Matthew Wood reviews Guns, Germs, and Steel, the 1997 Pulitzer prize winning book by geographer and anthopologist Jared Diamond, which provides a materialist analysis of the development of humanity from hunter-gatherers societies to agriculture.
Guns, Germs, And Steel (GGS) is a 1997 book by geographer Jared Diamond. The book seeks to answer the question of why societies that developed in the Eurasian continent(s) came to be dominant over societies in Africa, the Americas and Oceania. This Pulitzer prize winning book is of interest because it follows a relatively consistent materialist line of enquiry into the development of humanity in the juncture between hunter-gatherer and settled agricultural societies.
For Diamond the proximate causes for the origins of Western imperialism are clear. When a force of 168 Spanish conquistadors arrived in modern day Peru they were able to capture the Incan emperor Atahuallpa who was surrounded by an army of 80,000 men. Using a battery of artillery the Spanish were able to scatter the Incan forces, take Atahuallpa hostage, and then wait for a much larger Spanish force to conquer the ‘New World’. Although guns were the European weapon of choice by the 1700s, in the 16th century steel swords were still in use and they were easily superior to the blunt clubs and thin armour of the Incans. Steel was also used in wider society in farming and manufacturing implements, in construction, ships and transport. The final proximate cause of Diamond’s title is disease. It is well known that European conquest of the Americas was greatly aided by the (sometimes deliberate) spread of diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza ad typhus.
When the conquistador Cortés fought against the Aztec empire he was helped by smallpox which, over the course of around a century, reduced a population of 20 million to around 1.6 million. Similarly, archaeological evidence from North America suggests that in contrast to the idea that the continent was essentially ‘virgin territory’ for European settlers, there existed a population of around 20 million people. Diamond writes that evidence from the fertile Mississipi valley suggests that these societies were ‘still largely intact when Columbus reached the New World, and that they collapsed (probably as a result of disease) between 1492 and the systematic European exploration of the Mississippi’.1
To the three titular causes Diamond could well have added horses which, unknown in the Americas, gave a great military advantage to the Europeans.
Diamond’s book then sets out to explain why it is that Eurasian societies developed much quicker than African, Oceanic or American ones and what it was that gave rise to these causes. He gives three main causes which then feed into others which the book discusses. The first cause is that Eurasia had a high number of domesticable cereal crops. The ability to domesticate a plant – i.e. to plant it and have a reasonably steady chance of getting a fixed yield and also being able to selectively breed the plants for high nutrition, palatability and yield – was a key component in the step human societies made from hunter-gatherer to farming. In fact, if you cannot domesticate plants and gain food security, there is no point in giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle!
The findings of numerous archaeological studies involving the latest radiocarbon dating techniques show that in Eurasia – mainly beginning in the fertile crescent region in what is modern day Iraq, Iran and Syria – there was a relative abundance of good candidates for domestication. A good candidate is a plant that offers high levels of protein, carbohydrate and fibre – in Eurasia cereal, pulses, flax and hemp. In a table showing the world distribution of large-seeded grass species we learn that West Asia, Europe and North Africa had 33 species (32 in the Mediterranean zone), East Asia had 6, whilst the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa had 4 and the whole of the Americas (including North America) had 13.2 Furthermore, plant domestication had occurred much earlier in Eurasia (Fertile Crescent and China: 8500 – 7500 B.C.) than it did anywhere else in the world (Mesoamerica, Andes and Amazoia: 3500 B.C.).3
Settled agricultural food production was essential for the development of human societies. Whilst initially food production would have taken place within non-hierarchical villages without private ownership of the land; private property soon developed after humans switched from the peripatetic hunter-gather lifestyle to the sedentary one of the farmer. This is not explicitly explored by Diamond, however we do get hints at where a successful analysis of the rise of private property would begin. He writes that ‘a separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses […] nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists [since they have no or limited surpluses], who instead first appear in sedentary societies […] Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats’.4
Diamond differentiates between four types of human society: ‘bands’ with a membership of dozens; ‘tribes’ with a membership of hundreds; ‘chiefdoms’ with a membership of thousands; and ‘states’ with a membership of over 50,000. States, according to Diamond, encompass different types of land ownership. It is beyond the scope of Diamond’s book to offer a discussion of different modes of production – but we can take from this the central Marxist point that human societies develop because of the impetus of material conditions.
Marx describes the passage from ancient communal property – which is for Marx the first form of property – to the slave societies of ancient Rome thus:
[…] where each individual is supposed to possess so many acres of land, the mere increase in population constitutes an obstacle.5 If this is to be overcome, colonization will develop and this necessitates wars of conquests. This leads to slavery, etc. also…the rise of the Patricians.6
These patricians constitute the political elite that would come to dominate Rome. Here we see how the development of human society acquires its own logic and how the changes that occur in society because of some advance (in this case the move from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural societies) then give rise to a new series of contradictions that compel a new development (in this case the expansionary impulse of imperial Rome towards new territories). Geographic factors also feed back into this. With its surfeit of high protein, carbohydrate and fibre domesticable plant species population growth could advance much faster in Eurasia than in other continents – even in areas of relatively great fertility – for example the Mississippi delta, the Andes, southern Mexico or parts of southern Africa.
The second ultimate cause for Eurasia’s development is the number of domesticable wild animal species, particularly large mammals which can be used for the widest variety of tasks by humans: e.g. transport, food, clothing, driving agricultural tools. In a table detailing the number of mammalian candidates for domestication we see that Eurasia had 72, Sub-Saharan Africa 51, The Americas 24 and Australia 1. The respective rates of actual domestication were 18%, 0%, 4%, and 0%. Diamond notes that the Americas may have initially have had very large numbers of big mammals but these were killed off in a mass extinction around 13,000 years ago. It is not clear from the archaeological evidence whether this extinction was the result of human hunters or a climactic change.
This is not the whole story however. Sub-Saharan Africa still had 51 candidates for domestication but its people did not domesticate a single one. Diamond asks was this because of some shared cultural obstacles that Eurasians did not suffer from? His answer is an unequivocal no. He cites five types of evidence:
rapid acceptance of Eurasian domesticates by non-Eurasian people, the universal human penchant for keeping pets, the rapid domestication of the Ancient Fourteen7, the repeated independent domestication of some of them, and the limited successes of modern efforts at further domestications.8
When the Bantu people of western Africa acquired cattle and horses they utilised them to become the dominant group in sub-Saharan Africa spreading out across the sub-continent. Another example is of the native American societies which acquired horses from European settlers. Within a generation they became skilled horse riders using the animals for herding and warfare, giving rise to the Choctaw saying ‘because the white man brought the horse, we can almost forgive him for bringing whiskey’.
Diamond goes into detail on the Anna Karenina principle – that ‘domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way’. The principle which lists diet (‘many species, like koalas, are too finicky in their plant preferences to recommend themselves as farm animals’); growth rate (‘What would-be gorilla or elephant rancher would wait 15 years for his herd to reach adult size?’); problems of captive breeding; nasty disposition (grizzly bears, African buffalo, rhino, zebras – which injure more American zookeepers each year than tigers!), tendency to panic, and hierarchical social structure where humans can takeover as leader of the pack and thus control the herd relatively easily.
Aside from their use in farming, transport and as food large mammals kept in close proximity to humans proved useful to Eurasians in developing their immunity to diseases which they would later transmit to indigenous people across the world – people who, being without cattle, horses, sheep or pigs had no way of developing immunity. Cattle, pigs, ducks, dogs and fowl are responsible for the evolution of the human diseases measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, pertussis and malaria.9 Out of all these diseases it is only malaria which constituted a genuine barrier to the colonisation of some tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world. By far the majority of diseases were transmitted by Europeans to people without immunity.
The third ultimate cause that Diamond traces is set out in the chapter ‘Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes’ where it is argued that Eurasia’s rapid development is down to it being a ‘wide’ continent as compared with the ‘long’ continents of Africa and the Americas. Along lines of longitude climates, day lengths and seasons are the same which means the diffusion of crops, animals and similar farming techniques is easier done than along lines of latitude where the climate, day length and seasons vary markedly. For example ‘Portugal, northern Iran, and Japan, all located at about the same latitude but lying successively 4,000 miles east or west of each other, are more similar to each other in climate than each is to a location lying even a mere 1,000 miles due south’.10 Added to this there is the geographic problem of jungles, deserts, mountains and other topographical and geographic obstacles to the dissemination of not just immediately materially useful things like crops and animals, but also cultural advances such as writing. In prehistoric times, these boundaries were insurmountable, but when Western colonists settled in North America, Australia and South Africa they settled in areas which had similar cool climates to their motherlands and where their European crops could adapt with the minimum of fuss to their new homes.
Diamond’s one sentence summary of GGS is ‘History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves’.11 This aim is laudable, and Diamond deserves credit for showing racist arguments up for the unscientific rubbish that they are.
Determinism vs Dialectical materialism
However, this book is not without its flaws. Perhaps the greatest of these is that it flirts fairly closely with environmental determinism. One is left with the impression that not only did environmental factors influence human development, but more than this that the whole of human history was set in stone tens of thousands of years ago. Everything reduces to the Ultimate Causes. As Marxists we argue that the conflict between classes is the motor force of human history. For Diamond, the development of capitalism in western Europe is secondary to the ultimate causes. In fact, although GGS does not have any detailed differentiation between Europe and Asia – or the different societies within Asia – Diamond later outlines why it is that he believes it was European nations and not China that developed capitalism and became the imperial powers of the modern world.
For Diamond the key to understanding the different trajectories of Europe and China is in his ‘Optimal Fragmentation Principal’ which argues that China was able to be unified much earlier than western Europe because of geographic factors. By contrast, India had too many geographic barriers which hindered its unification. Unification led to an early advantage for China, but this dissipated as the Chinese empire became inward-looking and western Europe, with its natural frontiers dividing nation-states, was able to develop capitalism due to its ‘just right’ level of competition. Diamond admits in his afterword that historians ‘have subsequently pointed out to me that Europe’s fragmentation, China’s unity, and Europe’s and China’s relative strengths were all more complex than depicted in my account’.12 The idea that China (and more generally the Asian continent) is geographically predisposed towards what Marx called ‘Oriental despotism’ was an idea first mooted by the French historian Montesquieu who argued that Asia has ‘vaster plains than Europe; it is broken up into greater masses by the surrounding seas; and as it is further south, its springs run more easily dry, its mountains are not so covered with snow, and its rivers are lower and form lesser barriers. Power therefore must always be despotic in Asia’.13
For Marx and Engels ‘Oriental Despotism’ could, in part, be explained by geography. In discussion, Engels wrote to Marx that:
[t]he absence of property in land is indeed the key to the whole of the East…But how does it come about that the Orientals did not arrive at landed property, even in its feudal form? I think it is mainly due to its climate, taken in connection with the nature of the soil… Artificial irrigation is here the first condition of agriculture and this is a matter either for the communes, the provinces or the central governments’.14
The fact that food production relied on large public works meant that what was required was a strong centralised state power.
Certainly, Marxists are materialists and do not exclude climactic or geographic explanations for human societies. For Marx the key feature of what he called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ was the absence of private property. The reasons for this absence and the presence of ‘Oriental despotism’ was given in what Perry Anderson calls a ‘complex of ideas that ultimately went back to the Enlightenment’ summarised as ‘State property of land; Lack of juridical restraints; Religious substitution for law; Absence of hereditary nobility; Servile social equality; Isolated village communities; Agrarian predominance over industry; Public hydraulic works; Torrid climatic environment; Historical Immutability’.15
It is also clear that there were and are many different societies in Asia. Marx and Engels pointed out this common denominator of the lack of the dominance of private property, but there were further differences between Asian societies – between, for example, the Ottoman empire and the Chinese imperial state; India or Japan. The relative weight of classes was greater or lesser in different countries. All of these things cannot reasonably be reduced to geography, and are the subject of continued historical study.
What’s more, although western Europe did have a large number of sovereign states, it was at various points dominated by empires; it lived through its own period of stagnation (Dark Ages), and the eventual rise of a few key states (France, Britain, Prussia) depended on a centralised concentration of power.
It is also questionable how much use geography can be when explaining the development of contemporary societies. China has been following a capitalist path since the 1970s. Does the lack of topographical obstacles explain this, or is a more fruitful mode of enquiry going to be found in the relationships of global capitalist imperialism, of the shortcomings of Maoism and the political and economic development of China in the 20th century, and of the relative backwardness of the Chinese economy in the early 20th century? Further – why are many Asian societies divergent in their own development? What are the differences and similarities between China and its neighbours? And, why is it that within Europe capitalism developed so unevenly across the continent? All these questions indicate the limitations of a geographic approach.
The key point here is that to single out geography or climate as the only factor in explaining all of human history is reductive to the extreme. Marxists must include these factors, but not hold them in higher esteem than others.
A final criticism of Diamond’s book is in the somewhat absurd Afterword where we learn of the book’s favourable reception by none other than Microsoft boss Bill Gates and other business leaders who in letters to the author ‘pointed out possible parallels between the histories of entire human societies discussed in GGS and the histories of groups in the business world… what is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximise productivity, creativity, innovation and wealth?’16
Instead of being a sober inquiry into the origins of the human race, the book morphs into a genealogical justification for capitalism, which we discover was written into the very geography of western Europe and embodied in the modern world by ‘the U.S. Federal government system, with its built-in competition between our 50 states’. Thankfully this is limited mainly to the Afterword, and we can still learn a lot from what is on the whole an engaging and solidly materialist work.
- Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs and Steel, USA: W.W. Norton & Company (2005),p211
- Ibid, p140
- Ibid, p100
- Ibid, p89
- As Diamond points out, dramatic increases in population are only possible on the basis of an increase in food production, which in turn is only possible on an agricultural, not a hunter-gatherer way of life.
- Marx, Notebook V, January 22 chapter on capital, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/precapitalist/ch01.htm
- Fourteen big herbivorous domestic mammals, of which there is a Big Five: Sheep, Goat, Cow, Pig and Horse
- GGS, p163
- Ibid, p207
- Ibid, p183
- Ibid, p25
- Ibid, p454
- Montesquieu in Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State, U.K: Verso (1974, 1993), p465
- Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence in Anderson, p474
- Anderson, p472
- GGS, p462