Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – for which Diamond won the Pulitzer prize in 1998 – is a book that literally takes into broad-ranging account the development of the whole world. Diamond is most concerned with initial societal development as relates to environmental factors and subsequent intersocietal repercussions based on such early development. Diamond is less concerned with nuanced variations of internal society development once general trends have been established. That is, this book is much more about macro rather than micro developmental shifts.
Overall, the particular genius of this text at the time that it came out in 1997 [2003 update] – and remains relevant today – was that it catalyzed conversation firmly around environmental factors rather than race-based conjecture as to why some peoples groups have fared (and even continue to fare) much better than others in world affairs. The argument is essentially showcasing the same falsity as is held with the idea of a “’free’-market” system. First of all, the market is not free – some receive subsidies and other benefits that are not offered universally, etc. Second, not all people begin at an equal starting point – some enjoy extraordinary privileges that others do not receive and thus, some have the deck stacked-against them from the outset. Diamond showcases this same pattern related to historical development. Some societies, through no fault of their own, have had the deck stacked-against them from the outset. Diamond is not the first to turn conversation in this direction, but his expertise arising through personal involvement and extensive research coupled with an inviting personality energized a lot of conversation around a topic otherwise often left to small parties of interested academics and practitioners.
Overall, Diamond notes that four primary factors (with correlating subsequent benefits) shaped how societies have historically been able to or not able to develop. Availability of potential crops and domestic animals allowed societies to move from being hunter-gatherer societies into less nomadic, more stable farming communities. This stability allowed for the rise of specialized classes of people who were able to create better tools, better organize society, etc. As well, proximity to domesticated animals increased production capability, access to varied food sources, and importantly, also increased disease tolerance through exposure. Another primary factor that aided societal development was the orientation of the continental [East-West] axis to facilitate the spread of agriculture. This situation allowed societies to better be able to learn from one another and expand upon their successes. A third factor related to expanding upon success was the ability to transfer knowledge between continents. Some societies had more access earlier to this process than others through geographic proximity, similarity of climate, and/or ideological openness to such a process. Of course, dynamic increase in knowledge allowed for huge leaps in power ahead of societies not so engaged. Finally, population size is a fourth primary factor Diamond notes. The larger the size of a population combined with the above primary factors allowed for greater rapidity of taking advantage of specialization/technological advancements – of course, as memorably offered as example in this text – guns, germs and steel. Combined together, what all of this led to was the bestowing of vast advantage upon some societies over-against other societies, thus leading to the history of the world as we know it today.
Diamond, recognizes that there is a sense of “environmental/geographic determinism” in what he proffers and does not shy away from stating this, but he also wants to be clear that he is not discounting volitional social activity. He only makes the case that volitional activity is constrained by the larger, encompassing aspects of environment. That is, no matter how ingenious and hard-working a population of people, if there are not some necessary environmental factors in place, they will reach a plateau of development beyond which it becomes significantly difficulty for them to progress without an influx of new material and/or outside ideas and collaboration. This understanding is the thrust of the entirety of the book. In fact, it is how the book begins and ends, with Jared listening to and thinking about a question put to him by his friend Yali from New Guinea. Yali queries, “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?”
I would end my reflection on Diamond’s text, by noting one more aspect from Diamond and extrapolating a bit on it. Diamond in initial response about why he is taking the time to write about Yali’s question delineates that the reason certainly is not to promote the goodness of one society over-against another society. Diamond writes, “My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed. For example, compared with hunter-gatherers, citizens of modern industrialized states enjoy better medical care, lower risk of death by homicide, and a longer life span, but receive much less social support from friendships and extended families. My motive for investigating these geographic differences is not to celebrate one type of society over another…”
I find Diamond’s divulgence to be a wonderful reminder toward maintaining a stance of respectful humility as we engage in interactions from the interpersonal to the intersocietal level. How we got to wherever we are has a lot to do with factors far beyond the our own personal decisions and or the personal decisions of our interlocutor. As well, therefore, our own personal decisions have arisen with constrained environmental contexts as have our companions and thus we should temper both our negativity and our positivity about each other’s positions. We each ought to be aware that given new possibilities we each could be amenable to helpful change. While Diamond does not want to promote one society over another without recognizing that all societies have relative strengths and weaknesses, I also find that Diamond wants to utilize such knowledge as we might gain about what aids societal good to promote the flourishing of all rather than the harm of some for the sake of the aggrandizement of others. I fully concur.