Jared Diamond: Against History

Guns Germs and Steel

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. It’s become a landmark, best-seller book that would win the Pulitzer Prize and be filmed by National Geographic for PBS. Guns Germs and Steel is surely the most widely read book about agriculture anyone has ever written.

Jared Diamond’s ideas about human society and human nature continue to be enormously influential. For an update, check out the Gun Control Podcast. Diamond’s viewpoint has become so influential that I try to address it throughout the sections on Archaeology.

The key question is whether Jared 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 claims that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies “choose to fail.” This claim does not withstand scrutiny. I argue Diamond’s ideas should not be promoted in Introduction to Anthropology courses.

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Yali’s Question & Central Thesis

In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond purports to answer “Yali’s Question.” Diamond had met Yali in New Guinea in 1972. 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 Jared Diamond, the differences in the agricultural complex that had arisen in the Middle East explained everything.

Agriculture had been in Eurasia longer, giving the people in that region 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. In Africa and the Americas, the spread of agriculture along longitudinal lines is more difficult.

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 peppers the text with lots of cool stories and anecdotes, but it always goes back to the same factors.

Jared Diamond 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. One was Guns Germs and Steel; 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 Black Swan Anthropology for analysis of the role of luck and serendipity in the fame of Jared Diamond. The follow-up post on Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires details my reasons for calling Diamond’s work “academic porn.” em>Guns Germs and Steel retarded 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, 2010:122). Diamond’s modest re-telling of traditional domination histories is factually wrong and blatantly misleading.

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 promote the idea of 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 result, accounts like Guns, Germs, and Steel supplant 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” (Wolf 1982:18).

Conquest & Native Allies

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. Native armies were indispensable for Hernán Cortés to subdue the Aztec Empire and for Francisco Pizarro to topple 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. Matthew Restall expresses the point even more forcibly in Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003). As Restall notes, people made decisions to form alliances and compromises. They were not necessarily bad decisions. Some native peoples were able to live their lives in relative peace and autonomy, even after the events of the conquest. Some even gained from the conquest. And the conquest 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 & 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 Jared Diamond debuts another book, 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 do not see 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. For most cases, Collapse depicts 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, 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 assert a fundamental misunderstanding. 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. Yali wanted to be recognized as fully human, to be 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).

Take the Gloves Off

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 Introduction to Anthropology and Anthropological Pedagogy. Take the gloves off. The film version of Guns, Germs, and Steel, as recorded by National Geographic, basically revives the progressivist line about domestication. In the film account, 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.

Previous: 2.4 – Many Origins of Agriculture
Table of Contents: Archaeology


  • See How Vulnerable Are We to Collapse? by Jim O’Donnell in Sapiens (September 2017). O’Donnell questions the applicability of “collapse” narratives to societies that successfully survive for over 500 years–much longer than our current systems!

    Experts widely agree that our modern lifestyles are dependent upon today’s fossil fuel–based economy, which has both driven the growth of our industrial society and triggered a serious threat to our climate. Many who benefit personally from the continued burning of oil and coal—from oil giants to car-engine manufacturers—are resisting attempts to shift to an economy based on renewable resources.

  • For more on Jared Diamond check the Diamond Tag. Also watch my interview on Diamond with Cosmoetica (posted July 2017).

Notes on Guns Germs and Steel

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 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

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: Against History.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/guns-germs-and-steel-jared-diamond/. First posted 7 July 2011. Last updated 5 November 2017.

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  • 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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…

  • Jon Marks

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

  • 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.

    • 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.)

      • 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.

  • 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.)

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

        • 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!

          • 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…

    • 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.

  • 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 (http://anthropology.si.edu/archaeobio/feature4.html).

    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 🙂

    • 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.

    • Patrick Caldon

      I don’t really understand the strength of the anti-Diamond rhetoric, and because it’s so over-the-top (“academic porn”) and a incoherent, I tend to think we’re seeing turf wars rather than real criticism of the scholarship. I know absolutely nothing about the Maya. But this criticism misses the mark or at least is so over the top and uncareful that it sure looks like it is missing the mark, see below. And if its so hard to critique Diamond without bloviating, it suggests to me that there’s not a lot of substance to the criticism.

      I’m sure Diamond’s not perfect by any means, and I’m sure his books have errors. But I wonder if the dislike stems from him writing popular, readable books which cover a range of material.

      For incoherence, see your post above. You say Diamond is wrong about 3 points on the Maya. Ok what are they:

      “1) there never was a Maya empire,”

      Diamond: “Maya society remained politically organized in small kingdoms that were perpetually at war with one another and that never became unified into large empires like the Aztec empire of the Valley of Mexico (fed by highly productive agriculture) or the Inca empire of the Andes”

      – he agrees with you

      2) there are still about 7 million Mayas today,

      – which doesn’t say that something didn’t happen around 800CE. And Diamond again agrees with you: “The Classic collapse was obviously not complete, because hundreds of thousands of Maya survived, in areas with stable water supplies, to meet and fight the Spaniards.”

      3) there was also a “PRECLASSIC Collapse”, and a “POSTCLASSIC” era

      So what? Diamond’s talking about the “Classic Collapse”.

      And again … he agrees with you. He says: “But the story grows more complicated, for at least five reasons. There was not only that enormous Classic collapse but also at least two smaller pre-Classic collapses, around A.D. 150 and 600, as well as some post-Classic collapses.” He explicitly discusses how Chichen Itza grew after 850. And goes on to say that some archaeologists dispute the existence of a Classic collapse, but argues that there is something crying out for an explanation on account of the interruption of so many institutions and big population decline. He spends about 2 pages discussing why the story might appear more complex than what he’s describing, but then arguing that these complexities don’t destroy the the fact that something happened around 800-850 CE that needs explaining. This is a long way from “ignoring”.

      You dislike him for out-of-date sources, but – for a book published in 2005 – 32 of the 37 sources mentioned are within 20 years of the publication date, and of the 100-year old sources, the only two are travel diaries from the 1850s clearly intended as an aside just to to give a bit of color around John Stephens. He implicitly suggests three books dating from 2000, 2002, and 2004 are the way to get on top of the Maya.

      • topkill

        Just stumbled across this today as I was trying to find a point in GG&S.

        Anyway, I find myself totally agreeing with you and I was happy to read your rebuttal after so many attack pieces that seemed to have no purpose or foundation in facts.

  • small pox blankets – a myth that never actually happened.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070926094738.htm

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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

  • 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?

  • Gottenhimfella

    I think that you miss the point.

    Diamond is not sitting in judgement on the moral choices of the protagonist and antagonist cultures. He is trying to tease out the enabling factors arising from the imbalance of resources at their command.

    The moral issues are a separate and much more difficult discussion, which I personally consider beyond the reach of mere science. Some cultures subjugate other cultures immediately before being themselves subjugated: take as one example Maori, some of whom were slave-owners and inflicters of systematic genocide (of Moriori), and shortly thereafter were themselves at risk of subjugation by European colonists. Whenever they could, this subset of Maori would co-opt the resources of the Europeans to further their own advantage over the race they were subjugating.
    So you have a group who are simultaneously occupying the moral high ground and sinking to the depths of moral depravity (through your lens).

    You may reply that these Maori learned their depravity from their subjugators. That would reveal that you don’t know the time sequence of events. Maori had not undergone subjugation by European culture at the time they began their extermination of the Moriori, and an examination of how the process began suggests that the imbalance of moral justification between Maori and Moriori was rather more pronounced than between European and Maori.

    • John

      This is nonesense

    • John

      The main driver was human greed for wealth and power – the search for gold and treasure of all kinds satisfies the wealth driver – the oppression of the oppressable satisfies the power itch. Thats common to and predictable of every/any human being – european, indigineous, asian or african- throughout history.

      Whoever happened to have the better military equipment has always used it on the other.

      Law of the jungle is all you need to know about agency. Diamond just attempts to explain why one society had better equipment than others.

      Why they used it is obvious. We are human. We always do

      • This is a string of ridiculous and untrue statements with no basis in reality.

        • Hi Jim, thank you for working through the comments on this one. Interestingly at exactly 4:14pm on 7 October, Holly Walters shared this Jared Diamond critique to the “March for Science” Facebook page (over 600,000+ people like it). Since then, I’ve had well over 800 shares, and 6000 page-views (as of 10am on 8 October). Wow! There are also 170+ comments on that post. Not too many new comments here except for this one.

          One moral of the story–if you want to get a lot of eyeballs on your Sapiens posts, get them on the “March for Science”!

  • Gottenhimfella

    In simpler terms than my wordy submission below:
    Diamond set out to explain HOW certain cultures were able to dominate others.
    Many of his critics seem to think his explanation tells, or should tell, WHY

    • Hello, and thank you for your two comments. This allows me to clarify the argument (which is hardly mine alone). I am NOT seeking the WHY. Nor am I trying to deal with the moral issues.

      What I am saying is that Jared Diamond–by looking back 10-50,000 years for the so-called causes of European dominance–is telling a pseudo-history. It may be that the accidents of geography and agriculture help explain the power of societies across EurASIA. However, that does not explain the rise of Europe and the West. For that, you must look at more proximate factors in the past 1000 years.

      I think I elaborate this argument better in Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires and in Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire. In each of these essays, I very much elaborate on the subjugation carried out outside of Europe and by Europeans with the vital assistance of indigenous allies. In other words, this is not at all a moral judgment nor a claim about why, but simply an assertion that Jared Diamond *gets the real history very wrong*.

  • Lorenzo Long

    As I read through this review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I had mixed feelings. I agree with Diamond in the respect that east/west axis of continents allows for easier spread of
    organisms and products across the land. I also agree that the lack of
    geographic barriers in Eurasia allowed for easier transport of goods across the
    continent. However, I think there are other factors that catalyzed the spread
    of these goods, such as religious persecution. Overall, I lean towards Diamond’s
    side of the argument.

    Before my exposure to Guns, Germs, and Steel, I had not considered the reason that Europeans had conquered the world, nor did I even consider that it might be a matter of being in the
    right place at the right time. I find it hard to believe that the entire course
    of human history and conquest is just a matter of chance. Would that point to
    some divine Creator? Or is it just a one in a million lottery that the
    Europeans happened to win the jackpot? I do not have the experience and
    knowledge that Diamond does, but I do know that I can agree with the principles
    that he teaches, even if he does omit certain issues that could be factors in
    the story that he paints.

  • andrewbarsom

    If we really want to do some honest soul searching, I hope we can agree that this critique is not about whether Diamond is too deterministic or neglects human agency. It’s that he does not chalk up the origins of inequality and oppression exclusively to European (preferably “white”, male, northern European) agency. This is a major no-no among anyone trained in the humanities or social sciences after the 1980s, and so when the post-colonially minded are confronted with deterministic interpretations that neglect to comment on the unique outrages inherent in “Western” civilization and especially capitalism, we get angry.
    Thus, as you suggest, Diamond’s geographical determinism must be, in fact, a crypto-racist screed. When Diamond’s writing veers toward agency, as in Collapse, you argue that he’s highlighting the wrong kind of agency. Just as an intellectual exercise, how about you show me a book that attributes any inequality, injustice, suffering, etc. in the world (economic/gender/racial/ethnic) primarily to non-western agency that you DON’T find disqualifyingly problematic for one reason or another (e.g. too deterministic, too much agency, where is gender? Where is class? Where is discourse analysis? etc).
    I think the underlying problem with Diamond is simpler than you pretend.

    • Hi, thank you for stopping by. The idea that critiques of Diamond are based on some sort of nakedly political post-1980s theorizing is just silly. Look, as I put it in Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires, there was plenty of empire building and devastation in pre-Europe and non-European areas. Plus, the point of Myths of the Spanish Conquest was how much the Conquest critically depended on native allies. All that said, certainly one of the key things to be understood in the past five centuries is the dominance of North Atlantic versions of modernization and modernity.

      • andrewbarsom

        Yes, it’s really silly. Which is why you need to go out of your way to include someone’s complaint that the non-racialism of Diamond’s thesis is a “disguise” (with no evidence to support this claim of implicitly racist disingenuousness of the part of Diamond) before going on to write, in so many words, that he is letting whitey off the hook for the crimes of imperialism:

        “…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.”

        Nothing nakedly political about that at all. My bad. Yawn.

        I’ve read Restall. I studied under Restall. Restall provides a much-needed revision of popular views of the Spanish conquest. The who, what, where, why of the Spanish Conquest is interesting and important history. Writing indigenous peoples back into the history of the conquest as historical agents doesn’t change the fact that the Americas emerged from the conquest as continents that spoke European languages and were subject to European political and religious authority.

        How did the Spanish pull that off? It seems the only acceptable answers based on your criticism of Diamond are the counterfactual claim that Europeans did not, in fact, exert disproportionate control over the Americas in the wake of the conquest, or to attribute to Spaniards a dastardly form of agency that indigenous American peoples either did not possess or chose not to exercise for some reason.

        Diamond is writing big, big history. It has problems. But your critiques are rather small, at least in my view.

        • It is true that Wilcox’s rhetoric can be a bit overheated. And I’ll admit the smallpox blanket reference may have been overheated as well, which I addressed in the comment stream. However, I would maintain that this accusational approach is probably more linked to pre-1980s scholarship. The post-1980s research tends to be much more nuanced in terms of not “blaming everything on whitey” as you would say. In my view, Eric Wolf and others were already writing big history, and real history. Diamond is a deviation, whose big history does not stand up to the scholarship.

          • andrewbarsom

            I disagree entirely with your premise about the implications of the cultural turn. Post 1980s, post-colonial/identity-driven scholarship borrowed the political sympathies of pre-1980s leftist theory but discarded its explanatory elements, replacing it with an endless search for new and undiscovered inequalities and grievances (all with the same, pre-determined sources) and subaltern agency (always employed to resist the former). The only thing intellectually consistent about epistemologically post-1980s scholarship is this superficial continuity.

            Regardless, you have not defended your hypocritical attack on Diamond’s assessment of culture as a potentially self-destructive force in Collapse, your unfounded accusation of implicit racism, nor your irrelevant misapplication of Restall… Not sure what left there is to discuss. You don’t like Diamond’s geographical determinism, you don’t think it’s “real history,” and you don’t have any particularly compelling reasons for dismissing it.

          • Well, I suppose it depends what post-1980s scholarship you follow. For me, my mentor was Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whose anthropology and history built on Eric Wolf. I maintain that Diamond’s work is diversionary–his “ultimate causes” as rooted in agriculture and geography displaces from what really needs to be explained in the past 500 years. For that, we need a more proximate history.

            So sure, I’ve admitted to some rhetorical flourish, but your own tendencies seem to be toward the accusational broad-brush. Maybe that’s why you prefer Diamond.

            Good talking, but as you put it, not sure what there is left to discuss.

          • Matt Baen

            One conservative anti-Diamond argument (Victor Davis Hanson) is that Diamond discounts role of ideology. Of course material determinism vs values in historical causation is a very old debate. Question: if Diamond’s factors (not uniquely his of course) – arable areas, available domesticates, zoonoses etc. are too distal, do they have some explanatory value in terms of what might be called initial conditions of world regions that then had different courses mostly for other reasons? Or is it all worthless?

          • Hi Matt, thank you for the comment. I certainly wouldn’t want to discount either material factors or ideology. My take is parallel to that of J.R. McNeill (cited here and full pdf as The World According to Jared Diamond) that Diamond’s ultimate causes may help explain powerful Eurasian societies, but don’t help much for the more pertinent question of “Why Europe?”

          • Matt Baen

            Thanks. I was just reminded that one book I’ve always been meaning to read is Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Crosby. Is that worthwhile?

          • Hi Matt, thanks! I’m not so familiar with Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, but even if it is not worthwhile, the 5-star Amazon reviews might make it important to check out.

          • ccmann

            It’s a really interesting book. It was written quite a while ago now, so some of the material is outdated. But the emphasis on environmental change as a means of and marker of conquest is still something that mainstream historians have trouble working with. I personally would be curious to see what you thought of it from your anthropological viewpoint.

          • Thank you for the feedback–lots to do, but will try!

    • catguy00

      It does seem that those most opposed to Diamond and neo-environmental determinism tend to fall on the extremes of the political spectrum. The far right refuses to accept biological equality with other races, the far left refuses to accept any other explanation that doesn’t blame white capitalistic theft.

  • Why is Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” required reading at universities?! I have seen other students carrying that book on campus. It looks a little heavy for spare time reading that is not assigned. And no, I do not attend UCLA where Diamond has lectured. I naively hoped that it was assigned for a historiography class so that students can learn how Diamond is not a real historian.

    • Hi Jacqueline, for me this is the enduring puzzle. I did assign it once back in 2004, but I quickly realized it was not appropriate for a college-level reader (that was when I got in trouble for blurting out that it was “academic porn”). So I am perplexed that it has become gospel, not just for high schools, but for college courses as well.

  • texshelters

    It sounds like you wanted Diamond to write a different book. He didn’t. He was looking at a fundamental cause of European power in the 17th-20th centuries. He did a good job in that one sense. And that is all.

    Your argument that he didn’t look at the choices the European powers made, their allies in their conquest and other factors is correct. However that is for a different book.

    People that read this book as an explanation for human and world history and all its causes are putting too much on the book and are not reading critically.


  • Stephen Hawks

    I am close to half way or a third way through Guns Germs and Steel and had to see what the critiques were . It is ultimately easy to read and understand because it reiterates the same points over and over. I would go even further with the critique that the science it arose from is in itself flawed and deterministic. It lacks wholism and a non linear, causal view. But I am learning from it and in that respect it is useful as is all science but in need of heart Beyond propagandizing monolithic derivations of humanism.
    This is the Critique from inside Anthropology that i found:

    My adjustments to scientific theory are almost always spiritual, though I am sure colored by my own flawed being, even though I am steeped in science and rationalism. Remember Christs words to the disciples that none understood power and even from an evolutionary perspective this changes the landscape, even Jared’s compassion towards his native friends. What lies behind the impulse toward the greater good the other, other than the self.Something wants creation to succeed and the smaller success even in the face of greater apparent destruction and success of the egocentric, is indead beyond perhaps most important for humanity and the greater cosmos.

    • Hi Stephen, thank you for the link and interesting response. I’ve made your requested edit and inserted the tag about it being originally an e-mail. Thanks!

  • Stephen Hawks

    Should read : “It lacks holism and a non linear, non-materialist causal view.

  • Stephen Hawks

    Origionally an e-mail to a friend.

  • Paul Dominic

    All, I just stumbled across this post. It seems the poster has really not read Guns, Berms and Steel very carefully. I agree with many of the commenters that it does not strike me as deterministic. And I think the author of this post is projecting his won expectations onto what Diamond has done. Take for example the following quote:

    “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).”

    I don’t think that Diamond ever intended to make judgements about what societies should do, rather what they did do. And there is a lot of agency in the book. Diamond’s underlying drivers provide the tools by which cultures can have agency in the world. How they used that agency is one of the key aspects of history. I think he did us a service by calling attention to the importance of ecological and evolutionary factors in helping to set the stage upon which history played out.

    Similar things could be said about the alliances with indigenous people. Indigenous people did not have to form these alliances. They chose them probably out of expediency. But this expediency was driven by many of the cultural advantages the “European interlopers” brought with them. When I lived among the Shipibo in Peru, I read up on the history of that part of the world. The Shipibo had a lot going for them in terms of their ability to fight and they had a large population size and, as a result, effectively kept the Spanish out of their section of central Peru until the 1900s. It probably also helped that the Spanish were less well-equipped to function in that type of environment than the Shipibo were. As a result, human agency of the Shipibo prevailed for quite some time. Diamond speaks in G,G,&S repeatedly about contingency, both in terms of where plants and animals were found, but also in terms of futures being contingent on the decisions made by humans.

  • Racist content deleted. Author should see Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race.

  • Jack Gray

    Jason, could you provide some scholarly sources that verify your claims about the Europeans purposely giving diseased blankets to natives (Howard Zinn doesn’t count).

  • Leo Houts

    I am a little confused by this argument. I just read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and his thesis in his own words is that “the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environment.”

    According to you, Diamond’s work is a “disservice to the real historical record” because it ignores the effects of agency on the course of human civilization. You point out that there are many different cultural factors that caused European imperialism.

    However, Guns, Germs, and Steel seems like a successful attempt to answer Yali’s explicitly stated question. Yali is not asking why Europeans decided to abuse so many Native Americans. He is not asking for the causes of European imperialism. Yali’s question is “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?” That question can be rephrased as “why did Europeans develop technology that led to a better lifestyle, while other groups of people did not?” Diamond argues that this technology development happened in Eurasia solely because of environmental factors (like East-West orientation, larger animals, etc.) He never argues against the idea that historical trends like European imperialism are shaped by cultural and historical factors as well as environmental factors, which seems to be your main criticism of him.

    I have not read Collapse, so I can not address that section of your article, but in the Guns, Germs, and Steel section it seems like you are equating Diamond’s idea that technological development was shaped entirely by the environment with a different idea that every historical trend was shaped entirely by the environment. However, there may have been a different subtlety to your argument that I did not catch.

    • Leo Houts

      In fact, Jared Diamond’s only flaw seems to be the use of unclear language to explain his ideas, such as calling his book “The Fates of Human Societies” or saying that it explains the “difference between the long-term histories of peoples.” The content of Guns, Germs, and Steel clearly only supports the thesis that a society’s environment is what shapes that society’s technological and cultural development.

  • Henry Vandenburgh

    Well, I do admit that those are a couple of my favorite books, but I’m a sociologist and may not know the details well. I do feel it’s hard to moralize history since, as Adam Smith said, interest cannot lie.

  • Perspective

    This quote contains an error: “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.” Eurasia spread LATITUDINALLY, with similar climates and daytime pattersn. The Americas could not spread because of the difficulty of LONGITUDINAL migration of species.

    • Thank you for the correction. I’ve tried to re-write it (and put a link to your comment) in order to avoid confusion. Sorry about that!

  • modelearth

    I think that agriculture is a product of overpopulation.
    Thank you, Hearthstone – http://www.ModelEarth.Org

  • Nadège Cosmos

    What would be a good book to read instead of Guns, Germs and Steel? Love history and anthropology, but I am glad I found your review I was expecting Diamonds perspective to be skewed (Eurocentrism should be the title). Would love to hear if you have a recommendation for lay people that wouldn’t be another bastardization of history.

    • This is a really good question. My preference is to start with Eric Wolf’s <emEurope and the People Without History. But that’s getting a bit old and may not be as accessible. I’ve written a post about Geography, States, Empires which reassesses Wolf’s work, surveys some follow-up contributions, but also reflects on why there hasn’t been as much follow-up in anthropology as there might have been.

      It is of great concern to me that in some ways the anthropology textbooks have not digested the lessons from Sidney Mintz & Eric Wolf, as I posted about in How Did Anthropology Begin? This is also a subject I address in a paper at the 2016 American Anthropological Association meetings and I hope will become an ongoing project. I’ll keep you posted!

  • hardtruths

    Guns, Germs and Steel is a book I received for Xmas.

    Difficult to recall a book as silly as this one.

    It stinks a mile away; he wants to prove all human groups are equal. Only a dogmatic in “posession of the truth” will bother with that.

    It is irrational to preocupy oneself with that. Most likely human groupseand cultures are not equal because nothing in nature is “equal”.

    You only have yo look around; different groups of horses are different. Some are superior for hypodrome races, other to ride across the Gobi dessert, etc.

    Why they are so is anyone’s guess. Could be geography, could be spontaneous genetic mutation, etc.

    So what if eurasians have made the whole World “eurasian”?. I do not care if it is because their genes give them an unbeatable combination of intelligence and courage, or luck, oris the genetic deterioration of others.

    It seems many factors are at play but the fact is the World has embraced “eurasian” thinking; even China, India, etc., have done so. From the time of Ghrist on Jews embraced “Eurasia” since the time of the Greeks, that is why most Jews choose to live among Erasians since that time. Even if Eurasia persecutes Jews regularly because, to Eurasians, Jews doe not fit, perhaps becauseeJews are smarter or perhaps because Jews are not smart enough to fit in.

    Diamond comes across any dogmatic who has the revealed “truth” and feels he has to prove it. In this case, the dogma is all human groups are equally intelligent, creative, equally capable to develop art, science, creativity, curiosity, equally courageous or adventurous but geography pushes some to be more so than others.

    Suche dogmatic thought is as absurd as considering all individual humans are equally intelligent, etc., but education makes the difference.

    We all see how brothers differ in various competencies.

    So the whole thesis of the book is silly. Is just another “revealed truth” with no objective basis.

  • hardtruths

    I was just given Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Fire” as present. Pure ruperficial garbage motivated by a “revealad truth” of the left; “all races are equal intelligence, creativity, etc.”, any differences are accidental.

    Tle left is panicked that Europeans may be superior. Nothing wrong if they are. Or if Jews, Japanese, Indians or Chinese are.

    The problem is not if some ethnic groups may be superior overall, or on this or that. The problem if some nuts believe that because they are superior it is justified to enslave, kill, push others to the back of the bus, etc.

    Superior groups, like superior individuals should just enjoy their luck and benefit tle world.

    Diamond’s basig idea is “revealed truth”, therefore it is dogma all races are equal. Then he pretends to use science to “prove” the “absolute truth”; makes no sense.

    In my view Diamond has a great publicist, that’s all.

  • hardtruths

    Terrible book. Comes across as idle speculation to sell the idea all races are equally intelligent but makes no sense to think that they “have to be”. Diamond defends a sort of “messianic anthropology”.

    Impossible to read the book. Too many silly ideas.

  • Lindsey

    Although Diamond is not an Anthropologist, he does a pretty good job with this book considering his background. I think Diamond has a good point that agriculture and a geographical accident play a major part in why part of the world got ahead, because superiority and race just don’t add up to be the only reasons. In the article he says it seams curious for superiority to start from agriculture, but I think superiority has to start from somewhere. People have to have reason to call themselves superior to others like higher in a job, more money, comes from a better family, ect. Starting small with the domestication of animals, then forming better governments within their villages, up to better inventions to further them along in progress can make a people believe they are superior to others.

  • Marina Doshkevich

    And North America had that same gradient, yet Native Americans didn’t get anywhere…so back to the drawing board. Not to mention that I never got how ideas needed to follow the same lines as plants. People can travel north and south…and they did. The upshot is Jared wanted to answer Yali’s question of why did Europeans prosper thorugh mental achievement, without making Europeans look good.

  • j

    Why do you feel the need to waste a considerable amount of your time and the internet to discredit someone you don’t agree with? PC culture everyone feels like their problems should have a voice smh

  • Jason, thank you both for pointing me to this article and for linking to my recent article. This is a very good read and makes excellent points. I will take my time and work through the comments over the coming days. But I wanted to make an added point. Its been a good 15 years since I read “Guns, Germs and Steel” but I remember thinking at the time that there is a certain Western cultural superiority running through the book that takes agency away from non-western peoples. You touch on that a bit here but I wanted to take it further. We know that, through history there are examples of societies that gained technological and/or military superiority over their neighbors and yet they did not attempt to “conquer” them. This is not to say that there arent examples of wars and conquest from all through time and all over the world. I dont mean that this is only a European issue. But rather that humans can conciously choose to NOT take their new inventions and go and kill and control everyone around them. We DO have that choice and we do actually make that choice at times. Diamond never allows for the fact that some societies might choose something different than Europeans did.

    • Hi Jim, thank you for stopping by and for the kind words. I was rather mystified when I first read Guns Germs and Steel as I expected Jared Diamond would at least engage with the historians. I then didn’t think about it for a long time, but I had no idea it would basically become the standard account for educated readers.

      This particular page began as a draft. It wasn’t at all finished when Barbara J. King linked to it in a huge post for NPR, Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad? With thanks to that link, it’s now become something of a standard for search engines and people looking for a “Jared Diamond critique.”

      Over the years I’ve tried to at least make this piece succinct and readable for those 1st-time readers. But I’m much happier with the lengthier working-through I did in Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History followed by Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire. Eventually I’ll hope to consolidate that material.

      Thanks again!

  • BarryG

    I’m not an anthropologist, but sort of a math/bio/computer hybrid for my PhD. When I read Guns, Germs and Steel, I didn’t accept it all at face value, especially the relative lack of agency in history … though wars may follow mathematical patterns and so it is worth questioning agency. He also ignores culture — it wasn’t just X,Y,Z factors that made Europe take off, but cultural inventions that allowed it to systematically support and efficiently absorb scientific discoveries to harness nature. That was utterly crucial.

    But, beyond that, Diamond does some things right. He presents a long term model of history. All models are wrong, what matters is if they are usefully predictive and explanatory. He conceptualizes history in terms of affordances of climate, latitude, longitudes and terrain in a broad way that has a lot of truth in it that wasn’t clear in other, more obscure works.

    For example, from Diamond’s work, I’m able to make a prediction: America is screwing up today on an epic scale from electing Trump, ignoring environmental factors, not supporting the health of its people and so on. It would seem like “the decline and fall”, but I’m predicting that it will be very hard, virtually impossible for America to fall very far — it is situated just too well in a good climate zone, with super defensible coastal borders and basically friendly states north and south who are too constrained geographically via size in south and via cold/and soil in the north to be real threats. A Diamond kind of prediction is to bet that America will “amazingly” spring back and continue to be one of if not “the” dominant economic and, from it’s safe perch, military factors in the world. Such a “spring back” may take many decades, but it will occur.

  • Linda Strauss

    When I began directing a fairly new first-year program on Culture, Art and Technology, the first thing I did was get rid of Guns, Germs and Steel as the main text for the first quarter, because it was so reductionistic.

    • Hi Linda, thanks so much! I had a very similar experience–assigned the book for one class before realizing the extent to which it was a reductionist one-note riff that did not at all explain what Jared Diamond said was the main question: Why Europe?

      I was also struck by how often students didn’t get the one-note riff. For all the accolades Diamond gets as a writer, the repetitive point was still buried under florid accounts.

  • Gerard Westhoff

    On a related topic:

    * Michelle Elliott, ‘Archaeology: Inequality has deep roots in Eurasia’, Nature News and Views, 15 November 2017.

    Which introduces:

    * Kohler, T. A. et al., ‘Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica’, Nature , 15 November 2017, doi:10.1038/nature24646

  • Yeves

    Great article! And I realise the comment threads ended some 3 years ago but I feel compelled to challenge the critique. In your critique you seem to ask multiple times, why Europe? And make this a sticking point to justify the critique. But have you considered that maybe the answer is, who says Europe? History is in constant motion, and no one is to say Europe has conquered all. In fact today you wouldn’t think it has. Who isn’t to say that China isn’t already the world’s leading power, or that it too will be superseded in a century or two.

    Another angle here is simply, why didn’t PNG become a world power? What would it need to do in order to become so?