“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond

Book review by Jay Pearlman

Jared Diamond starts his book with a question from an acquaintance in New Guinea: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people have little cargo of our own.” Whether the cargo is wealth, power, good medicines or a long life, Diamond sets out to answer this question in a logical and analytical process and 440 pages later comes to some interesting and very thoughtful conclusions. His main thesis is that societies developed differently on different continents because of variations in the environment and not because of differences in human capabilities. Looking over 13000 years, “advances” in society have come through competition and the availability of seeds for civilization. When there were sufficient food surpluses, labor was freed for innovation, for organization and to support greater population densities and the need for written languages. But domesticable wild plants and animal species essential for the rise of agriculture were distributed unevenly over the continents. Thus centers of development varied over the world with advances in Mesopotamia, China and later Europe and North Africa.

By now, you are thinking this sounds like a classroom lecture series. The author then manages to slip in little factoids that strike the reader. He states (with some backup) that the Chinese were exploring South America before the Spanish knew of its existence. Another is that the Spanish overcame South America not by their armies of hundreds, but by the germs they brought with them (and to which they had developed immunity).

The basis of the book is that agriculture and domesticated animals (for power and transportation) created opportunities for denser civilizations. These, in turn, caused competition between societies (guns), the growth of and immunities to disease (germs) and creation of tools for manufacture and innovation (steel). The migration of these capabilities was uneven. It was easier for agriculture to move east-west through similar climates than north-south across temperate and tropical zones. Thus continents with an east-west orientation such as Asia developed more rapidly that those such as Africa or the Americas with a north-south axis. It was easier for societies to remain in competition and continue to advance if geographic barriers (as in Europe) suppress easy unification.

As a comment in the Afterword, the author begins to extend the discussion to corporations and their cultures. Here comments get sketchy, but it is not for the reader to forbid the author from creating an opportunity for a follow-on volume. This is a book worth reading. If it gets slow in the middle, jump a hundred pages, but don’t miss a full ride to the end