prominence, using archaeological evidence, linguistics, biogeography and other such multidisciplinary approaches. With this in mind, I’d highly recommend Guns, Germs and Steel to anyone with an interest in history or anthropology.

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