Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Guns, Germs, and Steel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond grew up in Boston and studied at Harvard, and later at Cambridge, where he obtained a doctorate in physiology. He taught physiology at UCLA for many years, while also pursuing his own interests in ornithology and ecology. Diamond published his first book in 1991: The Third Chimpanzee, on human evolution. Since the 90s, he’s published a series of successful books, few of which relate back to his academic field of study. His most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, and is credited with popularizing the theory of geographic determinism: the idea that differences between civilizations have environmental causes. In the last decade, Diamond has been an important popular intellectual, penning articles on ecology, archaeology, and social science in many publications, and speaking at universities around the world.
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Historical Context of Guns, Germs, and Steel

It would be impossible to list all the historical events mentioned in Guns, Germs, and Steel—the entire book is about human history. However, there are two historical milestones that arguably stand out from all the rest: first, the development of agriculture 13,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, since it paved the way for civilization, political centralization, and the development of complex technologies; second, Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492, since it marked the start for European hegemony over the other civilizations of the world—in a way, the phenomenon that Diamond is trying to explain.

Other Books Related to Guns, Germs, and Steel

As a work of social science, Guns, Germs, and Steel has few overt literary influences. Nevertheless, with its macrocosmic scope and easy, readable style the book bears comparison with earlier works of social science like Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, which studies the structures of West Pacific societies, and Tristes Tropiques (1955) by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Both works use an expansive, literary style to study the differences between civilizations, even as they use scientific methods to do so. Diamond’s book also riffs on the famous first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina.
Key Facts about Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Full Title: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
  • When Written: 1996-97
  • Where Written: Primarily Los Angeles, with frequent trips to New Guinea
  • When Published: Fall 1997
  • Genre: Social science, Non-fiction
  • Setting: The Earth, the last 13,000 years
  • Point of View: Primarily third-person omniscient, with many first-person asides

Extra Credit for Guns, Germs, and Steel

So romantic. Jared Diamond isn’t just a brilliant writer and thinker—he’s also a talented musician who’s played the piano since he was a young child. To propose to his girlfriend, he played a piece by the classical composer Johannes Brahms. Needless to say, she said yes.

Renaissance man. It takes a brilliant man to write a book about the history of the entire world. Yet amazingly, Diamond had almost no formal education in history when he began writing Guns, Germs, and Steel—at university, his focus was the physiology of the gall bladder. Diamond is a highly educated man, but as far as the fields he discusses in Guns, Germs, and Steel are concerned, he’s almost entirely self-taught.