On Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel
Guns Germs and Steel was first published in 1997 and received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction the following year. Reading this book has been an incredible experience. Each time I put the book down for the day I had to gasp for air because I had been totally immersed, rather like deep sea diving and looking at the world in a new dimension.
The depth and breadth of the knowledge that Diamond has passed on is vast, and the questions that he has raised remain a challenge. One does not have to agree with his opinions but the book serves to activate the mind in a hitherto unknown manner.
Jared Diamond is one of the US's most celebrated scholars. A Professor of Geography and Physiology at the University of California, he is equally renowned for his work in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology and for his ground breaking studies of the birds of Papua New Guinea. Other than the Pulitzer, his prizes and honours include the U.S National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Science, and election to the U.S National Academy of Sciences etc. As a biological explorer his most publicized finding was the rediscovery, on the New Guinea highlands, of the Golden Fronted Bower Bird which had not been seen for almost a century.
Guns, Germs and Steel starts around 11000 BC and is divided into four parts, within which, each chapter covers different issues. To summarize the book, if at all possible, the author states that he was inspired by a question from Yali a local politician in New Guinea who asked him, "Why is that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea when we black people had little cargo of our own?"
Throughout the book, Diamond seeks an answer to that query but not from a racist point of view. He is an American and his constitutional belief that 'all men are created equal' forms the premise of his research.
Using the equality of man as his cornerstone, he examines in great detail the growth of certain ancient human settlements in the world and the reason why some of them achieved the basics of food production earlier than others. Food production and food surplus being the basic requirement for humans to move upwards into the next stage of development. Diamond, however, does not make any references to the Indus Valley civilization, and when writing about linguistic development, fails to mention the Indo Aryan group of languages. His emphasis in on the parts of the world that he is familiar with, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and Europe and Africa with most of his focus on the America's and Australia/ New Guinea.
Diamond compares world history to an onion, "One has to keep taking off the layers. History is not just one damned fact after another. There really are broad patterns to history and the search for their explanation is as productive as it is fascinating."
Diamond commences by giving an analysis of the world prior to 11000 BC. He proceeds to write about the effect of geography on shaping societies on Polynesian Islands, with human movement from the mainland to Islands, across the seas, in ancient times being his prime focus. Continuing with migration, he covers the defeat of the Inca Emperor by the Spanish. The result of the victory, was the subsequent colonization of the New World by Europeans, the resultant disappearance of most groups of Native Americans and the biggest population shift of modern times.
The second section talks about the rise of food production and how farmer power forms the root of Guns, Germs and Steel. He puts forward his theory that geographic differences provided the greatest advantage in the onset of food production and the major reason why people from certain areas flourished over others. His views are especially important in the context of geographic changes that are likely to be caused by climate change.
Diamond goes from food to guns germs and steel in the third section in which he covers the evolution of germs, writing, technology, government and organized religion.
His views on the evolution of germs and the connection to domesticated animals is of particular importance in the present pandemic as he states that given human proximity to the animals that are kept as pets and those that have been domesticated, the human body is getting constantly bombarded by their microbes. He cites four stages in the evolution of a specialized human disease from an animal precursor with the first being the diseases directly transmitted to us from our pets and domestic animals. Examples of such diseases are cat scratch fever from our cats and leptospirosis from dogs. Human beings are similarly liable to pick up diseases from wild animals such as the tularemia from skinning wild rabbits.
In the second stage, a former animal pathogen evolves to the point where it does get transmitted directly and causes epidemics. However, the epidemic dies out for any of several reasons, such as being cured by modern medicine, or being stopped when everybody around has already been infected and either becomes immune or dies. He gives the example of Onyong-nyong fever which appeared in East Africa in 1959 and proceeded to infect several million Africans. The fact that the patients recovered quickly and became immune to further attack helped the new disease to die out quickly.
Interestingly, Diamond refrains from mentioning Spanish flu although it killed millions all over the world. The final stage of this evolution of germs is represented by the major long established epidemic diseases which remain confined to humans.
He emphasizes the importance of lethal microbes in human history and uses the European conquest and depopulation of the America's as an example. "Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords." Small pox, measles influenza and typhus competed for the top rank among the killers. The Aborigines of Australia and the Maori population of New Zealand faced similar extinction.
The book ends with a whirlwind tour of the histories of Australia and New Guinea, East Asia, Austronesian expansion, a historical comparison of Eurasia and the Americas, and Africa.
A singularly fascinating in Guns Germs and Steel is the detailed description of the defeat of the Inca Emperor on the 16th of November 1532 on his home turf in Peru, by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro with only 168 Spanish soldiers. Diamond traces the chain of causation in this confrontation and the role played by guns, germs and steel.
Pizarro's military advantage lay in the Spaniards steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns and horses. In comparison, Atahualpa's troops were foot soldiers and had only stone, bronze or wooden clubs, hand axes, plus slingshots and quilted armors.
The Inca Empire was divided because of a battle between Atahualpa and his half-brother. The reason for this civil war was that an epidemic of small pox had spread among native South American Indians, after the germ arrived with Spanish Settlers in Panama and Colombia. The disease had killed the Inca Emperor Capac, his designated heir and most of the court officials. These deaths led to a contest for the throne between Atahualpa and his half-brother with the latter gaining ascendancy of the throne but not having the necessary training for the position.
Diamond concludes by making a passionate plea for history to be treated as a science in much the same way as Political Science and Economics and recommends a Nobel Prize be established for history.
At times, Diamond meanders, in other instances he places too much information for the reader to digest but it is an incredible journey that he takes us on. The book is as meaningful as it was when first published and perhaps in the context of the present human versus virus encounter even more so.
Shireen S. Mainuddin is a former banker and a member of The Reading Circle.