Guns, Germs, and (clever use of word that rhymes with “steel”)

Interesting book – Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. The purpose of the book is to examine the development of humankind, and offer an explanation for the dominance of cultures based in the Fertile Crescent and Europe. In essence, why did Europeans cross the Atlantic and dominate the Americas, rather than the other way around?


Diamond’s conclusion is that the peoples of the Fertile Crescent and Europe were far ahead in the development of weapons, immunity to disease, and metal (which really comes full circle to the discussion of weapons again).

These are what Diamond refers to as “ultimate causes”, but the most interesting discussion is what he calls the “proximate causes”, or the things that led to the ultimate causes. It’s not as complex, in the big picture, as I imagined.

Essentially, everything can be distilled down to variance in food production and animal domestication. Perhaps the book should have been called Corn and Cattle. That’s not tremendously clever. I apologize.

If we assume various pockets of human population around 10,000 B.C., the really interesting part of the book is the role played by geography. I suppose we have moved from ultimate to proximate to sub-proximate causes at this point.

The areas of the Fertile Crescent, and the European plains, broadly shared a similar climate (latitude and elevation), lay along a mostly horizontal axis, and there were few geographic barriers to the diffusion of crops, agricultural techniques, and people/animals. Contrast with the Americas, where advanced civilizations were established in South America, but whose technology and organization never spread to the rest of the continents.

The main reasons for this were the vast deserts of the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, the natural chokepoint of Mesoamerica, and the differences in latitude and elevation between areas where the Mayan culture thrived and small pockets of hunter-gatherers on the eastern seaboard of North America, for instance.

It seems rather obvious when you look at it, but fascinating nonetheless. How easy it is to assume that traits like intelligence, ambition, ingenuity, and personal courage are the driving factors behind the way history has unfolded. How easy to assume (especially hundreds of years ago) that the superiority of one culture’s technology and “advanced” society is based on an innate superiority of the people therein. Hmmmm, did I say hundreds of years ago??

But for an accident of tectonic shifting, and a mountain range here or there, the world could have been dominated by the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Not that we would likely see much of a difference in the overall shape of human development, I don’t imagine, but it is interesting.

The discussion of why people behave towards each other like they do is probably a topic for another day…


2 Responses to “Guns, Germs, and (clever use of word that rhymes with “steel”)”

  1. Geraldine smith Says:

    When can I expect the book in my mailbox?

  2. Geraldine smith Says:

    Glad to see you back

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