Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is a Aventis and Pulitzer prize winning book that tackles the issue of why some civilizations thrive, flourish and expand while others do not. Why did some civilizations develop sophisticated tools while others did not? Why were early European explorers so readily able to dominate indigenous peoples on other continents? Diamond argues that in many ways, successful civilizations were geographically lucky. He focuses on two main factors that influenced the development of human civilizations: the type and abundance of local flora and fauna, and the relative landmass size and geographic orientation.
The Eurasian continent was home to a large range of plants and animals to domesticate. Diamond argues that it was the availability of ready supplies of grains such as barley and wheat, textiles such as flax, and domesticated animals such as oxen and horses that lead early Eurasian peoples to be able to develop so rapidly. In comparison, non-Eurasian civilizations struggled with less nutritious and more difficult crops such as maize, and had no access to animals able to be domesticated. Additionally, the large size of the Eurasian continent let people expand, travel and trade in ways not possible on much smaller continents such as Australia or South America. Diamond also mentions the role of landmass orientation – continents that are more spread out east-west can support similar domestic life, whereas a north-south spread creates disparities in climate that prevent it.
Diamond’s analysis is fascinating and thorough, although his background as an evolutionary biologist clearly influenced what factors he found important in human history. He skims over or does not mention numerous other facets, most importantly cultural interactions and the roles of imperialism, post-colonialism, capitalism, rationalism, and many others. It also feels somewhat deterministic – as if according to Diamond, Eurasian dominance was inevitable. He does address these concerns to some extent but not as fully as one could hope. Still, Guns, Germs and Steel offers a interesting look at some of the factors that have influenced the course of human development.