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.
Technology and Creativity Theme Icon

As its title would indicate, Guns, Germs, and Steel is largely about technology—in particular, how civilizations develop technologies and then use them to gain a comparative advantage over other civilizations.

By his own admission, one of the big blind spots in Diamond’s book is how civilizations, or rather, individual people, discover technologies in the first place. Diamond is writing a book of world history, which means that he has limited time to study what motivates individual famous inventors to design their inventions. And it’s not clear if there’s a better explanation for why an inventor creates something, other than that the inventor is smart and creative—in other words, the kind of explanation based on intellectual superiority that Diamond’s theory of geographic determinism aims to avoid entirely.

Yet, even if he can’t explain how specific technologies arise, Diamond shows how certain civilizations’ structures and environmental qualities can popularize these technologies and preserve them over time. A society with a centralized structure of leadership is most likely to make an invention popular and accessible within the society, once the invention is designed. Similarly, a society with connections to neighboring societies is (eventually) likely to spread technology to neighbor societies. By contrast, a society without centralized leadership or communication with other societies—qualities that can be traced back to environmental causes—is more likely to miss out on technological breakthroughs or, having developed a technology, forget it. For example, Japanese leaders acquired guns from neighboring societies in the 16th century, but chose to discard the technology soon afterwards. Because the country was isolated from the rest of Asia by water, Japanese society forgot about gun technology, and didn’t get it back again until the 19th century.

Technology gives societies a clear advantage over societies that lack the same technologies. For example, when the explorer Francisco Pizarro brought an expedition from Spain to the Inca Empire in South America, he defeated the empire because of his society’s guns, steel swords, maritime technology, etc. Even if Diamond can’t explain the individual, creative act of technological discovery or invention in purely environmental terms, he does show how the diffusion and preservation of technology result from environmental causes—showing that one society’s technological superiority over another isn’t the result of its people’s intellectual superiority, but rather of geographic chance.

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Technology and Creativity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel related to the theme of Technology and Creativity.
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.

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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.”

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 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 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 15 Quotes

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).

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.

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.