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.
Technology and Creativity ThemeTracker
Technology and Creativity Quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It remains an open question how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.