Why you should read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”

By Jongyeop Jeong, 12th Grade

During vacation, I read the renowned science book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by the famous American author Jared Diamond. To give you a general idea, it’s a history book that tries to unravel the reason behind the triumph of Europeans in colonizing different continents in the past centuries. The book starts by clarifying the motivation that made Diamond write this book: during a journey on the island of Papua New Guinea, a local named Yali asked him why history leaned toward a way in which the Europeans colonized them instead of them colonizing Europe. Many people mistakenly proceed to think in a racist manner, believing that it’s because of the incontrovertible difference in intelligence between white and black individuals. However, such claims are absurd, as there is no such thing as an advantage in intelligence that results from race. Then why did Europeans have what the indigenous people lacked in the 15th century? Because it is indeed undeniable that the Americans were utterly obliterated and stood no chance against European forces.

We, homo sapiens, all originate from a single continent: Africa. From there on, people established themselves in different parts of the world. At some point in history, all humans were hunter-gatherers, nomads hunting for food, and vagabonds in the wild. The author gives a big emphasis on the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. According to him, this transition wasn’t a result of forecasting the benefits of farming; rather, the benefits of it made us adopt this new way of life. Such benefits of a sedentary lifestyle include: it allows people to consider future problems, not just daily ones; it leads to a denser population because of increased food production; it enables specialization of jobs because farmers produce food for the community; and immunity to germs due to extended exposure to deadly diseases brought by domestic animals. (There were also disadvantages, but I believe the advantages outweigh them). Indeed, this transition wasn’t absolute, and some stayed as nomads.

One of the first traces of independent human food production began in Eurasia, in Fertile Crescent. As its name implies, the land was fertile and suited for efficient food production. The author here brings up an interesting point of why this transition occurred more efficiently in Eurasia than in America (and Australia). He uses latitude as his evidence. Geographically speaking, the former continent is horizontally longer than the latter, which is vertically longer. Having a roughly constant latitude means that the climate, including the level of precipitation, humidity, and temperature, is pretty similar. So, when nomads from Eurasia first discovered how to farm, the crops, and animals they domesticated were easily spread throughout the continent, from west to east. People over there didn’t even try growing many crops because if one effectively satisfied people’s nutrition, planting diverse types was no longer necessary when a single crop could grow in most other places. This is why farming in Eurasia was mainly monoculture.

Similarly, its domesticated animals were effectively spread over the continent. The variety of “domesticable” animals available inside the continent made herding customary and provided people with adequate protein. However, the most crucial part of living with these animals was the exposure to germs, which helped them become immune to those diseases. The deadliest human diseases are transmitted by animals that live near us. These are termed Zoonotic diseases, and some prime examples of such diseases that developed in Eurasia include smallpox, flu, malaria, and measles. Deadly diseases can’t originate from a sparse population. Think about it, if there were only a few people in a community, then the disease would exterminate the population in no time, and it won’t be able to further pass its genes to the next generation (in a way, it’s suicidal). That is true for most lethal parasitic germs. When deadly germs arrive, the lack of immunity leads to many deaths, and only the ones who’ve survived remain. By natural selection, the population gets replaced by only those who resist the virus, making them immune to the germ they created. This leads to the conclusion that the condition for developing deadly germs is a dense population closely living with domesticated animals. Eurasia’s geographical and social conditions met these conditions, building an empire of fatal diseases as if it predicted the advantage it would give them in future colonization.

In contrast, America wasn’t able to experience rapid growth. As mentioned, the long north and south axes gave the continent a much more varied climate depending on the latitude the hunter-gatherers were in. A single plant or animal didn’t effectively grow throughout the continent: each region grew different species that suited the place’s weather. For example, if a grain effectively grew in Central America, then using the same farming methods didn’t bring the same result in planting it in North America. In a sense, it forced the farmers to promote biodiversity. Different species of crops were present in various regions, which allowed them to boost ecosystem productivity but prevented them from having a dense population.

Another factor that America lacked was the number of available “domesticable” animals. During the late Pleistocene extinction, most giant mammal species endemic to North and South America were exterminated by early humans that over-hunted them. This is a direct quote from the book inspired by Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way” (The original one, just in case: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”). It means that there are conditions that classify an animal as domesticable, but if it doesn’t satisfy them, whatever the reason, it disqualifies them.

I want to point out that many potential domesticable animals were confined in Eurasia but not America. The latter just fundamentally lacked the candidates of domesticable animals. Americans didn’t domesticate animals not because they were lazy; they couldn’t. This is confirmed by the evidence that when European domesticate animals like horses arrived in America, they were successfully domesticated by the indigenous people to counterattack the invaders.

The absence of a dense population and domesticate animals discouraged the formation of deadly germs in America. The diseases that they held, like syphilis, weren’t as fatal compared to those brought by Europe.

You might ask, “but the population in America wasn’t necessarily sparse. Like when Pizarro came to conquer the Inca Empire, he was against millions of natives.” You’re absolutely correct. During the Spanish colonization, the indigenous population flourished with a population that could be classified as “dense enough.” However, the problem is that the population was just beginning to get large when Europe had already gone through that stage. So then, if given enough time, would’ve America developed worse diseases than Europe’s to kick out the Spaniards successfully? I won’t entirely discard that possibility, but I believe the chance is trivial enough for me to say no. Europe was already too developed to be caught up by the Americans, and I firmly believe that development is self-catalyzing: development leads to further developments. If there had been enough time for Americans to develop the fatal diseases, I speculate that Europeans would’ve gotten even better tactics to annihilate the natives. Again, not because they are more intelligent, but because of their better land suited for human advancement. I’ve only used population size and germs, which are indeed one of the most critical factors, as evidence, but there are other factors like language, technology, organized religion, and government that determined the fate of the continents that Diamond meticulously explains within the book. What I loved about the book was this profound explanation of the characteristic of each continent, which serves as a buildup for the last part of the book, where he combines them all to state, “and this is the why behind the large-scale population shift in America in the past few centuries.” Other exciting parts of the book include the explanation behind why Africans came to be black when there were 5 different types of “races” in Africa before Europeans started to trade the stereotypic enslaved Black Africans; why China is such a sizeable homogenous continent; European invasion of Australia, and the reason to some of their failures; how populations of East Asia and Pacific islands originate from Austronesians from South China that traveled to Taiwan through unique canoes. This book teaches history with great scrutiny. It serves as the perfect epitome of how the past shapes the present world.


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