Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society


I found out about this book from one of my older brothers. I think I was still in my early teen when he told me about this book and it was a couple of years after when I found a copy for myself. But I remember the moment I picked it up I was hooked.

The book cover features an artist’s depiction of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520) in 1519, where a handful of Spanish conquistadors and a small number of allies in one fell swoop massacred an Aztec decimated thousands of warriors and captured their leader. It was the start of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and the beginning of the end of the Aztec civilization. The book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World which I have a review of also recounts this historical incident.

What advantages did European civilizations have that gave  Hernán Cortés and this men such advantage that with a small number of adventurers topple and some allies the greatest empire in the Americas at the time. Did the Europeans have a natural physical and mental superiority that gave them natural advantages over the Aztecs? Why is it in the last century Europeans and those of descended from them had such great hegemony over technology, wealth and power? Why was it that throughout almost the entire history of civilization, Eurasian people led the world?

In the start of the book’s prologue, he recounts talking to a politician from Papua New Guinea who asks him why Europeans were so ahead of other civilizations, like the civilizations that rose of Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It does get you thinking. Were they any less smarter, or less industrious?

In his fascinating book, Jared Diamond argues that it was not by any innate superiority in intelligence or physical prowess that made Eurasia progress far ahead, but it was from advantages in geography that accumulated and compounded since the start of civilazation. I put the advantages Eurasian civilization had into three main broad categories that make up the title of his book.

Guns: Warfare was a constant in the Europe because geography weas conducive to allow cities and kingdoms to grow around each other and compete. Military advancements were important with many possibly belligerent immediate neighbors. Because competition was fierce, those who were practical in their methods quickly succeeded and conquered those who were not.

Germs: Though a lot of emphasis is placed on military conflict and the guns and swords of conquerors that put indigenous people to death, germs played a major role if not a bigger role in conquest.

Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)
Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)

First are the “bad” germs that hard people – Small Pox, Flu, Colds and other viruses and microscopic killers. Because European society had for much longer lived in densely-populated cities and were able to host to many infectious disease. Over time, their populations grew resistance to these diseases. Diseases were much easier to pass from one person to another in cities in places with a high-population density, and survivors of these disease or those more resistant to them were able to produce more offspring. In short, diseases which were simple colds to Europeans, were deadly killers to the American Indians. Virulence is another topic I like reading about by the way.

While it is impossible to give an accurate gauge on how many native North and South American natives were killed by disease during the Spanish colonisation, it is sure that a great majority of them died. A figure as high as 95% is attributed to disease, and possibly this may not be far from the truth. The Spaniards fought not only with their sharp steel lances and swords but the deadly viruses that were exhaled with their every breath, massacring whole populations even before they got to them.

I was quite reminded by the movie War of the Worlds wherein the initially successful invasion of aliens exterminating man failed because they could not cope with the viruses that man already had resistance to.

Also, there are the “good” germs or organisms which allow civilizations to progress, or the plants and animals which we domesticate. Here I learned about the “Anna Karenina principle” (after the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s book). There are a number qualities needed to make a good marriage, and just a lack of one of them will cause the marriage to fail. This principle states that there are a number of qualities that make an animal domesticable, but it just the lack of one will cause it to fail. A domesticable animal has to be sufficiently docile, can live in packs, does not bolt when startled, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and have a social dominance hierarchy – few animal have all these characteristics.

The five top animals for example – the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig are all of Eurasian origin. While there were lots of similar mammal in other continents, animal like zebras, kangaroos and bison, they were not domesticable.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow, and easier to store than American maize or tropical fruit.

Also, because of the East to West axis of the Eurasian continent, and it’s position in the right zone where agriculture does well, crops which were useful were quickly spread and exchanged between different societies, making food much more abundant.

Steel: Steel here represents technological advances. Due to surpluses of food that allowed people in Eurasia to live in cities and have more technical specialists, they were able to technologically advance much faster. Steel of course in itself is a great technological advantage that allowed modern weaponry, construction and other advances. One particular advantage discussed was the technology for fast, long distance transport which paved the way for Imperialism.

There are lots of other excellent review of the book here on Amazon. I feel I have not done this book justice just with my review. As of my last check, July 2016, the book is still number 1 in Geography. For a book written in 1997, it means not only was it groundbreaking, but masterfully written.

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Other books by Jared Diamond:

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)