Guns, Germs, and Steel was originally recommended to me by my high school history teacher in 2010. It took me twelve years, but I finally got around to reading it. Then as now, his recommendation was well-placed.
In Guns, Jared Diamond asks a simple question: Why did Eurasian societies cultures spread across much of the world? Embedded within, still other questions lie — Why did massive discrepancies emerge in the technology available to different societies? Why didn’t the Inca conquer the Spanish, or the Hmong conquer the Chinese, instead of the other way around?
Diamond correctly points out that it’s discriminatory to leave this question unaddressed. If we don’t interrogate the causal factors for these broad trends in world history, then some may be left to assume that Eurasian cultures have some inherent superiority of people or cultural constitution. Absent a rigorous interrogation of the extrinsic causes, this derogatory view of diverse cultures is allowed to persist in the shadows of our collective discourse.
Guns outlines a compelling answer to this question: Environmental factors unique to the Eurasian continent allowed more rapid development of complex societies, rather than cultural or “biological” factors. Major arcs of world history can be explained purely based on geographic and environmental variables. There was no inherent differences in the human populations that developed in diverse geographies across the planet; the Eurasian geography was simply better suited to complex, agricultural societies. Building a complex society in Eurasia was easy-mode — every other geography posed more challenges.
Eponymously, Diamond cites three proximal factors as the reason that Eurasian societies conquered much of the world:
However, these three proximal factors don’t get us much closer to the root etiology, the core reason that Eurasian societies conquered many others. Why did Eurasian societies develop guns earlier? Why did they have denser cities that led to more virulent germs? Why did they develop more sophisticated metallurgy?
Diamond again provides a cogent, compact answer that boils down to a few key points:
Agriculturally-favorable flora and fauna
Surprisingly few plants and even fewer animals have been domesticated over the whole course of human history. The majority of calories consumed by humans come from just a handful of plant species — a few grains (wheat, barley, rice), some pulses (beans, peas), and a few tubers (potatoes, yams, taro). The overwhelming majority of these productive plants originated in Eurasian agricultural centers, most notably the Fertile Crescent.
Put succinctly, all of the most productive, best crops for building an agricultural society were native to Eurasia, and a surprising number were native to the Mediterranean basin. A similar story holds for domesticated animals. Most of the farm animals we know today (cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep)
Societies that developed in Africa, the Americas, and Austronesia, didn’t have access to many of the best tools for building sedentary societies with food surpluses. Without food surpluses, the majority of the population had to be directly involved in food production, preventing economic specialization. Economic specialization — workers focusing on particular tasks like record keeping, pottery, home building, or the like — is a catalyst for technological development. Societies that didn’t have access to crops, therefore lacked food surpluses that could maintain specialist workers, and developed technology more slowly.
Broad land area at a common latitude
In addition to most of the best flora and fauna residing natively in Eurasia, even some of the useful flora and fauna native to the Americas, Africa, and Austronesia failed to travel throughput those regions. Diamond proposes a very simple explanation: Most of the Eurasian land mass is laid out East-to-West, while most of the Americas, Africa, and Austronesia are laid out North-to-South.
Flora and fauna tend to grow best in a limited range of environments. Locations at the same latitude may have dramatically different local climates, but at a minimum share the same seasonal patterns and light-dark cycles. The broad East-West access across Eurasia allowed crops from the Fertile Crescent to succeed in East Asia and vice-versa. By contrast, the North-South latitudinal axis of the Americas made it difficult for crops from Mesoamerica like corn to spread to other American civilizations like the Inca in South America or to North American societies.
Few natural barriers to free-exchange
In addition to a favorable East-West axis, Eurasia benefitted from relatively modest topographical barriers to an exchange of domesticated agricultural products and technologies. There is a low-lying land route between most destinations on the Eurasian continent, whereas Austronesia is broken up into distant islands, Africa is bisected by a nearly impassable desert, and the Americas are bifurcated by dense jungle in the modern day Northern Triangle and Panama.