For Diamond, history reveals a story of inequalities among the development of the modern world and therefore demands an explanation. He asks the important question, “[W]hy did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?” [i] He goes on, “In 11,000 BC, all societies everywhere were bands of preliterate hunter-gatherers with stone tools. By 1492 AD, that was still true in all of Australia, much of the Americas, and some of sub-Saharan Africa, but populous Eurasian societies already had state governments, writing, iron technology, and standing armies. Obviously, that is why Eurasians (especially Europeans) conquered peoples of other continents. Why did history unfold that way? Why didn’t Africans instead conquer Eurasia, bringing Native Americans as slaves?” [ii]
For him it is a moral gap, one that he attempts to explain through long-term environmental causes. He argues that, as homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated to colonise first Asia, then Europe, then Australia, and finally the Americas, so a technical progression from hunting to settled agriculture, and a societal progression from warring bands to complex sedentary civilisations took place largely determined by the environmental conditions in which different peoples found themselves.
However, as a theologian, I cannot accept that environmental factors alone are responsible for the stark differences in human development among the nations and continents. How can one explain the gap in the histories of nations and continents through purely physical phenomena? How is it possible to disregard the other dimensions of human life that surely influence progression such as religion or moral laws?
Diamond is correct where he believes one cannot put these differences down to intellectual capability alone: “Sound evidence for the existence of human differences in intelligence that parallel human differences in technology is lacking.” [iii] However, he goes on, “In the absence of convincing explanations, many (most?) people resort, consciously or unconsciously, to racist assumptions: the conquerors supposedly had superior IQ or culture. That prevalence of racist theories, as loathsome as they are unsupported, is the strongest reason for studying the long-term factors behind human history.” For Diamond, to suggest that a people group had a superior intelligence and therefore a superior culture is incongruous. However, does that mean societies and cultures were not more capable of exercising their intellectual capabilities more than others? After all, any classroom teacher will tell you that one student is as equally capable as another, but not all equally motivated or determined. Is it really wise to dismiss what could be a significant possibility that certain cultures experienced change because of reasons beyond environmental factors? As William McNeill puts it, “Brushing aside the autonomous capability of human culture to alter environments profoundly—and also irreversibly—is simply absurd.” [iv]
I cannot help but agree with McNeill. Surely humans, as equally intelligent as Diamond believes we are, are capable of proactively altering our environments if they really wanted to? If anything, Diamond gives less credence to human capability in insisting that environmental factors alone are the cause for the differences in human development. Although, as Diamond rightly states, there is a lack of evidence for differences in intelligence among cultures, why does he not take other intelligences into consideration, such as Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) or Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as capable of altering and improving a culture or society? Is intelligence merely a question of one’s ability to learn how to switch from using a rough and ready iron blade to a modern, electric saw? According to Stephen Covey, “Spiritual intelligence is the central and most fundamental of all the intelligences, because it becomes the source of guidance for the others.” [v]
Although Diamond attempts to explain the moral gap among different continents due to environmental factors alone, I find his argument lacking. I would have liked to have seen an objective reflection of the role of Judeo-Christian religion upon Eurasian cultures, something which even the Chinese are considering in our modern times. Moreover, to broadly refer to societies more complex than egalitarian tribes as ‘kleptocracies’ (those who use the control of literacy and organised religion to create legitimacy for self-serving elites that extract tribute to provide inefficient public services), [vi] cannot be entirely supported historically either. A better book could be, Guns, Germs, Steel and Scripture.
[i] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody For The Last 13,000 Years (London, UK: Vantage, 2005), 16
[iii] Diamond, 19
[iv] Diamond, The New York Review of Books, ibid.,
[v] Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (Simon and Schuster, 2004) 53
[vi] Diamond, 276f