After Reading 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'

This is my on-going quest to learn a little bit about the history of human civilizations. After reading Sapiens, I started “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond. I have to admit his name is a funny one given there is a jewelry chain named Jared that sells diamonds. I actually tried to read this one around 2013 but did not really have the mental capacity to go beyond the first few pages. This time I was much better equipped to read and understand what Jared was trying to convey.

The main thesis of the book is that the difference in the fates of human societies around the globe is not because of any genetic differences of the humans, rather because of the difference in the environments these societies were in. Jared goes at length in each chapter to establish his viewpoints. If Harari was a neutral story-teller in Sapiens, Jared had already decided what should be the moral of the story and did not waste any chance to keep reminding the reader about it.

His arguments are very well-thought-out and I do not know enough to refute them. I am sure there are critics of his arguments and I would love to hear them. According to him, human societies in Eurasia, Americas, and Australia took the same path but the key differences were in the initial conditions which also dictated the starting line for them. For Eurasia, the fertile crescent was “ready to go” for food production around 10000 BC, where America and Australia was not there yet. This headstart came out to be the big decider for the rest of the course of human history. Jared argues that it is not that people living in Americas or Australia were inept in any way rather the lack of suitable environmental conditions were the chief cause of the lag.

Early rise of food production led to surplus of food, which allowed the rise of professions other than farming. In hunter-gatherer society, everyone had to pitch in to collect food. In agrarian societies, the food surplus meant that not everyone had to be involved in food production and that created the chance of specialized professions such as artisans, soldiers, accountants and bureaucrats. This specialization led to various technological breakthroughs such as writing, metallurgy, etc. Food surplus with the combination of technologies ensured the sustainability of a larger human population that led to more complex societies. As societies became large and complex, it gave birth to ideas like religion and government.

Along with food production, the domestication of livestock was another upperhand of agrarian societies over the hunter-gatherer societies. Here also Jared argues that it is not the lack of skills rather the lack of options that led to difference of progress in various human societies. The domestication of livestocks gave some societies resistance to various diseases, which became a critical deciding factor when two societies collided.

In the first part of the book, Jared sets up the scene where the old world comes into contact with the new world and describes how that went on. Then in part two, he backs out and lays down his arguments on why the rate of progress was different in the old world and the new world. Here he mainly focuses on the rise of food production, both agriculture and livestocks. Part three is a continuation of the idea but here he doubles down on how food production led to various technological advances and complex societies with ideas like religion and government. Then in part four, he provides examples of what happens when two societies with unequal technological maturity come into contact. He tries to establish that societies who had a headstart always had the upper hand in these scenarios and what happened when the new and old world collided was very predictable like the previous encounters.

I like his arguments but I do not think they explain everything. Even in Eurasia, with the same start line, we see differences between Europe, Central Asia and the Far East. Also, his model is linear. I am looking forward to reading some critiques of his model to understand the validity of his thesis.

Published at: 11/22/2020