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.
Government, Centralization, and the State ThemeTracker
Government, Centralization, and the State Quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel
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.
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.
The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.
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.
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.