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Guns, Germs, and Steel
Chapter Summaries of Jared Diamon's Guns, Germs, and Steel
As a college student I was assigned to read this book for my history course and write a paragraph about each chapter. After such grueling work I did not want it to go to waste so I thought I would share it! This is for you, whether you are just interested in what the book is about or you are a college student. These are simple descriptions and summaries of the chapters and I am not the author or an expert in this field so if you find any incorrect information I am sorry, but everything should be find:] Please be aware of copyright rules, this is not to be submitted as your own, but merely an alternative study guide. So enjoy! and I hope you find this useful!
When the author Jared Diamond is studying bird evolution on the island of New Guinea in July 1872, he is faced with a question from Yali, a local politician. Yali asks "why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" The question seems simple and reasonable, yet Diamond cannot come up with an answer. It is this question that prompts him to research and write this book asking "why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?" Many people believe Europeans to be more intelligent, but the author believes New Guineans are more intelligent. He points out that European and American children watch TV, sit on the computer and play video games, while New Guinean children are active and curious and participate in more stimulating activities. Professional historians still disagree about the answer. In the 1500's Europeans used steel tools and weapons while the Africans, Native Americans, and many others still only used stone and wood. Around 11,000 B.C. Eurasia and the Americas and Sub-Sahara Africa developed agriculture, a form of government, and even some writing, while others were still hunter-gatherers.
Jared Diamonds Thesis
"The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments."-Jared Diamond
Part One: - From Eden to Cajamarca
Up to the Starting Line
This chapter starts from the beginning, explaining the evolution of the first human ancestors, seven million years ago. Our closest living relatives are the gorilla, chimpanzee, and the bonobo. We all originated in Africa, the first to leave being the Homo erectus. Neanderthals have always been depicted as brainless, wild, careless creatures, but evidence shows they actually cared for their sick and buried their dead. "The Great Leap Forward" is what Diamond calls the earliest signs of standardized tools, jewelry, bone tools, and more. This great leap was 50,000 years ago. Also at this time is the spread of hominids to New Guinea and Australia. Large animal species that were not evolved to defend themselves against such predators were wiped out. Eurasia came next. In the Americas the Clovis people start the 1st colony. Some archaeologists claim there were pre-Clovis people but Diamond believes if this were true we would have found significant evidence by now. Obvious explanations fail to explain why Eurasia became the most advanced and Africa didn't even though it had a head-start.
Obvious explanations fail to explain why Eurasia became the most advanced and Africa didn't even though it had a head-start.
A Natural Experiment of History
The Maori and Moriori descended from Polynesian peoples, but the Maori developed more advanced technology and engaged in warfare often. What made the two peoples become so different? This is an example of many other similar situations. The Maori who lived on the island could not grow crops on it, therefore could not afford to have specialists and armies. They also had no need for advanced technology for the prey they were hunting. The larger the size and density, the more complex and advanced were the technology and politics. Smaller islands with low populations only made what was needed. Resources were very limited on the smaller islands; therefore advanced tools could not be made. They were also often isolated from other islands, so could not trade or communicate.
Since the Maori and Moriori descended from the same people race cannot be used as a defense as to why one advanced over the other. It was in environmental and geographical factors that caused the Maori to advance more.
Collision at Cajamarca
When the Europeans colonized the Americas and the Native Americans were nearly wiped out was the biggest population shift in modern history. Atahualpa's capture by the Spanish conquistador Pizarro marks the moment of greatest collision of modern history. The eyewitness recordings of this historical even talked much of pleasing God and the king by conquering the people. The writer often refers to the Spanish conquistadors as "Christians", like they have a mandated right in what they are doing. The only Native Americans able to resist Europeans were those that mastered horses and guns. Steel or chainmail armor and helmets played a bigger role than guns. Horses were also a huge role in defeating the Native Americans. The Spaniards faced a split empire because of an epidemic that killed the Inca emperor and his heir. The epidemic was smallpox brought on by the earlier Europeans. Writing enabled long distance communication among the Spaniards. The Inca's had no way of knowing what the Spaniards were capable of, which helped lead to their demise.
The Europeans were able to nearly wipe out the Native Americans because of horses and guns, disease that they brought with them, and a writing system that enabled them to communicate with each other.
Part Two: - The Rise and Spread of Food Production
As a teenager Diamond worked on a farm alongside a Native American who exhibited very admirable values and work ethics, unlike the coarse white miners. This is when Diamond really learned the Native Americans perspective on the white man's conquest. "Food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. This chapter traces the main connections through which food production led to advantages." The 1st is that "availability of more consumable calories means more people" = strength of numbers. Domestic animals/livestock fed people by furnishing meat, milk, and fertilizer and by animal labor. Full time specialists first appeared in sedentary societies. Two types of specialists came about, the kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherers didn't have these and were egalitarian. Animals and crops also provide warmth and tools. The animals were also used as the main transport. Eurasia used horses in warfare. This was the most direct contribution of animal domestication to wars. Germs also evolved in societies with domestic animals such as smallpox, measles, and flu.
1. Food production=more people=strength of numbers.
2. Food production=down time=specialists=advanced technology
3. Domestic animals=meat, milk, tools, warmth, transport, fertilizer, and animal labor.
History's Haves and Have-nots
The big question in this chapter is why some very ecologically suitable areas failed to adopt food production until modern times. More surprising are the areas that we find are the earliest sites of food production such as Mexico, Iraq, and the Andes. There are five areas where food production arose independently. These areas are Southwest Asia's Fertile Crescent, China, Mesoamerica, the Andes and possibly the Amazon Basin, and eastern United States. Southwest Asia has the most accurate radiocarbon dates for early food production as well as the earliest definite dates of plant and animal domestication. For areas where foreign agriculturists invaded, the hunter-gatherers either adopted agriculture or were wiped out.
To Farm or Not to Farm
Diamond asks why ancient people farmed even though it didn’t necessarily render them better off than hunter-gatherers. They suffered from more diseases, were less nourished, and on average died at a younger age. Without knowing what consequences would come about, the ancient people decided to farm. One misconception is that the people were either strictly hunter-gatherers or strictly sedentary farmers. The truth is, some hunter-gatherers were sedentary but didn’t produce food or produced food later. There are also food producers who are not sedentary. One theory of why people first started producing food was just as a back-up plan. Another theory is that there are different factors in different parts of the world that caused the decision to move to farming. There are five distinct factors: decline in availability of wild foods, less wild game and more domesticable wild plants, development of technologies for food producing, the rise in human population density vs. the rise in food production, and the advantage in warfare that food producers had over hunter-gatherers. The only hunter-gatherers to continue to exist were those who were separated geographically or lived in areas not fit for food producing such as the Arctic.
Different factors in different parts of the world caused the decision to move to farming.
How to Make an Almond
Now is the question of how wild plants became crops in the first place. When we look at the strawberry we see that the young sour and green ones will not be eaten, but the ripe sweet ones will. This is the genetics of the strawberry that allow it to choose when to be eaten. These strawberries were genetically modified for birds. Plants have tasty fruit so that it will be eaten, but bitter seeds so that the animal will not eat it and it can be left somewhere to grow. Almond seeds were bitter but a genetic malfunction created a few non bitter ones. Curious children would have found these few almonds and the farmers would have planted these. Thus over time only non bitter almonds were produced in the farm. There are a few non-visible aspects that also affected the genetics of plants to be domesticated. One is that mutant seeds that lacked their usual mechanism for scattering seeds would be harvested. Another is that some mutant seeds that lacked the hard exteriors were also harvested, which caused the development of more mutant seeds. Another is that some plants need to be pollinated by another sex of that plant, but some mutant plants are self pollinating. These self pollinating plants would also be picked and eventually wipe out the non self pollinating plants.
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Apples or Indians
In this chapter diamond asks why where agriculture arouse independently it rose earlier than others. There are two possible explanations: there was a problem with the inhabitants or with the plant life. One would think that with all the different types of plants that any area would be able to develop crops. In modern times we have not even been able to produce a new major food plant, which means the earlier peoples might have stressed every use and found every plant that can be domesticated. Did the Fertile Crescent, one of the earliest areas of food production, thrive because of flora and environmental advantage compared to other regions? There are 3 advantages that we can name. The first is that the climate of the Fertile Crescent was wet in the winters and dry in the summers. The second advantage is that ancestor crops were already very productive and fruitful. A third advantage is that many of the crops that inhabited the Fertile Crescent were self-pollinating. Western Eurasia in general had advantages over other Mediterranean zones. The first is that the beneficial Mediterranean climate stretched over Eurasia more than any other area of the world. The second is that the seasons of Eurasia have the most variety throughout the year. The third advantage is that it contains a lot of different altitudes and geography. Fourth, the Crescent is biologically diverse. The eight "founder crops" of the Fertile Crescent were emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, pulses lentil, pea, chickpea, bitter vetch, and fiber crop flax. The fifth and final advantage is that it probably faced less competition with hunter-gatherer lifestyles than in other regions.
Agriculture arouse in the Fertile Crescent much earlier because of environmental factors. The biological, ecological, and geographical diversity allowed for a wide variety of fruitful crops, eight of which are the “founder crops”.
Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle
In this chapter Diamond starts off by talking about domesticable and undomesticable animals. He says that domesticable animals are all alike but undomesticable animals are each so in their own way. Zebras seem like they would make good domesticable animals but they have never been successfully domesticated. Most successfully domesticated animals were in fact from Eurasia. Elephants can be tamed but were never domesticated. Diamond explains that the definition of a domesticated animal is "an animal selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal's breeding and food supply." The top five mammals of domestication are the cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse. Why was Eurasia the main site for big mammal domestication? For one the continent contained the largest amount of wild mammals. Another reason is that Eurasia has had the fewest extinctions in the last 40,000 years. In other parts of the world large mammals were not as readily available for domestication. So why were some mammals unable to be domesticated? Diamond gives six reasons why: diet, growth rate, problems of captive breeding, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, and social structure.
Most successfully domesticated animals were from Eurasia. Why? 1. Contained largest amount of wild mammals. 2. Had the fewest extinction in the last 40,000 years. 3. Had more readily domesticable mammals.
Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes
This chapter discusses the effects that the orientation of axes could have on a continent. The
Americas and Africa both have a north-south axis while Eurasia has a west-east axis. This could be the cause of faster advancement in Eurasia. Trade spread farther west-east than it did north-south. This is also true of food production, specifically the spread of crops in the Fertile Crescent. Why are these facts so? It is because west-east regions share the same length of day, same types of seasons, same diseases, and same aspects of climate such as rainfall and habitat. Plants moved from north to south or vice versa were not built to endure the different climates, times of day, and etc. Domestic animals could not fight off the new types of disease and climate as well.
Part Three: - From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel
Lethal Gift of Livestock
This chapter discusses the link between livestock and crops with germs and diseases. He discusses all the ways that diseases and germs can infect a person and be passed on. Genetically some people have developed immunity to certain diseases or illnesses through generations of repeated exposure. Small populations can't fight outside epidemics and can't evolve their own because they are nearly wiped out every time, therefore the epidemic disappears. There are other infections though that act very slowly, therefore small populations can spread them. Crowd diseases can only be spread by large populations. So what was agriculture's role in disease? Firstly it allows for large sedentary populations that live among their trash and filth. This causes disease to be born. Trade routes among the populations of Europe, Asia, and Africa created a giant breeding ground for disease. Animals that are domesticated also cause disease to develop for the same reasons.
Blueprints and Borrowed Letters
This chapter discusses the power that writing can give when it comes to transmitting knowledge across lands. There are three strategies to writing systems that "differ in the size of speech unit denoted by one written sign: a single basic sound, a whole syllable, or a whole word. First is our alphabet which uses one sign per sound. Second is a logogram uses one sign for a whole word. Third is termed syllabaries which have signs for syllables of one consonant paired with a vowel. The Sumerian independently originated writing system actually consisted of 3 types of signs. These were logograms, phonetic signs, and determinatives. Another independently originated writing system came from the Native Americans of Mesoamerica. With some possible exceptions, all of the systems of writing seemed to derive or imitate the Sumerian or Mesoamerican forms. Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian, created a writing system for the language by creating signs to represent different syllables. Many of the signs he took from our alphabet. This is a very good example of idea diffusion.
This chapter opens up with the mysterious Phaistos disk that was found by archaeologists on the island of Crete in 1908 and its interesting technological aspects. Many inventions were made not for need but for mere curiosity and hobby. Diamond makes two main conclusions about technology is that it develops cumulatively and that most technology seems to have been invented for curiosity, therefore its uses are developed after it is made. To determine if an invention will be accepted there are four influential factors. The first is to ask whether it is economically advantageous over other inventions. The second is whether it has social significance or esteem. The third is whether it is compatible with the interests of the people.
From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy
Government and Religion are linked together throughout history. The government plans the conquest and religion justifies the conquest. Therefore, those who developed these two were able to dominate others. This completes the pattern of history, the other three being germs, writing, and technology. Bands are the smallest societies lack many types of institutions that other societies have. They are so small because the region they live in lacks the resources for larger societies. Next is the tribe, being a little larger. Tribes are large enough where they can have separate clans, but also lack many institutions. Next is Chiefdoms which contain different lineages and have many jobs that were often filled by captured slaves. Chiefdoms had a redistributive economy in which the chief received all the goods and then spread it back out among all the people. Kleptocracy is when the leader keeps much more tribute than he gives. He justifies this with religion. Cities have more people besides the food producers, taxes, and etc. States have many more slaves and are supported by a political and territorial basis, not one of kinship and heredity. So how did states originate? The first theory is that it is the natural condition of human society. The second is that people decided it would help their self-interests. The third is that people needed a state to create and maintain larger irrigation systems. Food production contributes to complex societies by involving "seasonally pulsed inputs of labor", creates food surplus which in turn enables specialization and stratification, and it permits people to live a sedentary lifestyle thus enabling them to make and acquire more goods. There are four reasons why large societies must have complex centralized government. Firstly, is the conflict that arises with unrelated strangers. Secondly is the "growing possibility of communal decision making with increasing population size." Thirdly involves economic reasons of differentiating talents and transfer of goods. The final consideration is that larger societies have denser populations.
Part Four: - Around the World in Five Chapters
In this chapter Diamond approaches the question of why Australia and New Guinea did not conquer Europe or other parts of the world since they had some of the earliest technology in history. Although Australia and New Guinea were both founded by Asian societies but lived in isolation from them. These two differ in almost every aspect. New Guinea is one of the places of independent origin of plant domestication. They had a great rise in population after they developed agriculture. They are very advanced in art, technology, society, and politics. So why didn’t they progress as much as the Europeans then? This is because of geographical and biological differences. First their crops did not provide enough protein, they did not have labor animals, and they did not evolve epidemic diseases to keep away invaders. Second, New Guinea did not provide a very large habitable area or area for large food production. They are also geographically isolated. We see why Europe conquered New Guinea. Europe’s guns, germs, and steel were also able to take over Australian Aborigines who had none of this.
New Guinea's crops did not provide enough protein, did not have labor animals, did not evolve epidemic diseases, were geographically isolated.
How China Became Chinese
China is the only nation that is not a big melting pot like the rest of the world. In reality the Chinese are quite genetically diverse from each other. Diamond talks about three ways we can try to map East Asia linguistically several thousand years ago. First he says we can "reverse the historically known linguistic expansions of recent millennia. Second, we can assume that large areas with a single language have not been occupied long enough for that language to split off into many different languages. Third, we can assume that large areas with many different languages "lie closer to the early center of distribution of that language family." Language replacements were caused by technological and political advantages of invading people. Geographic factors helped unify China politically. This is why Europe has not unified yet.
Photo courtesy of Elruu. Photo linked.
Speedboat to Polynesia
In this chapter Diamond approaches the subject of why Polynesia has managed to stay so homogeneous in its language even though it was colonized so long ago. The Austronesian expansion was one of the biggest population movements as of the last 6000 years. Many Austronesian invaders and New Guineans intermingled a lot so that the language was transferred but they still were genetically distinguishable from each other. The invasion was not able to wipe out all the New Guineans but only the ones who were not competitively equal.
In this chapter Diamond compares Eurasia and the Americas and asks why Eurasia was able to overtake much of the Native Americans. One reason is because of early extinction of large wild fauna in the Americas, while in Eurasia there were a variety of wild animals for domestication. Agriculture is another reason. Eurasia also had much more variety of domesticable plants. Those parts of the Americas that did have agriculture were lacking in protein. It was also much less successful because they did not have the labor animals that Eurasia did. Germs, metal, military technology, and power to operate machinery were all more reasons that Eurasia had such an advantage over the Native Americans.
Photo courtesy of Thubakabra.
How Africa Became Black
There are five major groups that inhabited Africa in 1000 A.D. These were blacks, whites, African Pygmies, Khoisan, and Asians. Blacks occupied the largest area. The Pygmy homeland was invaded by black farmers and adopted there language. The original pygmy language can only be heard in certain words. This also happened with the Khoisan’s though we are not sure how. Europe was able to take over Africa because they had an advantage over them with technology, widespread literacy, and political organization. A couple factors explain why Africa was not able to become as advanced as Europe. These are: Africa did not obtain domestic animals until much later, less varieties of domesticable plants, smaller area, and orientation of the main axes.
The Future of Human History as a Science
Diamond pretty much sums up the book with his thesis. He says he would tell Yali “the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments.” He restates four major differences due to the environments that he believes made a difference. First were the differences in wild plant and animal species. The second was rate of immigration and diffusion. Third was rate of “inter-continental diffusion”. Fourth were differences in area and population size. China rose above at first because of its unity but later this was the same thing that caused a disadvantage.
More! - Other books by Jared Diamond
If you liked this book you may want to try some of Jared Diamonds other books.
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