One of the basic assumptions of Diamond’s theory of geographic determinism is that there are no fundamental differences in the intelligence, propensity for violence, or talent of peoples from different parts of the world—the cause of differences between civilizations is, in a word, geography. Nevertheless, Diamond contrasts his theory with another “theory,” which, unfortunately, has been all-too popular over history: racism. There are many who have argued that certain societies rise to power because their populations are physically, intellectually, or even genetically superior to people of other races. Guns, Germs, and Steel is written in part as a rebuke to racism, which has frequently been used as a justification for powerful civilizations to colonize and even wipe out other civilizations.
Diamond attacks racism on two main fronts. First, and mostly toward the beginning of the book, he explicitly argues against racism by showing, empirically, that people of societies that traditionally haven’t wielded much power on the global stage are as intelligent and innately talented as people from any other society. For example, the people of New Guinea—who’ve been the victims of European colonialist racism for hundreds of years—excel at many cognitive challenges, albeit not ones that Europeans would typically consider valuable, and show the same cognitive potential as any other human being.
Second, and more importantly, Diamond shows that throughout history, societies in different parts of the world have almost always behaved “rationally,” in the sense that they’ve made use of all available resources to improve their quality of life. An Australian aborigine making use of stone tools exhibits the same cognitive ability as an ancient Mesopotamian experimenting with planting seeds—the difference is that the latter person has access to different resources (resources that, if given enough time, enable major changes in the structure of society).
Ultimately, Diamond disrupts the racist paradigm of the “civilized” colonialist with books and electricity conquering the “primitive” hunter-gatherer armed with less advanced technologies. While agricultural societies’ access to technology and government give them huge military and economic advantages over other forms of society, members of the former society are no more intelligent or talented on an individual level than members of the latter society; instead, they’re just “lucky” that their ancestors had access to useful resources and neighbors, and lived in a temperate climate. Powerful, militarized civilizations often claim that their people are superior to other races, or even that other races are sub-human—Diamond demonstrates that such claims are nonsensical. Because Diamond is writing a work of history, not a polemic, he sometimes describes disturbing, genocidal violence without passing judgment on it. Nevertheless, by his own admission, Guns, Germs, and Steel was written in part to end (or at least put a dent in) the pseudoscientific racism that has often motivated such violence.
Racism, Violence, and Colonization ThemeTracker
Racism, Violence, and Colonization Quotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel
"Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"
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.
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.
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.
The Americas' population now consists of a mixture of peoples originating from all continents except Australia. That demographic shift of the last 500 years—the most massive shift on any continent except Australia—has its ultimate roots in developments between about 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1.
Many readers may already be protesting: don't stereotype people by classifying them into arbitrary "races"! Yes, I acknowledge that each of these so-called major groups is very diverse. To lump people as different as Zulus, Somalis, and Ibos under the single heading of "blacks" ignores the differences between them. We ignore equally big differences when we lump Africa's Egyptians and Berbers with each other and with Europe's Swedes under the single heading of "whites." In addition, the divisions between blacks, whites, and the other major groups are arbitrary, because each such group shades into others: all human groups on Earth have mated with humans of every other group that they encountered.
I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments.