Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Themes and Colors
Geographic Determinism Theme Icon
Racism, Violence, and Colonization Theme Icon
Diffusion, Trade, and Disease Theme Icon
Government, Centralization, and the State Theme Icon
Technology and Creativity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Guns, Germs, and Steel, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Geographic Determinism Theme Icon

At the heart of Guns, Germs, and Steel is a theory that has since become known as “geographic determinism”: the idea that civilizations develop over time in different ways in response to environmental factors such as temperature, soil fertility, availability of large mammals, and physical barriers to travel. While Diamond wasn’t the first to propose such a theory, he was the first to compile all the existing data to paint a convincing picture of how environment has influenced the development of civilization throughout human history, not just in a few isolated areas.

Diamond traces the cause of differences between civilizations—for example, the differences between the Inca Empire, which had no guns, swords, ships, or written language, and the Spanish nation-state, which had all four—to one underlying cause: the geographical features and locations of the Earth itself. As a result of the Earth’s angle of rotation, there are certain parts of the planet where large, nutritious seeds grow easily, the soil is fertile, and there are a greater number of large mammals. The people who live in such areas are likely to develop forms of agriculture; i.e., a society founded on the organized cultivation of crops. In other regions, geography makes human beings more likely to be hunter-gatherers, meaning that they migrate between areas, hunting game and picking fruits and nuts.

So environmental differences lead to differences in how societies feed themselves. These differences in turn trigger further, even more pronounced differences between societies. Members of agricultural societies, because they have to migrate less and have more leisure time, can then develop specializations in certain professions. Social specialization in turn leads to the need for and discovery of new technologies, giving agricultural societies a big advantage over hunter-gatherer societies in warfare. Furthermore, agricultural societies’ proximity to large domesticated animals tends to make them immune to more deadly diseases, another big advantage in clashes with societies that lack domesticated animals. Thus, as a result of basic environmental differences, different peoples of the world develop in different ways over history, so that in the end, certain of these peoples are more capable of conquering and dominating other peoples.

Geographic determinism is the central idea of Guns, Germs, and Steel (in a way, the other four themes discussed here are particularly important aspects of the theory of geographic determinism), but it can also be a counterintuitive way to think about human history. A “deterministic” model of history suggests that there are limits on how greatly human beings can change their own societies. Individual humans can strive for greatness or success (or do whatever they want), but their freedom has always been constrained by what resources and ideas are available to them—and therefore, by geographic factors. Diamond acknowledges some examples of human beings who have “shaped history,” but admits that he doesn’t have a good theory for the relationship between individual achievement and history, diluting some of his claims for strictly geographic determinism (see the “Technology and Creativity” theme for more on the limits of Diamond’s model of human individuality and free will).

Diamond’s theory has come under fire in the academic world for many other reasons, mostly notably that it’s an overly general, vague idea. Diamond argues for why agricultural societies defeated hunter-gatherer societies in warfare, but by his own admission, he lacks a full geographic explanation for why certain agricultural societies prevailed over other agricultural societies—again suggesting that geography is important but perhaps not as central to explaining history as Diamond maintains. Guns, Germs, and Steel is an ambitious book, but it wasn’t written to be the final word on history: even if it can explain a lot, the theory of geographic determinism needs further analysis, and Diamond hopes that other thinkers will refine and strengthen his ideas.

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Geographic Determinism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Geographic Determinism appears in each Chapter of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Geographic Determinism Quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel

Below you will find the important quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel related to the theme of Geographic Determinism.
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 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 13 Quotes

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 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.

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.

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.