Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Government, Centralization, and the State Theme Analysis

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.
Government, Centralization, and the State Theme Icon

One of the most important developments in modern human history—and one of the major reasons why certain societies were able to colonize other societies—is the development of the modern state. Diamond defines a state as a large (at least 100,000 people, usually) society organized around a single central leadership (that leadership could be a king, a parliament, or a combination of President, Congress, and Supreme Court, as in the United States). The central leadership passes orders down to lower-level leaders, who in turn carry out these orders for a specific, local part of the population they’re responsible for governing. Diamond makes a series of points about how states form, how they’re run, and why they’re so powerful, many of which are crucial to understanding Guns, Germs, and Steel.

In part, Diamond argues, states arise over time as a function of a society’s size and population density, which themselves result from agricultural developments, military conquering, and voluntary integration. Agricultural societies permit large population density: more people stay in a smaller area, nourished by crops. As agricultural societies get larger and denser over time, they may conquer or merge with other agricultural societies. At some point, the society will reach a point where it has so many people that centralized, hierarchical leadership—i.e., a state—is the most stable form of government. Of course, there’s never been a point in history when an agricultural community has literally decided to form a state. Nevertheless, communities that venerated, or even worshipped a single authority (a king, for example) gradually developed complex institutions of power centered around enacting that authority’s commands, because such institutions more effectively governed the state. In this way, modern states often emerged.

Why, then, are states so powerful and so important to modern history? In large part, states are powerful because they produce surplus resources that can be spent on ventures like exploration and technological research. A state authority—for example, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in the 15th century—can collect taxes from its people (who will pay willingly, due to their religious or patriotic respect for the authority) and use them to fund important long-term projects—for example, Columbus’s exploration of the New World. So while a smaller, less centralized society might not have the extra funds or the organization for a war or an expedition, a state often does.

In all, states are founded on the control and organization of large groups of people, and that’s exactly why they’re so powerful. In almost every case, a state organizes and runs the domination or colonization of other, less centrally organized countries–the very phenomenon that Diamond aims to study in his book.

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Government, Centralization, and the State ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel related to the theme of Government, Centralization, and the State.
Chapter 4 Quotes

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.


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Chapter 10 Quotes

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 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.

Epilogue Quotes

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.