Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns Germs and SteelIn 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.

Jared Diamond’s ideas about human society continue to be enormously influential–for an update, check out the Gun Control Podcast.

The key question is whether Diamond’s work is broadly correct about human history or a distortion of that history. I argue 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 the lines of latitude, making trade and interconnection quicker than in Africa and the Americas, where spread along longitudinal lines is more difficult.*(see comment)

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)

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

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