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Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel – Anthropology 2.5

Guns Germs and SteelUpdate 2013: This page began a reconsideration of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Jared Diamond’s work. For updates, please see Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire, which features a much more thorough discussion of European diseases for the Conquest of the Americas, and Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires which discusses the emergence of Europe.

This is an ongoing attempt to summarize a lot of anthropology, archaeology, and history here–if you would like more, please read the real history, from the links here and the fuller discussion links above.

For more on the anthropological perspective, see What is Anthropology?

In 1997, ten years after calling agriculture The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, Jared Diamond came out with Guns, Germs, and Steel, a landmark book that would win the Pulitzer Prize, become a best-seller, and be filmed by National Geographic for PBS. It is surely the most widely read book about agriculture anyone has ever written.

In 2012-2013 Guns, Germs and Steel returned to the fore, first because presidential candidate Mitt Romney cited it on his foreign-policy thinking, and then because Jared Diamond published The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies. For more on the Romney-Diamond dust-up, see Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney and for anthropological reviews of Diamond’s newest, see Anthropology on Jared Diamond – The World Until Yesterday. It also seems that Jared Diamond has the ear of Bill Gates–who considers Guns, Germs, and Steel to be the answer to his own big questions.

The key question is whether Diamond’s work is broadly correct about human history or a distortion of that history. I argue below that although Diamond makes interesting points, his work from Guns, Germs, and Steel to Collapse is a distorting disservice to the real historical record. Diamond’s claim–that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies “choose to fail”–not only does not withstand scrutiny, it should not be promoted or taught.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Yali’s Question and Central Thesis

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond purports to answer “Yali’s Question.” Diamond had met Yali in New Guinea in 1972, and Yali asked: “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?” (1997:14). For Diamond, Yali’s question meant trying to explain why Europeans had become imperial powers, wealthy nations, whereas others had not.

Diamond’s answer was that it had nothing to do with any innate European superiority, neither intellectual nor genetic. Rather, it was all about agriculture, a geographical accident. For Diamond, the differences in the agricultural complex that had arisen in the Middle East explained everything. Agriculture had been there longer, giving the Eurasians more time to develop technologies. Eurasian agriculture also included most of the large domesticated animals, which provided a crucial symbiotic resource for agricultural production. Domesticated animals also introduced diseases, and Eurasians developed some immunity to those diseases. Finally, agriculture in Eurasia spread along a longitudinal gradient, making trade and interconnection quicker than in Africa and the Americas, where much more difficult latitudinal gradients had to be overcome.

After once labeling agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, the idea that European superiority was all based in early agriculture seems curious. However, it was not entirely incongruous: Diamond here did not intend to comment on internal social and sexual inequality, or the ravages of disease and despotism for those who had adopted agriculture. Those factors remained true, but when such societies encountered others, the Europeans had the advantage of disease immunity as well as a longer experience with agriculture and agricultural technologies.

A generous reading of Guns, Germs, and Steel could even be that ten years after his “Worst Mistake,” Diamond was now carefully considering the different forms of agriculture that had developed from diverse gathering and hunting societies.

But Guns, Germs, and Steel is not about nuance or particularity. It is a one-note riff. Whatever there is to be explained–guns, germs, or steel, as well as writing, military power, and European imperialism–everything is about early adoption of agriculture, the big domestic animals, and the longitudinal gradient facilitating trade and interaction. Diamond has lots of cool stories and anecdotes, but it always goes back to the same factors.

Guns, Germs, and Steel as Academic Porn

Halfway through teaching Guns, Germs, and Steel, I blurted out that it was academic porn–the costumes change, the props change, but in the end it’s the same repeated theme. I don’t think I am entirely crazy, even about the porn. After all, Diamond published two books in 1997–the other was Why Is Sex Fun? It’s as if Diamond was going for a bestseller and put two books in the stores. It seems surprising Guns, Germs and Steel became the bestseller, while Why is Sex Fun? barely left the shelves. Who knew?

See Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires for more on my reasons for calling Diamond’s work “academic porn,” and the argument that Guns Germs and Steel retarded rather than advanced our understanding of human history and Yali’s Question, or Why Europe?

Diamond may be a good counter-argument against some of the more noxious forms of racist superiority and Eurocentrism. He has helped to bring these ideas to a wider public, who may not have otherwise considered large domestic animals and longitudinal trade gradients. But Guns, Germs, and Steel is actually “disguised as an attack on racial determinism” (Wilcox, Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian: An Indigenous Response to Jared Diamond’s Archaeology of the American Southwest, 2010:122). Diamond’s modest re-telling of traditional domination histories is factually wrong and blatantly misleading.

First, Diamond’s account makes all the factors of European domination a product of a distant and accidental history: “For Diamond, guns and steel were just technologies that happened to fall into the hands of one’s collective ancestors. And, just to make things fair, they only marginally benefited Westerners over their Indigenous foes in the New World because the real conquest was accomplished by other forces floating free in the cosmic lottery–submicroscopic pathogens” (Wilcox 2010:123).

What Diamond glosses over is that just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes. Or handing out smallpox-infested blankets from sick wards. One of the supposed values of Western civilization is to care for the sick, not to deliberately spread disease. “Pizarro had the capacity and resources to behave with remarkable brutality in the New World. But the mere capacity to behave brutally does not absolve him from having done so” (Errington and Gewertz, Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History, 2010:340).

Diamond has almost nothing to say about the political decisions made in order to pursue European imperialism, to manufacture steel and guns, and to use disease as a weapon. As a results, accounts like Guns, Germs, and Steel end up supplanting the real historical accounts like Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History:

Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents. (1982:18; and see blog-post Anthropology is Necessary)

Second, Diamond’s account seriously underplays the alliances with native groups that enabled European forces to conquer and rule. After some initial victories, which Diamond lavishly describes, thousands of natives joined the tiny European garrisons, assisting Hernán Cortés in subduing the Aztec Empire and Francisco Pizarro with the Inka. As David Cahill points out in Advanced Andeans and Backward Europeans (2010) there could be no empire without these collaborations and the pre-existing mechanisms these empires had established:

The arrival of the Spanish interlopers suddenly made independence from imperial rule a practical possibility. Accordingly, it was not a small band of gallant conquistadors who conquered the Incas and Aztecs, but an alliance consisting of a core of militarily trained Spaniards together with breakaway, populous states that sought independence from tyrannical overlords. . . .
Diamond overlooks entirely not only the crucial support from non-Incan native allies, but also the overwhelming degree to which any government, Andean or Spanish, depended on a functioning tier of local, regional, and interregional ruling cadres. (Cahill 2010:215,224)

Charles Mann makes a similar point in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, but it is most forcibly expressed in Matthew Restall’s book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003). As Restall notes, the decisions to make these alliances and compromises were not necessarily bad ones–some native peoples were able to live their lives in relative peace and autonomy, even after the events of the conquest, which was hardly completed in one fell swoop (for a fuller account, see Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire)

From Guns, Germs, and Steel to Collapse

The Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel has almost no role for human agency–the ability people have to make decisions and influence outcomes. Europeans become inadvertent, accidental conquerors. Natives succumb passively to their fate. But in 2005 out comes another book from Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Suddenly choice and agency are back!

In an article questioning Diamond’s treatment of Haiti, Drexel Woodson provides a generous reading of Diamond’s shifting emphasis:

Although Guns, Germs, and Steel received accolades from the media and nonspecialists, Diamond seemed uncomfortable with the book’s simplistic environmental determinism. In Collapse he attempted to rectify the excesses of determinism by investigating agency–how and why a society’s leaders and followers make choices that have positive or negative environmental and socioeconomic consequences. (Woodson, “Failed” States, Societal “Collapse,” and Ecological “Disaster”: A Haitian Lesson on Grand Theory, 2010:271)

However, I have not seen any evidence for Diamond being uncomfortable with the determinism he previously embraced. On the contrary, Diamond claimed Guns, Germs, and Steel was not environmental determinism. I also do not see Collapse as investigating agency–it is rather, for most cases, depicting how people “choose” to fail. So when Europeans “succeed” at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault; when other societies falter, that was a choice to fail: “Taken together, the two books struck Frederick K. Errington, an anthropologist . . . as a ‘one-two punch.’ The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise” (A Question of Blame When Societies Fall, Johnson 2007). Or, “note the subtle shift (or less charitably the contradiction) between the ‘accident’ of conquest in Guns and the ‘choice’ of success or failure among Diamond’s Anasazi in Collapse” (Wilcox 2010:124; see also the 2012 On Haiti, Jared Diamond Hasn’t Done His Homework for a very specific and powerful rebuttal).

Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz elaborate in their article “Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History.” As they do in their book, Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History, Errington and Gewertz further assert that Diamond did not really understand Yali’s Question, the starting premise for Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yali’s question was not actually about getting more stuff, but about being recognized as fully human, about being treated with dignity and respect: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history” (2010:335).

Jared Diamond has done a huge disservice to the telling of human history. He has tremendously distorted the role of domestication and agriculture in that history. Unfortunately his story-telling abilities are so compelling that he has seduced a generation of college-educated readers. Introductory anthropology textbooks often borrow Diamond’s ideas, as if Diamond needs further popularizing. Even critical works like Questioning Collapse often treat Diamond with kid-gloves, since the authors support Diamond’s stance on issues of climate change.

It’s time to stop giving Diamond a platform in Anthropology 101. Take the gloves off. The film version of Guns, Germs, and Steel, as recorded by National Geographic, basically revives the progressivist line about domestication, how people create plants and animals “ever more useful to humans.” Now that we’ve gone from Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race back to the progressivist line, Diamond’s usefulness is past expired. Instead, let’s consider the full range of complexities regarding domestication, agriculture, and the consequences of human agency.

Note: I draw heavily on the essays in Questioning Collapse for these observations and have found good material in this volume. However, as I discuss in my blog-post Anthro-Flop-ology, the book has serious shortcomings as a popular critique. See also the review by Alex Golub on Savage Minds.

The authors of Questioning Collapse have defended themselves against Jared Diamond’s review of their work in Nature:

We emphasize that Questioning Collapse presents ample archaeological and historical data that contextualize how societies moved through periods of crisis. The goal of our book is to provide students and lay persons alike with an understanding of historical processes that is based upon up-to-date research. Questioning Collapse is more than a critical evaluation of Diamond’s scholarship: it is about how we understand change in the past, how we grapple with the legacy of colonialism and with inequalities in the present, and how we can move forward productively and resiliently into the future.
From the Editors of Questioning Collapse: Requesting Full Disclosure and Correction of Factual Errors, 2010

Previous: 2.4 – Many Origins of Agriculture

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2013. Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel. Living Anthropologically, Last updated January 18, 2013.

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  • John Postill

    Thanks Jason, a very interesting – and timely – essay.

    I read Guns, Germs and Steel over a decade ago, but as I recall the argument, Diamond is not saying that geography *determines* the cultural trajectory of a people or civilisation, but rather that certain environmental conditions *made it possible* for human living in regions such as the Fertile Crescent, China and Central America to domesticate wild plants and animals over a long period of time. Such conditions did not exist in, say, northern Europe, Australia or central Africa. In other words, he is writing about uneven affordances, not determinism. In turn, the development of agriculture *afforded* (but did not determine) over time independent cultural innovations such as writing and cities in precisely those regions.

    I think this makes perfect sense, and it’s in fact wholly compatible with the idea that humans are historical agents. Human agents don’t operate in a transhistorical and geographical vacuum – they can only work within their own material and socioeconomic circumstances. If you’re interested in domesticating plants or animals, don’t move to Antarctica, for however driven an agent you are, it ain’t gonna work.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi John, thank you for this reply, and an admirable analysis after more than 10 years away from Diamond! However, I believe you have constructed a more complex argument for Diamond than is in his book, and the idea of affordances makes me think of Heidegger or psychologist James J. Gibson.

      Diamond indeed says that you can’t domesticate what is not there. But he further claims that everything domesticable in every environment was domesticated. Diamond postulated that all human groups were equally smart and with detailed knowledge of their natural surroundings, so every candidate for domestication was tried and if possible, domesticated. If one group did not do it, then another group would, and over-run the others.

      I don’t think this is compatible with the archaeological record–see the papers in the 2011 Current Anthropology The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas–nor does it explain the dynamism of city-states. As McAnany and Yoffee write in their introduction to Questioning Collapse:

      Can anyone say that the present balance of economic and political power will be the same in 2500 as it is today? For example, in the year 1500 some of the most powerful and largest cities in the world existed in China, India, and Turkey. In the year 1000, many of the mightiest cities were located in Peru, Iraq, and Central Asia. In the year 500 they could be found in central Mexico, Italy, and China. . . . What geographic determinism can account for this? (McAnany and Yoffee, 2010:10)

      But the real problem is when this is extended to explain European conquest and imperialism. And I would argue that the issue is not so much whether Diamond is a “determinist” or not, which is a rabbit-hole of claim and counter-claim, but at what points he uses a more determinist perspective and at what points he switches to agency.

      • Al West

        First off, when you accuse someone of being a ‘determinist’, it is vital to be clear about what you mean. Diamond is not a determinist; he does not, and did not, believe that geography wholly determines human actions – any of them. And if you accept that Diamond *isn’t* a determinist, then what is wrong with G,G,&S? What special problems does it have that make you hate it so much? And don’t say you don’t hate it – it appears that you want it excised wholesale from anthropology textbooks. That’s quite an extreme position.

        And no, I don’t think John Postill provided a more complicated argument than Diamond gave. Of course Diamond doesn’t believe geography wholly determines actions; he may not have used the (unnecessary, jargon-y) word ‘affordance’, but he certainly showed that geography can favour certain actions over others, making them easier and more likely to be performed. If an action is easier to do, it is more likely that it will be done. The geography of Eurasia made certain things easier than the geography of the Americas. This is why, for instance, the sail was invented in the ancient Mediterranean and South China Sea, but not in the Caribbean (and so on). That’s the central argument of the book.

        By the way, it is possible to embrace both determinism and ‘agency’; if there’s no free will, then human decisions are at least in some sense determined, and the trick is finding out the factors that determine human choices, not rejecting ‘determinism’ outright or rejecting any theory that attempts to understand the causes of human history.

        •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Hi Al, thank you for the comment. I would reiterate that the question of determinism and agency need to be answered empirically. I’ve gained enormously from reading over your essays on West’s Meditations, because it clarifies to me exactly what needs to be further spelled out with regard to Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History and Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. I’m hoping to spell that out in follow-up sections later this week.

          • Al West

            I feel I should point out that I’m not all that interested in defending Jared Diamond per se. I’m interested in defending the defensible, and I think Diamond’s approach fits the bill. Specific empirical problems are less important. What I object to in all the Diamond-bashing is the idea that everything he said, and his entire approach, amounts to a hill of conservative agency-denying beans. This isn’t true, and his overall framework is incredibly valuable. I’d much rather use Diamond’s central thesis – that geography encourages some actions rather than others – and build on it than take it down in a tribalistic frenzy. The central point is almost obvious – only the details are contentious, given that the furore over determinism is misguided. So I don’t understand the desire to excise Diamond totally from anthropology. Why not take the theory and improve on it? And why hate Diamond so much more than Jack Goody?

            In other words, I’m more interested in creating a more powerful theory than in defending a book. I just think Diamond’s book is a good starting point, and it is a shame to see it caricatured in this way.

            I look forward to your posts. I’ve read Wolf and Restall, of course – but I’m sure you’ll have something interesting to say.

          •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

            Hi Al, thank you again for your insightful comments and your discussion at your West’s Meditations. I’ve posted, Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires, which is a quite extended response to your comment that Wolf was asking very different questions – not why Europeans conquered the world. Wolf was asking Why Europe, quite prominent in that reassessment along with Wallerstein, Frank, others.

            I do want to clarify that like you, I don’t have anything personal against Diamond. Nor do I care whether or not he is an anthropologist. It is all about what kind of ideas are where, what the ideas are and how prominently they are represented, their effects.

            Next up trying to tackle Restall and the germs…

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  • Jon Marks

    His earlier book The third chimpanzee was very biologically deterministic and in a strange sense Germs Guns and Steel was its doppelganger.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Jon, thank you for this and for drawing our attention to The Third Chimpanzee (1992). I noticed in your recent The biological myth of human evolution that you provided a marvelous critique of this perspective. I also used your work in my follow-up
      Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney: Liberal Coffee-Table Histories vs. Real History
      –I’m pretty convinced that the 1987-1992 period was crucial in the rise of Diamond.

      I find interesting the suggestion that Guns, Germs, and Steel is a deterministic doppelganger to The Third Chimpanzee, and then we can add Collapse as the mirror-image, of agency when societies “choose to fail.”

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  • Steve Black

    Thanks for this thought provoking essay, great job! One question:

    In your first critique of Diamond’s book, you write, “just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes.”

    I’m not sure if this is a fair critique. As much as I try to embrace the importance of human agency in my own work, I’d be hard pressed to find an example where a group with some advantage over others did not use it to establish hierarchy (or, in most cases, to do some fairly negative or even horrific things). The colonialists, imperialists, or others in power will always make good straw men–it’s easy to critique those who do bad things, but less easy to consider the idea that you might do the same in their position.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thank you for this. I
      certainly don’t want to engage in misplaced historical criticism or
      holier-than-thou diatribes. Ten Commandments notwithstanding, perhaps this is a
      bit much for the 16th century.

      However, even if the strong
      version of people-will-dominate-if-they-can is correct–and I would question
      this idea–the historical kind, type, and specifics of that domination matter.
      The Sepulveda v. Las Casas debate about Indian humanity would matter and have material consequences. Or, see
      Sidney W. Mintz, Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations on how the French colonial legal system in Saint-Domingue–while hardly
      not racist–nevertheless carved a space for the gens de coleur who would be
      crucial to the Haitian Revolution.

      So the contingent decisions
      and details of domination matter, as do the details of response, whether that be
      rebellion, grudging acceptance, flight, or collaboration.

    • Darryl Myers

      I don’t think there would be such vitriol in the responses to Diamond if his book was about any species other than people. If someone wrote a popular Diamondesque summary of biogeographical factors in the biological and population history of a species of insect, or flowering plant, or fungus (and I’m sure someone has, even though I have no example to give), there would not be so much emotion in the response, whether one agreed with the theory proposed or not.

      For example, would anyone question whether a more aggressive species of ant “should” expand its range at the expense of other ant species? (As, I believe, certain species of ants have actually done in recent decades.) What matters is whether one considers the proposed explanation for the expansion of the ant species to be both theoretically adequate and consistent with empirical data, not one’s quasi-moral judgment about whether one ant species “should” have expanded at the expense of others. (Similarly for explanations of how a destructive hurricane formed and moved, or what determined the orbit of an asteroid that destroyed a city.)

      •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

        Hi Darryl, thank you, but I think this comment misses the point on two levels. First, just in terms of biological species, there has indeed been a great deal of reflection on the possible harm from “invasive species.” But second, and more importantly, humans are not ants or hurricanes or asteroids–we are uniquely able to bring our own activities to consciousness and reflect, which is why we have an idea of history at all.

        Please take a look at Myths of the Spanish Conquest for more about the peculiar character of this expansion.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I find this interesting, and a partial corrective to Diamond. However, I disagree with the claim that Yali’s “real” question was about why whites won’t treat blacks equally. (Of course, all of this assumes that Yali actually existed.)

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi SocraticGadfly,
      Thank you for the comment. I find very interesting the idea from Errington and Gewertz that there was a deeper question at work in Yali’s words. However, I would also agree with you in this respect, that even if Diamond misunderstood Yali’s true question, someone does have to explain the power imbalances. That’s what I think Eric Wolf and others were trying to do.

  • BotanyBuff

    Sounds like the logical balance would involve pairing Guns, Germs, and Steel with The Chalice and the Blade, where we get an explanation of how violent, militaristic cultures basically took over all of their more well adjusted neighbors and assimilated them into also being violent (and authoritarian and patriarchal). Both books are flawed,but they provide an excellent contrast.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi BotanyBuff,
      Indeed it does seem the case that the Spanish after going through the Reconquista were “in the mood” for the Conquista. However, as I mentioned above and is discussed in Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, indigenous allies also played a crucial role.

    • Darryl Myers

      Why has no one mentioned the violent, racist, and destructive practices of the Aztecs? (Among many others in just about all parts of the world before European expansion.) After all, there was a reason that all those other tribes were so anti-Aztec that they sided with strangers from across the ocean.

      •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

        Um, plenty of people have discussed the Aztecs. This is not an attempt to deny that very bad things happened in all parts of the world before and outside of European conquest. See Europe and the People Without History for more.

  • Amy

    Maybe i missed it in your post, but isn’t the fact that the neolithic revolution happened in the Americas very early, and that it allowed for the development of cities of equal or greater complexity than European cities, a sufficient challenge to any argument that reduces the conquest of the Americas to some sort of agricultural head start in the Old World? That Europeans couldn’t have defeated the empires of the Americas without indigenous allies has to be emphasized, but lopsided disease and resistance was what prevented those allies, rather than the Spanish, from becoming the next dominant powers. You say “What Diamond glosses over is that just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes. Or handing out smallpox-infested blankets from sick wards.” No doubt the Spanish were violent, gold-obsessed mass murderers, but do we need to credit them with strategic germ warfare? If there is evidence that they actively spread small pox, I would like to know what it is – this information would be very useful to me as a teacher. But my impression is that the diseases were sufficiently virulent on their own and that, in fact, the conquest *was* a *kind* of accident. Colonial/Imperialist motivations may have been necessary but insufficient for the conquest of the Americas – things could have been otherwise.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Amy, thank you for this and I find a lot to agree with here. As historian Matthew Restall points out in Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (which might be of interest for you as a teacher), the Spanish were indeed more than impressed by the urban centers in the Aztec and Inca empires.

      At the same time, I would resist portraying the Spanish as “violent, gold-obsessed mass murderers”–that’s part of the “black legend” which depicted Spanish colonization as uniquely barbarous, justifying U.S. expansion (see Tony Horwitz Immigration–and the Curse of the Black Legend, also great for teaching).

      The smallpox blanket reference is actually to later actions in North America, and while there is significant debate as to how much this was done and if it was ever effective, there was certainly intention:

      British commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Swiss-British officer Colonel Henry Bouquet apparently discussed the topic separately in the course of the same conflict; there exists correspondence referencing the idea of giving smallpox-infected blankets to enemy Indians. Historian Francis Parkman cited four letters from June 29, July 13, 16 and 26th, 1763. Excerpts: Amherst wrote on July 16, 1763, “P.S. You will Do well to try to Inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect,…” (Wikipedia, History of biological warfare)

      Thank you again for the reply and allowing clarification. I would say the conquest was certainly “contingent”–as you say, things could have been otherwise–but “accident” implies more inadvertency than seems to have been the case.

      • Amy

        Thanks Jason – I look forward to reading the Black Legend. But I must say I am surprised that my description of the Spanish (meaning the invaders, of course) is controversial. They had to be violent to conquer a highly organized militarized empire, they were obsessed with the pursuit of mineral wealth. And they massacred. We read and talk about Bartolome de Las Casas – more evidence for violence but also the fact that some Spanish were outraged by it.

        Every semester, one student asks if the Spanish intentionally spread small pox in Mesoamerica. I now show them a slide of the original letter by Amherst you quote above – but I always emphasize that this is 250 years after the conquest of Mesoamerica and it’s New England, which had a very different model of colonial domination. It may be a minor point, but I don’t think it belongs in an argument about “agency” on the part of the Spanish. If the indigenous population of the Americas plummeted as estimated by Cook and Borah (from 25 to 1 million in less than 100 years), and if that is largely due to the spread of infectious old world diseases, then you would have to put most of the causal weight for the success of the Spanish on infectious diseases. (I don’t know if anyone can say for sure how many deaths were due to infectious diseases versus over-working and murder – that matters too). But you are right, that if the Spanish didn’t have colonial/imperial motivations, disease alone wouldn’t have led to colonization and imperialism.

        I teach at an urban public university where students do not come to class with subtle misconceptions about agency but rather with a near-complete absence of knowledge of what Mesoamerica was like before the Spanish, the conquest itself and colonial and post-colonial history. Maybe one student has read Jared Diamond and has a rough chronology of events in his/her head but that’s about it. So what the students tend to think (perhaps like Romney, perhaps like most Americans) is that the Spanish settled relatively vacant lands and introduced civilization (including agriculture and Christianity) to the people. And that this was somehow natural or rational or inevitable.

        What I encounter as a teacher is what James Loewen has analyzed at length in books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. I enjoy that about teaching – it’s a good challenge.

        •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Hi Amy,
          Thank you for the follow-up. I am definitely with you on the idea of imparting basic information, but against the backdrop of strangely durable stereotypes. I’m not trying to say that the Spanish conquistadores were “good guys,” but just not “uniquely barbarous.”

          I do think you would find Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest to be a useful resource. Although disease and demographic collapse were certainly important in the long run, they don’t really explain the conquest of the Aztecs (some say smallpox was important in the Inca case, but that’s debated). What really swung things was the indigneous allies–hundreds of thousands in the case of the final siege on the Aztec Empire. When the Spaniards were able to insinuate themselves along pre-existing fault lines, conquest was possible. In other cases–such as the Maya–the idea that the conquest was quickly over is another one of those myths, what Restall calls the “Myth of Completion.”

          • Amy (Again)

            Thank you for your

            “Not uniquely barbarous” (if only). There are so
            many variables interacting in complex ways, it’s easy to imagine counterfactual
            histories. Tenochtitlán was supposed to have been defeated by a mere 500 or so Spanish
            and 7000 Tlaxcalans. Only retrospectively might we consider this the
            “Fall of Mexico” – it might (can I say without disease?) have represented another power shift within
            Mesoamerica; the Spanish would have been vastly outnumbered and the form of
            colonization presumably very different. I might use some Restall
            this semester, thanks to you; he adds balance and subtlety to the
            subject. Thanks!

          •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

            Hi Amy,
            Thank you for extending this conversation. Hope Restall works–let me know!

            Restall points out that even the early chroniclers estimate the number of Spaniard allies to defeat the Mexica in the 100-150,000 range! Quite different from the usual stories…

    • moleman

      to get your dates right, the pinnacle of any of the Mesoamerican groups or South American groups was between 600 and 1000. I am not sure what you mean by saying “the neolithic revolution happened in the Americas very early, and that it allowed for the development of cities of equal or greater complexity than European cities.”

      yes, Tiwanaku, Cusco, and Tenochtitlan were surely some of the biggest cities in the world at their height. but they weren’t the biggest in 1000 B.C., and not in 1700 AD either.

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  • Torrivent David El

    Hallo to all,

    As (an upcoming ;) specialist on “American prehistory”, I soon discovered, in about 2005, that what Diamond was claiming in Guns, Germs, and Steel, was very far from the truth. When I later talked to my colleagues in other parts of the global field (Africa, Middle East, Asia, etc), the conclusion was it was “Bad. Very bad”.

    I’ll stay with the Americas. Besides making a lot of very strange mistakes and even stranger theories (about supposed deserts and tropical forests lying “in the way” between “good areas”, and “bad” vertical axes), he also used sources that were so clearly out-of-date, even in 1997, that is was astonishing. Using this out-of-date material, he completely messed up his whole story. Anyone who read “1491″ by Charles Mann, will know that the evidence & knowledge for/about an earlier human arrival in the Americas, very early agriculture (as early as in the Middle East as a matter of fact), and early start of city-building-civilizations, has been there for about 20 to 30 years now. To give just a tiny example: Its a real shame that he failed to incorporate the research by Piperno & Pearsall, who published their first standard work about Neotropical agriculture only a year later (

    Actually, the whole book is built on the Clovis-First theory (why else would he begin 13.000 years ago?). In the beginning of the book he gives the impression that there are/were only a few pre-Clovis believers, and that MAINSTREAM archaeological consensus “knows” that pre-Clovis people were NOT & NEVER there. I can tell everybody here we knew better at the time. Just like we know better now (Clovis-First actually is on the “losing end” nowadays…)

    “Collapse” was no better. Ask any specialist on Easter Island (I talked to quite a few) or the Mayas, and they’ll tell you about the rubbish Diamond is selling you. Again, I know a lot more about the Mayas than about, for example Easter Island, so I’ll give you again a tiny example about that one. THE most simple answer is that 1) there never was a Maya empire, 2) there are still about 7 million Mayas today, 3) there was also a “PRECLASSIC Collapse”, and a “POSTCLASSIC” era.

    Now because there wasn’t a single Maya empire, there also wasn’t a Maya Collapse… SOME Maya cities were abandoned or reduced in size (for what reasons we don’t know but it was certainly more than 1, and certainly NOT mainly because of the Mayas destroying their environment), OTHERS flourished, grew, and became powerful (Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Tulum and Mayapan are the best known examples). That is what we call the post classic era (so named because 100 years ago we still thought like Jared Diamond: that the Classic Period was the best and the biggest and the richest. Today we know that is NOT true. But hey… just look at the sources Diamond used for his book, and you’ll soon get the idea). He also ignores the fact that there was something like a “pre classic collapse” (around AD 200). Of course he isn’t talking about that because that would ruin his theory (although some preclassic cities were abandoned or reduced in size, others flourished, grew and became powerful… SOUNDS FAMILIAR? Yes it does. And there is even less evidence for Maya people destroying their environment around AD 200…)
    Finally, of course… if they collapsed… what the hell are these 7 million people doing here then in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador??

    And now we have this final book. By only reading the back of it, I started to cry. Or laugh? I don’t remember. Yeah right they live as we did thousands of years ago… DID he even bother to read the latest (30/40/more years old??) theory on this subject? Looking at GGS. & C. I shouldn’t be, perhaps, that surprised…

    David Torrivent
    ma. in Laguages & Cultures of Indigenous America
    phd student with work in progress :)

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi David, many thanks for this and apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I find myself strangely perplexed by all of this–on the one hand, there are people like you who know all these things and when talking to all the true experts, they all declare that there has been a bunch of “rubbish” being sold, not just in Guns Germs and Steel, but in several other Diamond books. However, if you read into this comment stream and listen to lots of others–including many inside academia–they seem convinced that this is great erudition, “broadly true,” or that we are dealing with an amazing polymath.

      Very strange.

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  • Keryl

    small pox blankets – a myth that never actually happened.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Keryl, I address the question of historical accuracy in this comment. I probably too much remembered this statement because I went to a rival college to the one Lord Amherst founded. In any case, the attitude of trying to “extirpate” people was certainly present.

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  • disqus_19dLW1OKJx

    Why is disease so underestimated for its effects against the Indians in South America? A much smaller plague, the Black Death, in Europe effectively ended the Middle Ages. Had a similar plague hit Europe in the 1500′s Christianity might well be a mere remembrance. Given that the only contemporary explanation for disease would have been supernatural, what destroyed Aztec and Inca culture more than anything else was likely the belief that they were cursed. Their gods no longer had power and being affiliated with them might bring divine retribution that was palpable and terrifying. The conquistadores in this reading are brutish for sure, but mostly their successes were due to forces far beyond the understandings of the age. They seized the initiative though were far less than able to create opportunities themselves.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi, thank you for this, please see the follow-up Myths of the Spanish Conquest–Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire. It’s not an understimation of the effects of disease, it’s a question of timing. Even in South America, there is substantial debate over whether disease was really a factor in the initial conquest or whether it was a later effect and after the larger issues of the Inca civil war and political disunity. In most cases, the waves of disease came later, and were very linked to the socio-economic conditions established post-conquest.

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  • Michaela O’Brien

    “Diamond may be a good counter-argument against some of the more noxious forms of racist superiority and Eurocentrism.” Has it occured to you that that might be the only motivation for his ‘theory?’ Politically motivated science is not new.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      If this were the only motivation for writing Guns, Germs and Steel, then I would hope he would have done a better job with it. After all–see Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney–it was a particularly unconvincing argument for people defending race-IQ linkages, and in many ways allows the re-emergence of Eurocentric historical accounts.

      • Michaela O’Brien

        Let’s pretend that there are subtle differences between races and that’s why culture developed so differently. How would modern science and the egalitarians deal with this knowledge?

  • Chartbury

    The story of disease in the Americas is still being written. Smallpox was already here.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi, thank you for the comment and link. Reading through that story, it does seem possible there was a milder version of smallpox in the Americas, but it does not seem to counter the main story when the more lethal version spread in the Americas in the 16th century.

  • Θέμης

    I read through your text. It seems to me you don’t really get it. Of course human intelligence and choice factors in the conquests, political decisions, imperialism and so on and so on. But that is not the ultimate reason. It is a proximate reason. That is what Diamond argues about. Everyone has the capacity for such a thing. But it was the faster adoption of agriculture by Europeans that gave them the head start to factor in their intelligence, political power plays, alliances with natives etc. The question is why Europeans and not native Americans? And the answer provided my Diamond is sufficient to me.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thank you for this. I disagree about the importance of “ultimate reasons” because they really don’t seem to be ultimate reasons–the real question is not Europe versus Americans but how certain European-located peoples acquired power within Eurasia and understanding how this created the first moment of globality. For these questions see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires. In this context, Diamond is a decoy, a “sufficient” answer if you aren’t really interested in understanding history.

  • Hey Hey Hey

    When I read this, I noticed that you NEVER cited any sources. I mean you stated their names occasionally, but you never said the site, book, or any source that was from. Without proof of your sources, thinking that this article has any truth to it is absurd. All I can say from this article is that it is just another opinion, or someone who feels the need bash someones book, site, or video.

  • An Historian

    It’s amusing that someone who clearly has a wide academic understanding of the subject is missing a rather obvious link between Diamond’s works. Diamond points out the negative consequences of westernized agriculture and fairly clearly links how these internal issues later became external issues, re: imperialism and colonialism. Diamond does not present the abnormal ability of Europeans to subjugate as a positive, but merely provides a structural argument for explaining how that came to be. I think most people who complain about Diamond haven’t actually read his books or vastly misinterpreted his thesis.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi, thank you for the comment. I would agree with you that there is a potential link which would see the consequences of Eurasian agriculture as negative, but the overall tone of Guns Germs and Steel is about the long-term positive qualities and is rather unlike the tone of Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. I’ve found that the more you read of Diamond, like The World Until Yesterday the more there is to complain about.

  • claxton

    read the forward again.. he did say the aim of the book was to illuminate some possible ultimate causes as opposed to the proximate causes you’re talking about.. all certainly played their part

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  • Nora

    Inca, not Inka

    • nora

      oops, never mind. should’ve checked alternate spelling. my bad.

  • simpletruthseeker

    I suppose I don’t understand. You say Diamond makes interesting points, but it a disservice to real historical record. I know it’s lengthy record, but I don’t understand from what you’ve written what exactly that record is, and what it’s determining factors are. Could you clarify that for me? What exactly are you saying is the answer to Yali’s question?

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