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Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs & Steel:
a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years
(Jonathan Cape: 1997)


“We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. These historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with stone tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain or controversial.... It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among the people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public.... Nevertheless, we have to wonder. We keep seeing all those glaring, persistent differences in peoples’ status. We’re assured that the seemingly transparent biological explanation for the world’s inequalities as of A.D. 1500 is wrong, but we’re not told what the correct explanation is. Until we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all. That seems to me the strongest argument for writing this book.”
(Diamond, pp.13-25)

Few books have had the impact of this, Jared Diamond’s deceptively-named masterpiece on the biogeography of domestication and its flow-on effects in human history. Still to be found in every general bookshop I’ve sampled - albeit unscientifically - it comprises such an exhaustive counter-argument against racist understandings of comparative history that, quite simply, the job will never need to be done again. And, in doing so, it also set out the full case for what is usually underestimated (or, at least, understated) in most historical work - the fundamental role of geographical differences in setting the stage on which human history is played out...

While other works, particularly subsequently, may tackle some of its main concerns, none do so with the same combination of exhaustive & rigorous treatment and engaging prose that made this book such a long-lasting success. To be sure, as I’ll note below, there are some difficulties to be noted amongst Diamond’s arguments in the later chapters. But such are only to be expected in such an encyclopaedic work, and hardly diminish from the achievement. And to sample such, the best place to begin is perhaps this summary of the myriad ways in which domestication changed human life:


“More consumable calories means more people. Among wild plant and animal species, only a small minority are edible to humans or worth hunting and gathering. Most species are useless to us as food, for one or more of the following reasons: they are indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects), or dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses). Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest. By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass on an acre of land...[it] can feed many more herders and farmers - typically, 10 to 100 times more - than hunter-gatherers. That strength of brute numbers was the first of many military advantages that food-producing tribes gained over hunter-gatherer tribes. [And,] in human societies possessing domestic animals, livestock fed more people in four distinct ways: by furnishing meat, milk, and fertilizer, and by pulling plows...thereby making it possible for people to til land that had previously been uneconomical for farming.... All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”
(Diamond, pp.86-9)

“A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production...[which] permitted a shortened birth interval. An hunter-gatherer mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. By contrast, sedentary people...can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter gatherers. [A further] consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn’t remain nearby to guard the stored food.... Stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists...[such as] kings and bureaucrats. Of most direct relevance to wars of conquest, it can be used to feed professional soldiers.... Stored food can also feed priests, who provide religious justification for wars of conquest; artisans such as metalworkers, who develop swords, guns and other technologies; and scribes, who preserve far more information than can be remembered adequately. So far, I’ve emphasized direct and indirect values of crops and livestock as food. However they also have other uses, such as keeping us warm and providing us with valuable materials.... [And] big domestic animals further revolutionized human society by becoming our main means of land transport until the development of railroads in the nineteenth century.... Of equal importance in wars of conquest were the germs that evolved in human societies with domestic animals.... Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.”
(Diamond, pp.89-92)

To be sure, I’ve had to cut into this, simply to reduce it to a manageable size. But, even so, it still demonstrates the care Diamond shows to to trace the connections, and lay out all the alternatives. This is most in evidence in the core of the book: his account of the development of domestication, and the very material reasons why it centred on the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East:


“It should come as no surprise that food production never arose in large areas of the globe, for ecological reasons that make it difficult or impossible there today.... Instead, what cries out for explanation is the failure of food production to appear, until modern times, in some ecologically very suitable areas that are among the world’s richest centers of agriculture and herding today.... [And] when we trace food production back to its  beginnings, the earliest sites provide another surprise. Far from being  modern breadbaskets, they include areas ranking today as somewhat dry or ecologically degraded: Iraq and Iran, Mexico, the Andes, parts of China, and Africa’s Sahel zone. Why did food production develop first in these seemingly rather marginal lands, and only later in today’s most fertile farmlands and pastures?”
(Diamond, pp.93-4)

“What actually happened was not a discovery of food production, nor an invention, as we might first assume. There was often not even a conscious choice...because [the people involved] had never seen farming, and had no way of knowing what it would be like. Instead, as we shall see, food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.... Another misconception is that there is necessarily a sharp divide between nomadic hunter-gatherers and sedentary food producers.... [Furthermore,] some hunter-gatherers intensively manage their land...[and] from those precursors of food production already practised by hunter-gatherers, it developed stepwise. Not all the necessary techniques were developed within a short time, and not all the wild plants and animals that were eventually domesticated in a given area were domesticated simultaneously.... The underlying reason why this transition was piecemeal is that food production systems evolved as the result of the accumulation of many separate decisions about allocating time and effort.... Many considerations enter these decisions. People seek food in order to satisfy their hunger and fill their bellies. They also crave specific foods, such as protein-rich foods, fat, salt, sweet fruits, and foods that simply taste good. All other things being equal, people seek...the most return with the greatest certainty in the least time for the least effort. Simultaneously, they seek to minimize their risk of starving: moderate but reliable returns are preferable to a fluctuating lifestyle.... Conversely, men hunters tend to guide themselves by considerations of prestige...[and] people are also guided by seemingly arbitrary cultural preferences...[and] the relative values they attach to different lifestyles - just as we can see today.... Throughout human history, farmers have tended to despise hunter-gatherers as primitive, hunter-gatherers have despised farmers as ignorant, and herders have despised both. All these elements come into play in people’s separate decisions about how to obtain their food...[for] we must consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies competing with each other.”
(Diamond, pp.105-9)

“Farmers selected from among individual plants on the basis not only of perceptible qualities like size and taste, but also of invisible features like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition and reproduction biology. As a result, different plants became selected for quite different or even opposite features. Some plants (like sunflowers) were selected for much bigger seeds, while others (like bananas) were selected for tiny or even nonexistent seeds.... Especially instructive are cases in which a single wild plant species was variously selected for different purposes, and thereby gave rise to quite different-looking crops...[such as] ancestral cabbage plants, possibly grown originally for their oily seeds.... They became variously selected for leaves (modern cabbage and kale), stems (kohlrabi), buds (brussels sprouts), or flower shoots (cauliflower and broccoli). So far we have been discussing transformations of wild plants into crops as a result of selection by farmers, consciously or unconsciously.... But much of the transformation was also effected as a result of plants’ selecting themselves...as farming changed the environment for plants. A tilled, fertilized, watered, weeded garden provides growing conditions very different from those on a dry, unfertilized hillside...[and] when a farmer sows seeds densely in a garden, there is intense competition among the seeds.”
(Diamond, pp.122-3)

“The adoption of food production exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process - one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started. A gradual rise in population densities impelled people to obtain more food, rewarding those who unconsciously took steps toward producing it. Once people began to produce food and became sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers whom they succeeded.”
(Diamond, pp.111-12)

As Diamond repeatedly stresses, the key to farming is economics at a fundamental level - and the full package which we take for granted today was hardly available to those who pioneered the processes. Nonetheless, those locations where such a package was able to be assembled - with crops and livestock to fill the crucial dietary and energy requirements - enjoyed a huge advantage over areas where this was not the case, and particularly over those continents where crucial domesticates were simply lacking. Most unfairly, in fact, the Fertile Crescent offered not only a whole suite of easily-domesticable plants and animals, but was also conveniently-placed to benefit from the nearby domestication of the last crucial ingredient: the horse for traction, transport, and war...


“It turns out that the earliest Fertile Crescent crops, such as the wheat and barley and peas domesticated around 10,000 years ago, arose from wild ancestors offering many advantages. They were already edible and gave high yields in the wild. They were easily grown, merely by being sown or planted. They grew quickly and could be harvested within a few months of sowing, a big advantage for incipient farmers still on the borderline between nomadic hunters and settled villagers. They could be readily stored, unlike many later crops such as strawberries and lettuce. They were mostly self-pollinating: that is, the crop varieties could pollinate themselves and pass on their own desirable genes unchanged, instead of having to hybridize with other varieties less useful to humans. Finally, their wild ancestors required very little genetic change to be converted into crops.”
(Diamond, pp.123-4)

“Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been more or less domesticated. Even of these several hundred crops, most provide minor supplements to our diet, and would not by themselves have sufficed to support the rise of civilizations. A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s annual tonnage of all crops. These dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone now account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world’s human populations. With so few major crops in the world, it’s less surprising that many areas of the world had no wild native plants at all of outstanding potential. [And] our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants, and domesticated the ones worth domesticating.”
(Diamond, pp.132-3)

“Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina.... [But] this principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate causes of failure. The Anna Karenina principle explains a feature of animal domestication that had heavy consequences for human history - namely, that so many seemingly suitable big wild mammal species, such as zebras and peccaries, have never been domesticated and that the successful domesticates were almost exclusively Eurasian.... [Moreover,] if one defines “big” as “weighing over 100 pounds,” then only 14 such species were domesticated before the twentieth century...[and] only five species became widespread and important around the globe. These Major Five of mammal domestication are the cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse.... The wild ancestors of the Ancient Fourteen were spread unevenly over the globe. South America had only one such ancestor, which gave rise to the llama and alpaca. North America, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa had none at all...[while] seven of the wild ancestors occurred in Southwest Asia.... Did all those people of Africa, the Americas, and Australia, despite their enormous cultural diversity, nonetheless share some cultural obstacles to domestication not shared with Eurasian peoples? ...The answer to that is unequivocal: No! The interpretation is refuted by five types of evidence: rapid acceptance of Eurasian domesticates by non-Eurasian peoples, the universal human penchant for keeping pets, the rapid domestication of the Ancient Fourteen, the repeated independent domestication of some of them, and the limited success of modern efforts at further domestication...[for] humans and most animal species make an unhappy marriage, for one or more of many possible reasons: the animal’s diet, growth rate, mating habits, disposition, tendency to panic, and several distinct features of social organization. Only a small percentage of wild mammal species ended up in happy marriages with humans, by virtue of compatibility on all those separate counts.”
(Diamond, pp.157-74)

Thus animal domestication was an even chancier process than that of plants and, again, the results favoured Eurasia - and, more particularly, the Fertile Crescent - this time, even more strongly. But, whilst “the man on horseback” may dominate accounts of history as traditionally-conceived, a far more insidious process (albeit also stemming from a domesticated source) was responsible for the most total military victories in history: those which nearly depopulated continents, and led to the settler societies of North America and Australia...


“Why did the rise of agriculture launch the evolution of our crowd infectious diseases? One reason...is that agriculture sustains much higher human population densities.... In addition, hunter-gatherers frequently shift camp...but farmers are sedentary and live amid their own sewage, thus providing microbes with a short path from one person’s body into another’s drinking water.... [And] if the rise of farming was thus a bonanza for our microbes, the rise of cities was a greater one, as still more densely packed human populations festered under even worse sanitary conditions.... Another bonanza was the development of world trade routes, which by Roman times effectively joined the populations of Europe, Asia, and North Africa into one giant breeding ground for microbes.... Thus, when the human population became sufficiently large and concentrated...we could at last evolve and sustain crowd diseases confined to our own species. But that conclusion presents a paradox: such diseases could never have existed before then! Instead, they had to evolve as new diseases. Where did those new diseases come from? ...The microbes’ closest relatives...also prove to be agents of crowd infectious diseases - but ones confined to various species of our domestic animals and pets. Among animals, too, epidemic diseases require large, dense populations and don’t afflict just any animal: they’re confined mainly to social animals providing the necessary large populations. Hence, when we domesticated social animals, such as cows and pigs, they were already infected with epidemic diseases just waiting to be transferred to us.”
(Diamond, pp.205-6)

And, the Eurasian advantages don’t stop there. Not only did they have (by far) the best grains and almost all of the small number of suitable animals, but Eurasians also had a continent blessed with a far superior orientation for the spread of crops - not to mention far less in the way of other geographical barriers. And, then there’s the simple size/carrying capacity factor to remember:


“On a map of the world...compare the shapes and orientations of the continents. You’ll be struck by an obvious difference. The Americas span a much greater distance north-south (9,000 miles) than east-west: only 3,000 miles at the widest, narrowing to a mere 40 miles at the Isthmus of Panama. That is, the major axis of the Americas is north-south. The same is also true, though to a less extreme degree, for Africa. In contrast, the major axis of Eurasia is east-west.... Axis orientations affected the rate of spread of crops and livestock, and possibly also of writing, wheels, and other inventions...[for] just as some regions proved more suitable than others for the origins of food production, the ease of its spread also varied greatly around the world.... Why was the spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent so rapid? The answer depends partly on that east-west axis of Eurasia...[since] localities distributed east and west of each other at the same latitude share exactly the same day length and its seasonal variations. To a lesser degree, they also tend to share similar diseases, regimes of temperature and rainfall, and habitats or biomes (types of vegetation). For example, southern Italy, northern Iran, and Japan, all located at about the same latitude...are more similar to each other in climate than each is to a location lying even a mere 1,000 miles due south.... [And] the germination, growth, and disease resistance of plants are adapted to precisely those features of climate. Seasonal changes of day length, temperature and rainfall constitute signals that stimulate seeds to germinate, seedlings to grow, and mature plants to develop flowers, seeds, and fruit...[and] those regimes vary greatly with latitude.... As a consequence, most Fertile Crescent crops grow well in France and Japan, but poorly at the equator.”
(Diamond, pp.176-84)

“I have been dwelling on latitude, readily assessed by a glance at a map, because it is a major determinant of climate, growing conditions, and ease of spread of food production. However, latitude is of course not the only such determinant, and it is not always true that adjacent places at the same latitude have the same climate (though they do necessarily have the same day length). Topographic and ecological barriers, much more pronounced on some continents than others, were locally important obstacles to diffusion. For instance, crop diffusion between the US Southeast and Southwest was very slow and selective although those two regions are at the same latitude. That’s because much of the intervening area of Texas and the southern Great Plains was dry and unsuitable for agriculture. A corresponding example within Eurasia involved the eastern limit of the Fertile Crescent crops, which spread rapidly westward to the Atlantic Ocean and eastward to the Indus Valley without encountering a major barrier. However, farther eastward in India the shift from predominantly winter rainfall to predominantly summer rainfall contributed to a much more delayed extension of agriculture, involving different crops and farming techniques, into the Ganges plain of northeastern India. Still farther east, temperate areas of China were isolated from western Eurasian areas with similar climates by the combination of the Central Asian desert, Tibetan plateau, and Himalayas. The initial development of food production in China was therefore independent.... By the same token, the potency of a 2,000 mile north-south shift as a barrier also varies with local conditions. Fertile Crescent food production spread quickly southward over that distance to Ethiopia, and Bantu food production spread quickly from Africa’s Great Lakes region south to Natal, because in both cases the intervening areas had similar rainfall regimes and were suitable for agriculture. In contrast, crop diffusion from Indonesia south to southwestern Australia was completely impossible, and...the lack of a high-elevation plateau in Mesoamerica south of Guatemala, and Mesoamerica’s extreme narrowness south of Mexico and especially in Panama, were at least as important as the latitudinal gradient in throttling crop and livestock exchanges between the highlands of Mexico and the Andes.”
(Diamond, pp.189-90)

“Most Fertile Crescent crops prove, on genetic study, to derive from only a single domestication process, whose resulting crop spread so quickly that it preempted any other incipient domestications of the same or related species. In contrast, many apparently widespread Native American crops prove to consist of related species, or even of genetically distinct varieties of the same species, independently domesticated.”
(Diamond, p.188)

At the end of all this, it’s not at all surprising to the reader that sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australia lagged Eurasia in development...rather, the real surprise is that the Eurasians took so unconscionably long to make the most of their myriad advantages, leading one to suspect that Diamond might be right about Eurasians being selected more for germ-resistance than for brains!

Be that as it may, it should also be noted that much of part three of Guns, Germs, and Steel is distinctly less impressive than the rest of the book - particularly the chapters on government & writing, which present as uncontroversial mainstream perspectives which have been seriously challenged by distinguished scholars such as Charles Eric Maisels, Norman Yoffee, and Eric Havelock. Nonetheless, this hardly detracts from the basic argument - in fact, those alternative perspectives arguably add to the Eurasian advantages, by stressing the formal superiority of the fully alphabetic system, and the variety of processes which may lead to state formation - some of which generate more pluralistic & innovative societies, a matter which Diamond addresses from a different perspective:


“It is untrue that there are continents whose societies have tended to be innovative and continents whose societies have tended to be conservative. On any continent, at any given time, there are innovative societies and also conservative ones. In addition, receptivity to innovation fluctuates in time within the same region. On reflection, these conclusions are precisely what one would expect if a society’s innovativeness is determined by many independent factors...[and it] means that, over a large enough area (such as a whole continent) at any particular time, some proportion of societies is likely to be innovative.... [However,] the differences in population are glaring: Eurasia’s (including North Africa’s) is nearly 6 times that of the Americas, nearly 8 times that of Africa’s, and 230 times that of Australia’s. Larger populations mean more inventors and more competing societies. [This] by itself goes a long way toward explaining the origins of guns and steel in Eurasia. All these effects that continental differences in area, population, ease of diffusion and onset of food production exerted on the rise of technology became exaggerated, because technology catalyzes itself.”
(Diamond, p.254-64)

Despite my carping over certain details, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a tour de force...a landmark work in exploring the fundamental grounds on which historical differences have emerged - and the book best equipped to alert us to these as we trawl through the murkier waters of history proper. For, sadly, it is simply unlikely that most historical questions can be approached with the scientific rigour Diamond brings to the biogeography of domestication. So-called “natural experiments” are rare, whilst the complexity of state-level societies makes comparisons a much more fraught process - a crucial reason why Diamond’s arguments are less persuasive in exactly the areas I noted above. But we should nonetheless count our blessings - and be thankful that we have such a guide to just how, and why, the most fundamental societal differences of all have emerged.


“Naturally, the notion that environmental geography and biogeography influenced societal development is an old idea. Nowadays, though, the view is not held in esteem by historians; it is considered wrong or simplistic, or it is caricatured as environmental determinism and dismissed, or else the whole subject of trying to understand worldwide differences is shelved as too difficult.... [But] the time is now ripe for a fresh look at these questions, because of new information from disciplines seemingly remote from human history. Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing, and political organization.”
(Diamond, pp.25-6)



John Henry Calvinist