In the last 13,000 years or so, human history has proceeded in many different directions. Jared Diamond, the author of the book, has spent most of his career trying to understand why different human civilizations developed in different ways.
The book will try to determine why certain societies became powerful and dominant on the global stage, while others did not.
Diamond once met a New Guinean politician named Yali. Yali was a smart, charismatic man, and he was very interested in the expansion of the western world into his own country. He wanted to know all about Diamond’s culture, and he wanted to know the history of how white people colonized New Guinea 200 years ago.
Yali is one of the few individuals mentioned in the novel. Diamond emphasizes Yali’s intelligence and talent as a politician, suggesting that the technological and economic superiority of one civilization over another (most relevantly, the technological and economic superiority of Europe and the U.S. over New Guinea) has little to do with the intelligence or talent of individual people.
Diamond describes the vast differences between New Guineans and the white colonists who came to New Guinea in the 1800s. New Guineans are just as intelligent as Europeans, even if they had to deal with colonists’ racism. Yali’s question for Diamond is: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo … but we black people had little cargo of our own?” The book we’re about to read is, at its core, Diamond’s attempt to answer Yali’s question.
This is one of the most important passages in the book, because it sets up the “mystery” that Diamond will proceed to solve in the next 500 pages. Certain societies have, by almost any material measure, been more successful than other societies: healthier, wealthier, more powerful, etc. And yet individual people across societies are very much alike in terms of nature and intelligence. Why, then, do some societies flourish while others do not?
Yali’s question references the inequalities between different civilizations. Some civilizations, such as those in Europe and Eastern Asia, have developed great power and wealth and used it to dominate the inhabitants of Australia and the Americas. Why did the Europeans conquer the Native Americans, Diamond asks, and not the other way around? In general, “why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?”
This passage explicitly states the question that the book will try to solve. Another important thing to notice here is that Diamond illustrates the problem he’s attempting to solve with a “case study": the colonization of the New World by European societies after 1492 A.D. Diamond will often rely on case studies—that is, individual, somewhat isolated, examples—before generalizing his findings to all of human history (the fourth part of the book is made up almost entirely of case studies of specific regions).
Diamond takes a moment to clarify what his book is and isn't, and to respond to some potential objections to his book. First, Diamond could be misinterpreted to be saying that he celebrates the Europeans for their conquests. On the contrary, Diamond isn’t glorifying anyone or anything—he’s just describing what happened, and why. Diamond will study many different cultures around the word, not just European culture.
This is an important passage because Diamond clarifies that he’s describing, not judging. There are several points in the book in which Diamond’s own point of view about human history becomes very clear (in particularly, he seems disgusted with the European colonists’ racism). But for the most part, Diamond’s tone will be scientific and dispassionate.
One could also misinterpret Diamond to be arguing that hunter-gatherer culture (for example, Native Americans and aborigines) is inferior to agricultural or industrial civilization (the civilizations that conquered the Native Americans and the aborigines). Diamond doesn’t say that any kind of society is better than another. In many ways, hunter-gatherers are actually better off than people in a country like the U.S.
Diamond will show how humans learned to replace their hunter-gatherer practices with agricultural and industrial practices. But he’s not saying that agriculture is superior to hunting and gathering. On the contrary, agriculture is just the most efficient way to extract food for certain times and places in the world—just as hunting and gathering has been the most efficient way in other places and at other times.
There have been many attempts to answer Yali’s question before Diamond. For centuries, people believed that Europeans conquered the rest of the world because Europeans were naturally superior. After Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 1800s, people tried to argue that Europeans were more evolutionally advanced than Native Americans or aborigines. Such ideas aren’t just racist and horrible—they’re dead wrong. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that people in hunter-gatherer cultures are less talented or intelligent than their counterparts in an industrialized country.
In no small part, Diamond writes his book in order to refute persistent, but ultimately unscientific, claims that whites, Europeans, and Westerners are superior to people from other parts of the world. Racists often attempt to twist science—most notoriously, Darwin’s theory of evolution –in order to justify their beliefs, and even to justify their brutality while colonizing places outside Europe. But, Diamond insists, scientifically there’s no link between race/culture and intelligence.
Diamond describes his experiences as an anthropologist in New Guinea. There, he met all sorts of brilliant New Guinean people. It could even be that New Guineans are as a whole smarter than Westerners. In Western society, survival was largely a product of being healthy and lucky—i.e., not killed by infectious diseases like the black plague or smallpox. In New Guinea, on the other hand, survival was more often a product of talent and intelligence: being able to hunt food, avoid accidents, etc. Furthermore, New Guineans spend more time exploring the world than average Westerners (who watch lots of TV).
Diamond continues the previous passage to argue from his own experience that people from non-European societies aren’t less intelligent than Europeans. Despite the fact that Darwin’s theory of evolution has often been twisted to claim Europeans’ superiority to indigenous non-Western peoples, one could just as easily use Darwin to argue the reverse. In an industrialized society, intelligence and talent aren’t necessarily prerequisites for producing offspring, but in New Guinea, they are. Therefore, one might even think that natural selection has made New Guineans smarter than Europeans (though Diamond doesn't explicitly argue so).
Diamond relates another popular explanation for human inequalities across culture: climate stimulates the mind. In cold climates, it’s been argued, humans have to work harder to survive; they have to build more sophisticated houses, plan ahead for the winter, and do other things that make them more industrious. But this idea doesn’t hold up to close inspection either. Europeans who lived in cold climates received many of their most important ideas and technologies (writing, the wheel, etc.) from Eurasia, where the climate was actually warmer.
Many of the most famous European philosophers of the early modern era, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that humans responded to their environment in a limited sense: cold weather influenced them to be harder working. While these thinkers may have been on the right track to argue that environment can shape society, their particular interpretation of such an idea has turned out to be factually wrong.
Another famous answer to Yali’s question: civilizations that arose near rivers become more successful over time. Many of the earliest civilizations did emerge near big rivers (Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.), and it’s been suggested that the development of irrigation systems led to the development of complex bureaucracies, the basis for government and society. But studies have shown that early civilizations developed irrigation systems after they’d already developed centralized bureaucracies.
One of the most popular answers to the question of why certain regions became more powerful than others is that the powerful, successful regions were located near rivers. Again, such an explanation is getting at an important truth—environment can shape society—but still relying on factually incorrect data.
Another explanation is that civilizations with access to weaponry, immunity to infectious diseases, and proximity to metal were most successful. This explanation is on the right track, Diamond claims, but it doesn’t go in-depth about why certain civilizations ended up with the guns, the germs, and the steel. (There are many civilizations with access to metal, for example, that never developed serious metallurgy).
It’s clear enough that civilizations with access to metal and immunity to disease have a big advantage over civilizations that don't. But this doesn’t get to the core of the question; it doesn’t explain why certain civilizations do and don’t develop such advantages.
Many specialists have studied specific aspects of why certain civilizations succeeded. People have written a lot about civilizations’ responses to infectious diseases, metallurgy, etc. What Diamond will provide is a “synthesis” of these specialists’ work: he will give a big, overarching answer to Yali’s question. Diamond then gives a thesis statement for his book: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.”
Diamond doesn’t claim to be presenting any truly “new” ideas—indeed, almost all of the ideas he presents have been discussed elsewhere in the literature on archaeology, anthropology, or history. Diamond’s aim in his book isn’t to make new points but to put together other thinkers’ points to make a single, organized thesis about why societies do and don’t prosper. (In real life Diamond is a polymath with many eclectic interests, perhaps explaining why he feels comfortable synthesizing many different fields of knowledge; many other people in those fields would feel uncomfortable making big, ambitious claims of the kind that Diamond routinely makes. At the same time, some have criticized Diamond for what they see as his vague, overly general knowledge of history, archaeology, and anthropology.)
Diamond gives a brief outline of his book’s structure. Part I studies the history of human evolution. Part 2 focuses on food production and livestock cultivation and how it led to the eventual rise of the European powers. Part 3 studies the role of bacteria and microbes in Western military supremacy, while also studying the history of writing and other technologies. Part 4 looks at case studies for Diamond’s ideas—in Australia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Here Diamond sketches out the structure of the book. He’ll begin with the history of agriculture, followed by a discussion of how agricultural developments “snowballed” over time to lead to major advances in technology. Finally, he’ll examine some specific examples of his idea.