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Guns, Germs and Steel

Anthropology In his scholarly book, “Guns, Germs and Steel. The Fate of Human Societies”, Jared Diamond presents his theory to explain the dominance of the Eurasian peoples over the rest of the world. Diamond, a physiologist and evolutionary biologist, states as his main thesis that this is due primarily to environmental differences which facilitated earlier evolutionary development giving them the capacity to dominate and conquer other peoples in the world without these advantages.

Briefly the theory could be Described as geography determinism the “guns, germs and steel” of the title are representative of the elements of that dominance. For example; guns refer to superior weaponry in general as well as military organization, not merely just to guns per se. The germs represent the advantages the European conquerors had because they brought their diseases with them which decimated many of the vanquished Indians since the had no immunity resistance.

Of course the Europeans also suffered from previously unknown diseases, but they were better able to cope because of their overall advantage. Steel represents their general technological advantage in many areas such as food production. Diamond explicitly rejects any notion that their advantage is due to racial, genetic and/or intelligence superiority. Diamond argues that most of humanity’s achievements, (scientific, artistic, architectural, political etc. ) have occurred on the Eurasian continent because their environment favored the development of civilization..

While their original populations pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, they were the first to develop agriculture because of their better natural endowment of crops and animals that could be easily domesticated. The Eurasian continent with its’ east-west axis provided large areas with similar latitudes and similar climates, making it easier for migrating populations to adapt their plants and animals to new areas, which was not possible for continents such as the Americas with a north-south axis and therefore different climates.

The superior agriculture of the Eurasians not only produced more nutritious food, but also an abundance of it enabling the growth of population centers which in turn required ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies and eventually the organization of empires. The production of food surpluses meant that no longer was everyone required to work in farming, but they could now engage in other occupations such as artisans and builders, and thus specialization of labor developed.

Also food not required for consumption could be traded for other valued commodities. As societies evolved civilizations and powerful governments were aided by new technologies such as writing and navigational devices. Eventually centralized governments maintained power by disarming the populace and starting their own armies. This power was further reinforced by making the masses happy by redistributing the tax income, keeping order and promoting religion and ideology that justifies their privileged position.

To support his theory, Diamond discusses several specific examples of successful conquests by Europeans over perceived disadvantaged peoples of the world explaining in detail in each case his rationale for their success based on his view of their inherent advantage. In my view, Diamond makes a convincing case to explain the environmental factors that enabled the rise of powerful civilizations in Eurasia and hence their physical ability to dominate and conquer other less advantaged populations because of their having the misfortune to be located in less advantaged environments.

However he is less successful in analyzing why they did so and why their own populations acquiesced in the conquests. The European rulers embarked on these ventures likely because of greed for the riches allegedly available in the faraway territories, competition with neighboring states and a desire to show that they are more powerful and finally simply because they had the ability to do so.

In so far as their subjects were concerned, to the extent they were aware of these conquests, they were encouraged to regard the conquered peoples as vastly inferior if not really human or there was a very paternalistic attitude that the conquerors knew what was best for those subjugated The slave trade exemplifies the former attitude where inferior Africans were useful only to provide labor for the economic ventures of their masters, such as in the cotton industry in the United States.

Others not aware or concerned about the potential harm to native culture, tried to turn their subjects into docile Christians. The European rulers socialized their subjects into acquiescing to colonial expansionism by invoking a mixture of religion and patriotism. They were taught that they were “God’s chosen people” and therefore superior to the conquered natives and it was their Christian duty to convert them to adopt not only their religion but also their value system. By so doing it was expected that any resistance to their occupation would be significantly weakened.

Hence schools were set up to indoctrinate Indian and Eskimo children which had devastating effects on their psyche ands culture especially when some masters took advantage of the children’s vulnerability with acts of physical and sexual abuse. In a similar way the morality of the slave trade was justified by the conviction that the Europeans were God’s chosen people and that therefore it was their duty to “care for” the inferior blacks. Of course in reality the trade was established for purely economic reasons such as supporting the cotton industry in the United States.

Therefore, although environmental conditions in Europe were favorable to the development of powerful civilizations which physically enabled them to embark on a path of colonization of less developed territories, this activity could not have occurred without the socialization of the masses through religion and patriotic fervor to render it legitimate. Before royal abuses led to the spread of democracy in Europe the masses in nation states generally accepted royal heredity rule which gave them a free hand to pursue their expansionist desires

While there is no doubt the military might of the Europeans was superior to that of the territories they conquered, these conquests might not have been so easy if they were not helped by social factors within the vanquished peoples. For example, there is no evidence that the Indians had a war prone culture since when they first landed the Europeans were greeted as friendly traders. It was only after the latter revealed their true expansionist motives that hostilities began. Also initially the Indians thought that the Europeans where white gods that their mythology taught them would some day arrive from the sea.

Also when the Spaniards invaded the Mayan civilization of what is now Central America it was already In decline with city states preoccupied fighting one another. Perhaps if the Spaniards had arrived when the Mayan civilization was at the peak of its’ power the former may have been rebuffed. Therefore, while environmental conditions in Europe was fertile ground for the rise of its’ powerful civilization, allowing it to embark on a path of colonization, the success of it may have been less if they had to face other civilizations at the peak of their development.

I take some issue with the notion that the successful Eurasian rise of civilization was due to their east-west axis. While acknowledging that this factor was beneficial in enabling the spread of similar plants and animal domestication in large areas with similar latitude and climate, I would argue that major civilizations in the world have evolved in areas without an east-west axis. For example, consider major civilizations in the Americas such as the Incas, Aztecs and especially the Mayans .

In fact when the latter were at the peak of their power, probably around 1000 AD, the Europeans were stagnating in the Dark Ages and at that time would most likely not have had the ability to conquer them. Also although at the time they had an abundance of food supply with good farming practices, they had few if any domesticated animals. With their knowledge of astronomy, invention of the calendar, building skills and other scientific achievements in many ways they were more advanced than their European contemporaries..

Although the precise cause of the disintegration of the Mayan civilization has not been verified it probably started with over farming and lack of conservation of these resources which the ruling priests were unable to deal with. This lead to fighting amongst city states for scarcer resources and a loss of regard by the masses for the legitimacy of the ruling priests who impoverished them with ever increasing taxes. Thus like many civilizations to date it had largely imploded from within before the arrival of the Spanish.

In conclusion I would argue that while hospitable environmental conditions are required for the development of powerful civilizations as described by Diamond, I submit that all the elements listed by him are not necessary, and that equally strong civilizations can emerge in areas other than Eurasia with a different resource base. I think a good analogy would be the evolution versus historical particularism debate. I submit these two concepts are not necessarily contradictory, because societies can evolve in different ways and yet both achieve comparable development.

Consider the Mayan civilization for example. They had neither domesticated animals nor an east-west axis and although they eventually imploded, at its’ peak it far exceeded most of its’ contemporaries including in Eurasia. This shows that the evolution of civilizations does not require all the elements listed by Diamond even though they are all undoubtedly helpful. What is essential I would argue is an adequate resource base particularly for the production of abundant nutritious food.

This promotes population growth and allows for division of labor free from survival concerns to build societies and advance technologies, etc. The other essential ingredient I would suggest is a social structure with ( in the eyes of the majority of the population) authority legitimately vested in rulers whether that be a chief, king or some kind of elected political structure. Civilization can only endure I would argue if these essential ingredients also remain intact. . Reference Diamond, Jared “Guns. Germs and Steel. The Fate of Human Societies”, 1997, W. W. Morton and Company.

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