A review of the important book of world history: “Guns, Germs And Steel” by Jared Diamond

Diamond is professor of geography at the University of California Los Angeles and he is a noted polymath who won a Pulitzer Prize for this outstanding work first published in 1997. I read a 20th anniversary edition with a new afterword and by then the book was an established classic.

It is a hugely ambitious work as indicated by the sub-title: “A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”. It attempts to answer a fundamental question of world history: “Why did history unfold differently on different continents?” Or, to put the question in more provocative terms: why did ‘civilisation’ start in Europe and how did Europeans manage to colonise the rest of the world?

Over 500 pages later, the answer to this question can be summarised as follows: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves”. Diamond rejects utterly any notions of racial superiority.

Diamond argues that nomad hunter-gathers settled down to grow crops and rear animals first in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the so-called Fertile Crescent because the temperate climate provided a greater number of crops (such as wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea and flax) and mammals (notably the goat, sheep, pig, cow and horse)) that could be domesticated compared to any other part of the world.

From then onwards, the key determinant was latitude. It was much easier for the relevant techniques and tools to spread east-west across the massive land mass of Eurasia, where the climate was similar and geographical obstacles surmountable, than it was for this process to occur north-south in the Americas, Africa and Australia.

When Europeans of seven states sailed to the Americas, guns and horses gave them an enormous advantage, but the real killer was the infectious diseases that had evolved from animals in Eurasia to which the indigenous Americans had no resistance: smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles and cholera. As Diamond reminds us, these diseases killed an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population.

This thesis of the centrality of axis orientation has been called – but not by Jared himself – the “lucky latitudes”. In this trans-disciplinary book, Diamond makes his compelling case by quoting voluminous evidence from the fields of geography, history, archaeology, language and other fields.

He applies all this evidence to a succession of studies of different parts of the world, always drawing the same conclusion: “the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments”.

“Guns, Germs And Steel” is quite a heavy read with masses of detail and some repetition, but it is a formidable work which has advanced our understanding of both world history and current geopolitics.


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