Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Guns, Germs, and Steel published in 1999.
Prologue Quotes

"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?"

Related Characters: Yali (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the crucial question of Guns, Germs, and Steel—why, in a nutshell, certain civilizations of the world, such as those of the European states, become so powerful and wealthy, while other civilizations, like that of Yali, the New Guinean politican who asks the question, never developed comparable technologies and never colonized the rest of the world.

One of the basic premises of the book is that all humans are capable of essentially the same things, regardless of race or ethnicity. Diamond will seek to explain the differences between cultures not by talking about genetic differences between Europeans and New Guineans (which would be empirically wrong, as well as racist) but rather by analyzing the differences between the geographies of New Guinea and Europe. He will conclude that, even with the exact same human beings, two civilizations will develop differently in response to such geographic qualities as soil fertility, availability of crops and large mammals, climate, etc. Posing the basic question of the book through an intelligent, sympathetic figure like Yali is a way for Diamond to remind readers that the differences between cultures have little to do with individual people and everything to do with getting lucky in the “geographic lottery.”

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Chapter 1 Quotes

Thus, an observer transported back in time to 11,000 B.C. could not have predicted on which continent human societies would develop most quickly, but could have made a strong case for any of the continents. With hindsight, of course, we know that Eurasia was the one.

Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

11,000 B.C. is an important date in Guns, Germs, and Steel, because it marks the period just before human beings began to develop agriculture. With the development of agriculture, a progression that marked humans’ response to their environments, certain groups of humans became healthier, more secure, and more technologically advanced than others. And yet, as the passage points out, there were few discernible differences between different human societies 13,000 years ago.

The quote emphasizes the relative unimportance of individual human beings in determining the path of human civilization. Any explanation of why Europeans succeeded in colonizing the rest of the world while New Guineans “failed” to do so that hinges on the innate superiority of Europeans to New Guineans isn’t just racist—it’s factually wrong. Only 13,000 years ago, there were no obviously “superior” human beings on the planet. So it stands to reason that the differences between cultures that arose in the succeeding years don’t have much to do with genetics or human talent, but rather to geographic determinism, as we’ll see.

Chapter 2 Quotes

In short, Polynesia furnishes us with a convincing example of environmentally related diversification of human societies in operation. But we thereby learn only that it can happen, because it happened in Polynesia.

Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Diamond studies the societies of Polynesia. There are many small, insular societies on the Polynesian islands. Crucially, these societies are interesting for environmental anthropologists to study, because it’s possible to link differences in Polynesian societies to environmental differences between different Polynesian islands. The peoples of Polynesia first arrived in Polynesia at the same time, having come in boats from neighboring regions of Asia. So, in a nutshell, the current Polynesians are descended from people who, it seems pretty likely, had highly similar genes and talents—the differences between Polynesian societies, then, cannot be attributed to either genetics or any other innate human abilities. Rather, they can be explained by studying the environmental differences between the islands. Diamond then shows that certain Polynesian societies became more centralized and organized due to the availability of agricultural crops.

The challenge for Diamond is to generalize his findings for Polynesia to the rest of the world. It’s been pointed out that in a way, Diamond’s work resembles that of Charles Darwin, the brilliant English scientist who developed the theory of evolution. Just as Darwin began by studying animals’ adaptations to their environments in the Galapagos Islands, then generalized his findings to all life forms, Diamond begins by studying environmental adaptation on the Polynesian islands and then generalizes accordingly.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Atahuallpa's capture was decisive for the European conquest of the Inca Empire. Although the Spaniards' superior weapons would have assured an ultimate Spanish victory in any case, the capture made the conquest quicker and infinitely easier. Atahuallpa was revered by the Incas as a sun-god and exercised absolute authority over his subjects, who obeyed even the orders he issued from captivity. The months until his death gave Pizarro time to dispatch exploring parties unmolested to other parts of the Inca Empire, and to

send for reinforcements from Panama. When fighting between Spaniards and Incas finally did commence after Atahuallpa's execution, the Spanish forces were more formidable.

Related Characters: Francisco Pizarro, Atahuallpa
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we’re introduced to one of the most representative examples of the differences that arise between civilizations over time. Francisco Pizarro led a Spanish expedition to the New World in the early 16th century, eventually capturing the King of the Inca Empire, Atahuallpa. Pizarro’s defeat of Atahuallpa was relatively easy—with his superior firepower, his horses, his armor, and his (unintentional) arsenal of diseases, he was able to wipe out the Inca in just a few years. Furthermore, by kidnapping Atahuallpa, Pizarro was able to ransom him for lots of gold, further speeding up the defeat of the empire.

While Yali’s question is the defining question of the book, one could also say that Pizarro’s defeat of Atahaullpa is the key mystery that Diamond tries to solve. There’s little to no psychological detail in this chapter—we don’t hear anything about what “kind of men” Pizarro and Atahuallpa were. And this is deliberate on Diamond’s part—his concern isn’t with individual personalities or talents, but rather with the advantages that societies’ geographies gave them. Pizarro, as a European, was born into a world with metallurgy, writing, and dozens of other critical technologies that he used to defeat the Inca Empire.

Chapter 4 Quotes

As we'll see, food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. Hence geographic variation in whether, or when, the peoples of different continents became farmers and herders explains to a large extent their subsequent contrasting fates.

Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a partial thesis statement for the book: Diamond will demonstrate that the fundamental explanation for why some societies develop guns and steel and build immunities to diseases, while other societies don’t, is that geographic variations predispose some parts of the world to develop more “successful” societies.

As the passage hints, agriculture is one of the key milestones of human history. Societies that turned to farming and herding built up immunities to diseases, learned to specialize in different skills, and developed political structures based around one powerful leader or body of leaders. On the other hand, societies that did not farm did not gain such advantages. At the most fundamental level, a group of people will turn to agriculture not because of its intelligence or sophistication, but because agriculture is the most rational, available option in their region of the world. So it is geography, not innate ability, which determines the “fate of civilizations.”

That higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.

Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most important measures of a society is its population density. Population density, as Diamond will go on to show, helps a society on many different levels. Societies with a high population density tend to have more social specialization, giving people an opportunity to perfect their abilities at one particular job. Also, dense societies build immunities to diseases, giving them a huge advantage over smaller societies without any such immunities. Finally, population density increases the velocity of information and exchange of ideas—important metrics for any militarized, expanding society.

In short, population density is a good predictor of a society’s ultimate power and technological capability. And as Diamond argues here, agricultural societies tend to have the highest population densities—certainly higher than hunter-gatherer societies (since people in the latter kind of society need to move around in search of food). The second part of Diamond’s book is about why certain societies develop agriculture and others don’t. The third part is mostly about how population density leads to the establishment of large, centralized, technologically advanced states. So this passage is a kind of transition statement, showing how advances in agriculture tend to lead to the other kinds of advances that Diamond will proceed to explain.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The same pattern of an abrupt start of food production dependent on domesticates from elsewhere, and an abrupt and massive population replacement, seems to have repeated itself in many areas in the prehistoric era. In the absence of written records, the evidence of those prehistoric replacements must be sought in the archaeological record or inferred from linguistic evidence.

Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage brings up a few important points. First, it talks about how agricultural societies arose in many parts of the world, independently. Diamond has already shown how the environmental qualities of several distinct regions led humans to establish agricultural societies there. The passage also alludes to a large “population replacement” in many of the places where humans developed agriculture. Indeed, agriculture gave its practitioners such a large comparative advantage over hunter-gatherers that many hunter-gatherer societies either died out or became agriculturalists, too. Finally, the passage brings up a key caveat of archaeology, and of Diamond’s book itself. Diamond bases much of his evidence on archaeological records that, by necessity, are incomplete and spotty. Therefore, there will be points when Diamond is forced to speculate—there’s no evidence for him to cite. Diamond follows the evidence, and extrapolates from it where he must.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Early farmers surely didn't use molecular genetic techniques to arrive at their results. The first farmers didn't even have any existing crop as a model to inspire them to develop new ones. Hence they couldn't have known that, whatever they were doing, they would enjoy a tasty treat as a result.

Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Diamond clarifies that the earliest agriculturalists weren’t innately different from the hunter-gatherers who dominated the world’s population at the time. In other words, agriculturalists didn’t choose to become agriculturalists—they were just experimenting with seeds when they discovered agricultural practices.

There are two important conclusions to draw from the passage. First, it’s a reminder that the differences between human societies didn’t really hinge on innate differences between people—rather, the people who discovered agriculture stumbled upon it because they happened to live close to fertile soil. Second, the passage emphasizes that societies made the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural very slowly—there was never one point when an entire society decided to be agricultural; rather, the process was slow and gradual. The same could be said for many of the processes Diamond studies in the book—for example, the transition from chiefdom to state.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Plant domestication is not a matter of hunter-gatherers domesticating a single plant and otherwise carrying on unchanged with their nomadic lifestyle. Suppose that North American wild apples really would have evolved into a terrific crop if only Indian hunter-gatherers had settled down and cultivated them. But nomadic hunter-gatherers would not throw over their traditional way of life, settle in villages, and start tending apple orchards unless many other domesticable wild plants and animals were available to make a sedentary food-producing existence competitive with a hunting-gathering existence.

Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Diamond explains why more hunter-gatherers didn’t become agriculturalists even when they had access to fertile soil and large hearty seeds. Many hunter-gatherers knew what agriculture was through limited experience, but couldn’t make agriculture the cornerstone of their food gathering practices—there weren’t enough available seeds and crops to make the transition.

Diamond’s points bring up an important question—how do we judge which hunter-gatherer cultures refused to transition to agriculture because of the lack of available crops, and which hunter-gatherer cultures refused to transition in spite of an adequate number of available crops? It is this question that Diamond will spend the rest of Chapter 8 trying to answer.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Diamond makes one of the few literary allusions in his book—to the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel, Anna Karenina. (Diamond doesn’t go on to expound on Tolstoy at all, however). The point of the sentence is that there’s no elegant division between what makes an animal easy or hard for humans to domesticate—most of the “rules” of domestication are positive. In other words, there’s a small number of animals (about 14) that are suitable for domestication by agriculturalists, but there’s a far greater number of animals that don’t fit the bill, and this for a seemingly numberless variety of reasons.

When Diamond speaks of “domestication,” he means animals (specifically large mammals) that can be bred to be docile and obedient to human masters. The dog was once just a breed of a wild, dangerous creature, the wolf. But by breeding only the most docile, obedient wolves, humans gradually evolved dogs to the point where they were loyal to their human masters. Diamond will go on to list out the qualifications for domestication, and explain some of the reasons that certain animals do and don’t qualify. But the first sentence of the chapter, quoted above, is important because it lays out the basic rubric for domestication: a laundry list of “domesticable qualities,” such that most mammals don’t qualify for domestication.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Why was the spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent so rapid? The answer depends partly on that east-west axis of Eurasia with which I opened this chapter. Localities distributed east and west of each other at the same latitude share exactly the same day length and its seasonal variations. To a lesser degree, they also tend to share similar diseases, regimes of temperature and rainfall, and habitats or biomes (types of vegetation).

Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Diamond lays out his theory of east-west diffusion. Because the Earth spins on its axis, areas of the planet that share a latitude tend to have very similar climates and, to a lesser extent, similar geographies. Portugal and Japan are on opposite sides of the world, but because of their similar latitudes they have remarkably similar weather.

Regions of the planet with similar latitudes will thus often be able to adapt each other’s crops for cultivation more easily. For example, Europe, because it shares a similar latitude with Mesopotamia, was able to adopt Mesopotamian crops like wheat very easily. On the other hand, agriculture didn’t reach Scandinavia for a long time, because Scandinavia is too far north (different latitude). The passage will be important later in the book when Diamond talks more about the diffusion of ideas and technologies. For now, it’s important to understand that societies can communicate and trade easily when they have the same geography.

The earliest wheels were parts of ox-drawn carts used to transport agricultural produce. Early writing was restricted to elites supported by food-producing peasants, and it served purposes of economically and socially complex food-producing societies (such as royal propaganda, goods inventories, and bureaucratic record keeping). In general, societies that engaged in intense exchanges of crops, livestock, and technologies related to food production were more likely to become involved in other exchanges as well.

Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Diamond shows how agriculture eventually leads to 1) trade and 2) technological innovation. To begin with, agricultural societies will often develop a surplus of a certain crop, so they have an incentive to seek out new customers for that crop, in the hopes that can exchange their crops for a crop or resource that they might need more of. Over time, then, agricultural societies will begin trading with one another.

Furthermore, agricultural societies will often have a strong incentive to develop new technologies to improve transportation and trade. Inventions like the wheel and writing served a definite purpose: they enabled trade between societies. The passage is important because it suggests that trade and communication are self-catalyzing—which is to say, trade encourages more trade (including exchanges that neither society may be aware of, such as “exchanges” of germs and diseases, which Diamond will explore in later chapters).

Chapter 11 Quotes

There is no doubt that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology and political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they conquered. But that advantage alone doesn't fully explain how initially so few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not have happened without Europe's sinister gift to other continents—the germs evolving from Eurasians' long intimacy with domestic animals.

Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

In part, the Europeans were able to annihilate the Native Americans they encountered in the New World because of their superior technology—they’d brought weaponry with them with the goal of defeating their opponents. But for the most part, the Europeans were able to conquer the New World for reasons that they barely understood—the presence of diseases like smallpox. While the Europeans killed many Native Americans intentionally, smallpox and other diseases claimed far more Native American lives (and later on in the colonizing process, some Europeans even purposefully weaponized these germs, as when they gave “smallpox blankets” to the Native Americans to spread the disease).

The role of diseases in wiping out Native American populations renders the hypothesis that Europeans were innately smarter or more powerful than Native Americans absurd. The Europeans prevailed in the New World for reasons they barely understood—it would be hundreds of years before they knew about the germ theory of disease. Rather, the Europeans prevailed in the New World because they were the lucky beneficiaries of an agricultural society and all its advantages, including the advantage of disease immunity.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Given enough time, the societies lacking writing might also have eventually developed it on their own. Had they been located nearer to Sumer, Mexico, and China, they might instead have acquired writing or the idea of writing from those centers, just as did India, the Maya, and most other societies with writing. But they were too far from the first centers of writing to have acquired it before modern times.

Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Diamond suggests that diffusion is often a more powerful force than creativity. Certain societies in the ancient world developed writing independently of each other. But for the most part, the societies that began using a written language acquired it from neighboring societies. For the reasons that Diamond has already explained (see quotes above), societies that shared a latitude with societies that had a written language were more likely to acquire a written language of their own than societies to the north or the south (because of previously established agricultural trade routes).

Diamond cannot explain perfectly why Mexico, Sumer, and China were the first societies to develop writing independently. But what is arguably more important for a study of history, he argues, is that knowledge of writing diffused to societies that neighbored Mexico, Sumer, and China—especially when they neighbored to the east or the west.

Chapter 13 Quotes

In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers come to feel that they "needed" it.

Page Number: 232
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Diamond’s difficulties in talking about the history of technology is explaining why people invent things in the first place. Too often when talking about the history of technology, historians create the impression that inventors knew exactly what they were inventing—they knew what object they wanted to build and, crucially, what uses they imagined for it. One sees this historians’ bias in the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention,” as well as the idea that technology is invented by “great minds”—in a way, both points of view give individual inventors too much credit; often, inventors have no idea what uses their inventions will have eventually.

The result of these difficulties in talking about the history of technology is that it’s hard to explain why certain parts of the world developed a certain technology before other parts of the world did the same. To answer such a question fully, one would have to talk about individual scientists and inventors with a degree of specificity that Diamond—who, after all, is writing about the history of the whole world—isn’t equipped for. Diamond will focus largely on the history of how technology is diffused around the world, not how it’s invented in the first place.

The New Guineans whom I know include potential Edisons. But they directed their ingenuity toward technological problems appropriate to their situations: the problems of surviving without any imported items in the New Guinea jungle, rather than the problem of inventing phonographs.

Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

It’s unfortunately common for racists and bigots throughout history to point to their civilizations’ technological breakthroughs and use them as proof of their own racial superiority. Pizarro, armed with guns and sabers, believed Europeans to be racially superior to the Inca people.

Diamond’s goal in this chapter is to show how, no less than with agriculture and domestication of animals, the development of technology results from environmental stimuli, not innate genetic or racial advantages. The New Guineans have the intellectual potential to be brilliant—but their culture has little need for the kinds of inventions that Western people respect, such as phonographs. Because there isn’t a huge demand for technological innovation in New Guinea, New Guineans don’t provide it—instead their inventions have more to do with surviving and making use of the resources they do have.

Chapter 14 Quotes

The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.

Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

As societies become larger and denser, the tools of organization change enormously. In a small society of a couple dozen, or even a couple hundred people, societies tend to organize around the structures of the family. In a society with hundreds of thousands of people, however, a family structure would be of no use. Instead, the leaders of large societies rely on religion and other ideologies to control their people.

The passage mentions kleptocracy—the structure of government management in which the leadership persuades people to part with their property in order to keep the government in power (taxation is a classic example of a method of kleptocracy—the government “persuades” people into giving up a portion of their income). The inherent oddness of giving up one’s hard-earned property to a stranger (even if it is the leader of the community) often has to be mitigated and balanced out with religion—religions can persuade people that it’s “right” to give up one’s property for the sake of the state or the chief. For that reason, many of the earliest religions connected the head of the state to the head of the religion—most of the earliest kings and chiefs were also their people’s priests or god-figures.

The passage is a good example of Diamond’s reserved, dispassionate writing style. One could interpret Diamond to be saying that societies invent religions in order to persuade (or even con) their people into surrendering what is rightfully theirs. But in the end, Diamond is simply describing a process, not judging it.

In all the accounts that my New Guinea friends have given me of their former tribal wars, there has been not a single hint of tribal patriotism, of a suicidal charge, or of any other military conduct carrying an accepted risk of being killed.

Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another great example of Diamond’s dispassionate, lightly humorous writing style. Diamond has been talking about the importance of religion and patriotism in the modern state. Without love for one’s country and one’s society, soldiers could never be persuaded to go out and die in battle in order defend that society. Moreover, patriotism, one could argue, is a distinctly modern, state-centric invention—in a small tribe or clan, patriotism simply doesn’t exist, and people would never sacrifice their own lives for the love of their group (at least according to Diamond).

Is Diamond attacking patriotism? Yes and no. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that he’s describing patriotism as being somehow artificial or arbitrary. Instead of assuming, as some people do, that patriotism is an ultimate, transcendental good, Diamond gives some of the history of patriotism and describes why it does and doesn’t pop up in certain types of society. Even if Diamond is just describing patriotism instead of judging it, his dispassionate tone relativizes patriotism and causes it to lose some of its luster.

Chapter 15 Quotes

This cultural barrier at Torres Strait is astonishing only because we may mislead ourselves into picturing a full-fledged New Guinea society with intensive agriculture and pigs 10 miles off the Australian coast. In reality, Cape York Aborigines never saw a mainland New Guinean. Instead, there was trade between New Guinea and the islands nearest New Guinea, then between those islands and Mabuiag Island halfway down the strait, then between Mabuiag Island and Badu Island farther down the strait, then between Badu Island and Muralug Island, and finally between Muralug and Cape York.

Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Diamond examines the islands near Australia, comparing and contrasting them with New Guinea. New Guinea, he argues, developed some agriculture and centralized society, in the process making the island harder for Europeans to colonize. In Australia, however, the aborigine people’s isolation prevented them from picking up the means of agriculture from their New Guinean neighbors.

In all, the passage emphasizes the importance of geographic barriers in human history. Australians, through no fault or action of their own, were isolated from the rest of the world—even islanders who were only a few hundred miles away. Every idea and crop had to be “filtered” from one island to the next, so that by the time the original “package” migrated from New Guinea to the aborigines, it was either nonexistent or greatly distorted. So geography and geographic isolation, more than anything else, explain why the aborigines never took to agriculture.

Europeans have never learned to survive in Australia or New Guinea without their inherited Eurasian technology. Robert Burke and William Wills were smart enough to write, but not smart enough to survive in Australian desert regions where Aborigines were living.

Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

Diamond closes his chapter with a concise reminder of the nonsensical nature of arguments for racial superiority. It’s been unfortunately common, over the course of history, for Europeans to argue that they are superior to the other people of the world, especially the people in the places they colonized in the 120th century (India, Australia, etc.) And yet, at the end of the day, their claims are groundless. Europeans may have colonized Australia, rather than the Australians colonizing Europe, but this doesn’t prove the Europeans to be innately superior—it just proves that they benefited from a long legacy of technological innovation that’s ultimately grounded in geographic, not genetic, advantage. The basic equality of the European colonists and the aborigines they colonized can be grasped by considering how Europeans would have survived in Australia without their technology—they could never have summoned the talent or intelligence to brave the Australian deserts. The aborigines and Europeans, as people, are very much the same. It’s just as easy to argue that the aborigines fail at things Europeans take for granted (like reading a book) as it is to argue that the Europeans fail at things that aborigines take for granted (like surviving in a desert).

Chapter 18 Quotes

The Americas' population now consists of a mixture of peoples originating from all continents except Australia. That demographic shift of the last 500 years—the most massive shift on any continent except Australia—has its ultimate roots in developments between about 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1.

Page Number: 360
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 18, Diamond studies why agriculture didn’t become more important to the lifestyle of Native Americans before 1492 A.D. Native Americans developed some limited agriculture, but agriculture never diffused across the country as quickly and evenly as it did in Europe and the Middle East. The reason why, as readers can probably predict by now, is geographic: the presence of large geographic barriers like mountains and deserts prevented Native Americans from trading with one another and from passing agriculture from one coast of North America to the other.

The consequences of the Native Americans’ “geographic inability” to take on agriculture have been enormous—when the Europeans came to the New World in 1492, their agriculturally-nurtured immunities to deadly diseases allowed them to spread smallpox to the Native Americans and colonize the continent very quickly. Had the Native Americans been lucky enough to live in a landmass was easier and where the soil was more uniformly fertile (as in Europe), they would have developed immunities of their own, and the Europeans may not have been able to colonize the New World so easily.

Chapter 19 Quotes

Many readers may already be protesting: don't stereotype people by classifying them into arbitrary "races"! Yes, I acknowledge that each of these so-called major groups is very diverse. To lump people as different as Zulus, Somalis, and Ibos under the single heading of "blacks" ignores the differences between them. We ignore equally big differences when we lump Africa's Egyptians and Berbers with each other and with Europe's Swedes under the single heading of "whites." In addition, the divisions between blacks, whites, and the other major groups are arbitrary, because each such group shades into others: all human groups on Earth have mated with humans of every other group that they encountered.

Page Number: 363
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of Diamond’s book, Diamond turns to a topic that many readers would describe as problematic—the dynamics of race in Africa. In order to talk about how the tribes and peoples of Africa interacted with one another, Diamond will use race as a kind of “shorthand”—he will break down the peoples of Africa into five highly arbitrary categories. Diamond is well-aware of the arbitrariness of his categories. Nevertheless, he insists that using such categories as a rough benchmark of which people banded with each other will be useful.

The passage is reminiscent of an earlier passage in which Diamond breaks down all human societies into four arbitrary categories. There, as here, Diamond admits that his categories aren’t “real” in any profound sense—they’re just tools for helping historians and scientists understand the world. So even if it seems problematic to break human beings up into arbitrary races, Diamond argues that doing so will be useful for understanding African history—and, at the same time, refuting many of the racist myths of white superiority that motivated European colonization (and, it must be said, atrocity) in Africa.

Epilogue Quotes

I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments.

Related Characters: Yali
Page Number: 389
Explanation and Analysis:

This is something of a thesis statement for Diamond’s entire book: the answer to the question Yali posed in the prologue. Certain human societies have major advantages over other societies—in their technology, their organization, their resources, and their immunity to disease—due not to their innate superiority but to their homelands’ geographies. Over the course of the book, Diamond has used archaeology, anthropology, epidemiology, and dozens of other fields to show how certain aspects of geography change the structures of human society. So the passage brings the book “full circle” in an almost literary or cinematic way: we’ve “taken a journey” around the world in order to answer Yali’s question, and now that we know the full answer, we can return to where we started.

But China's connectedness eventually became a disadvantage, because a decision by one despot could and repeatedly did halt innovation. In contrast, Europe's geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe's barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.

Page Number: 398
Explanation and Analysis:

In the epilogue of his book, Diamond answers some big caveats and potential objections to his argument. One of the biggest objections to the idea that geography determines a society’s supremacy is Chinese history. China had successful agriculture, geographic homogeneity, a written language, immunities to diseases, etc.—and yet China didn’t rise up to dominate the world after 1492 A.D.; on the contrary, Europe did. Doesn’t the fact that Europe, not China, became primary global power in modern times illustrate that human history, while somewhat influenced by geography, has a strong element of randomness?

Diamond argues that, in fact, China’s failure to surpass Europe as a world power can be linked back to geography. Because of China’s geographic homogeneity and large rivers, one dynasty ruled over the entire country. Furthermore, when one dynastic leader ruled that China was to abandon exploration of the world, the decision was permanent—therefore, China never explored America and never took advantage of the world’s resources. So geography in China (the homogeneity of the country’s geography, that is) did play a role in Chinese history. Diamond acknowledges that his argument is a little more tenuous-seeming than some of the other arguments he’s made in the book (one of the major reasons why he leaves it until the epilogue), but he perhaps wants readers of Guns, Germs, and Steel to investigate his idea further.

It remains an open question how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.

Page Number: 404
Explanation and Analysis:

Another important caveat that Diamond gets to in his epilogue is the role of individual people in history. Diamond has been arguing that human history is, in a counter-intuitive sense, not really the result of individual human behavior—it is, primarily and fundamentally, caused by geographic idiosyncrasies that led to the development of agriculture, technology, etc.

Diamond acknowledges, however, that sometimes, individual human beings do exert a great influence over history. Can one really explain Socrates, or Shakespeare, or Rosa Parks, or even Lee Harvey Oswald, by talking about geography? Perhaps geography is a necessary but insufficient condition for human history—at the end of the day there will always be individual humans whose personalities and idiosyncrasies shape society. Diamond will leave the problem of how individuals shape history for another book.

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