am 26. April 2000
In "Guns, Germs and Steel," Jared Diamond argues that the Earth's geography has been the sole determining factor in the evolution and development of all the world's civilisations. In particular, Diamond argues that Europeans and Asians came to dominate the world politically and economically due to their favourable geographic circumstances. Diamond asserts that the people of Europe and Asia had the benefits of highly fertile land and animals that could be domesticated, while the native peoples of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas did not have these assets. As a result, Europeans had a "head start" in the development of their civilisation. Having overcome their agrarian problems by 1500, Europeans used their newly developed "guns" and "steel" along with "germs" to dominate the globe. Thus, issues of race and biology do not explain the course of world history. If African tribes had lived in Europe, says Diamond, it would be they, not Europeans, who would dominate the world today.
Needless to say, a legion of grateful left-wing scholars and academics labeled Diamond's book a revelation, and a Pulitzer Prize soon followed. Alas. "Guns, Germs and Steel" testifies why nobody should allow literary awards to influence their book-buying habits. Although Diamond's basic thesis does have some validity, he ignores too many important issues that needed to be discussed.
Firstly, Diamond's "geographic" theory is neither "original" nor "revolutionary" as so many have claimed. By arguing that all the world's civilisations were dependent on their geography, Diamond is following a line of reasoning that dates back to Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre's "Annales" school of history. Environmental historians such as Donald Worster have also reiterated the ideas of the "Annales" school in recent times. Diamond certainly recycles these theories admirably enough, but if you are familiar with the work of the above historians, you will find little to appreciate here.
Although Diamond's thesis seems coherent enough, much of it is theoretical, and suffers from a lack of concrete evidence to back up his arguments. Instead of material facts, we get highly theoretical "chains of causation" with words such as "surely" and "must have" to provide the connections. One might be able to see how metal implements might develop from fertile lands, but can Newton's theory of Gravitation or Shakespeare's plays be linked directly to the development of metal tools? It is a little difficult to believe.
An examination of history also exposes the major flaws of Diamond's case. Between 1500 and 1750, for example, Europe was wracked by continual bouts of famine, disease and economic instability. (See David Fischer "The Great Wave," Jan De Vries "The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis.") But in spite of these titanic problems, European nations began an unprecedented wave of expansion. In addition, the philosophies that made up The Enlightenment also flourished in this period of economic uncertainty. According to Diamond's thesis, none of this could have happened as European farms at the time were in such a precarious state. The fact that these things did occur strongly suggests that there were other factors at work in the development of European civilisation.
By contrast, civilisations in tropical regions had ready access to abundant foodstuffs that could grow easily in such a warm climate. Tribes of native North Americans ranged over land that is now considered the most fertile in the world - and yet, none of these civilisations, despite their favourable geography, progressed as European nations did.
Diamond also overlooks important issues such as differing cultural prespectives. Between 1400 and 1600, the European depiction of nature underwent a fundamental change. (See Keith Thomas, "Man and the Natural World," Michael Adas, "Machines as the Measure of Men.") In this period, Europeans began to look upon nature as something that must be tamed. Europeans realised that technological innovations could overcome the obstacles of nature and improve lives. Thus, innovation and progress were encouraged by all. By contrast, until the arrival of Europeans, all the other civilisations of the world resigned themselves to the limitations of their environment. African and Pacific civilisations sought to harmonise themselves with nature, rather than try to change it. The people of New Guinea, where Diamond apparently grew up, were no exception to this rule, as Roy Rappaport's "Pigs for the Ancestors" so convincingly shows.
Diamond also refuses to take the impact of religion seriously. And yet, the Christian faith, which demanded the "spreading of the gospel" encouraged Europeans to look far afield, while the doctrine of the "civilising mission" was a primary motive for Britain and France in their colonial expansion.
Perhaps the overriding problem with "Guns, Germs and Steel" is its political correctness. Human variables such as culture, religion and environmental perspectives have played decisive roles in the development of the world's civilisations. This remains the case today, no matter how politically incorrect it might be to say so. Certainly, geography has played a role in the development of world history, but not to the extent asserted by Diamond. By ignoring the human variables, Diamond has greatly distorted the history of human progress