Who would have thought that a walk on the beach, studying birds, would lead to a question that would penetrate the heart of a great mystery of human history. It is obvious that Jared Diamond was not expecting to encounter such a question as he walked along a beach on the tropical island of New Guinea. Yet it was there, in 1972, where he encountered such a question as he engaged in conversation with Yali, a local politician from New Guinea. Yali asked a simple question yet one that was difficult to answer. For his question was one that went straight to the roots of global inequality, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo… but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Although Yali’s question was asking about the contrasting lifestyles of New Guineans and of European whites, Diamond acknowledges that it can be extended to a larger set of contrasts within the modern world. It was Yali’s question that motivated Diamond to write this book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and ask, “Why did human development unfold differently on different continents?”
Yali’s questions can appear to be one of race. But Diamond strongly argues that the question is not about the biological differences among people but the difference in geography. Diamond summarizes his book in one sentence, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”
So how does one begin to understand this difference? Why did some societies advance faster than other societies? What separates the haves from the have-nots? These questions challenged Diamond who dedicated himself to find the answers to this human history mystery.
The collision in Cajamarca is a shocking example of how a people with better guns, germs, and steel can overtake another culture even when the culture being overtaken is greater in number. The Spanish conquest of the Incas of Peru marks the moment of greatest collision of modern history. Why was the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, with a force numbering in the hundreds, in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of local inhabitants, and far beyond the reach of reinforcements able to capture and kill the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who was in the middle of his own empire of millions of subjects and surrounded by 80,000 soldiers? Diamond states that Pizarro’s capture of Atahuallpa illustrates the set of proximate factors that resulted in European’s colonizing the New World instead of Native Americans’ colonizing Europe. Pizarro’s success included military technology based on guns, steel weapons and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia (smallpox); European maritime technology and writing.
Several years ago I saw a movie called, “Gone, Baby, Gone.” There was a quote in that movie that I have never forgotten, “I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through.” Reading Guns, Germs and Steel, reminds me of those “who started in the cracks.” Often it is the hand that people have been dealt that is critical for their success or even their survival. According to Jared Diamond the advantage of one culture or society over another is based on geography and not race or intelligence as others have claimed. In part I agree with Diamond, the environment in which you are born can often dictate if you will succeed or fail. Yet, I have seen people born in great environments, but because of the color of their skin or the language they speak, are often forced to continue to be “hunters and gatherers.” When people are forced to be “hunters and gatherers” because of the geography in which they live, their race, or language they speak they will always be at a disadvantage. I am aware that there is still a big gap to overcome. Yet, as followers of Christ we have the capacity to empower people to create and focus on goals beyond those of pure survival and on purposes that will help them succeed. I long for the day when we can all live in fertile areas.