Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond

A superbly original and well-argued account of how people spread over the globe, from the end of the Ice Ages 13,000 years ago to the modern European displacement of Native Americans.

The main conclusion of the book is that the success of one group of people in developing civilization earlier, and in eventually displacing others, is due to their good fortune of having locally available plants and animals that were suitable for domestication.

Domestication enabled people to become sedentary farmers, living in densely populated villages. Villages in turn gave rise to non-farming specialists who could invent technologies, governments capable of waging war, and diseases that could wipe out non-resistant people.

His argument about the significance of the predominantly North-South axis of the Americas, as opposed to the East-West axis of Europe and Asia is fascinating, as is his discussion of why various animals like the zebra could not be domesticated.

One of the pleasures of the book is that Diamond is a talented writer and storyteller. For example, it was a brilliant stroke of exposition to include a 5-page firsthand account of Pizarro's conquering the Inca. It is a notable achievement to write a book of detailed argument that is nonetheless suited to a modern audience with a short attention span. Each time I started to worry that he would launch into a long and boring discussion of interest only to a specialist, he quickly concluded the discussion and moved on to the next interesting topic. And whenever he began a new topic, he would first give a simple account of how the topic fit into the overall argument of the book, what the eventual conclusion of the topic would be, and why it was significant.

I hope this book becomes a standard for teaching history — had it been so when I was a student, I would have enjoyed and appreciated history, and I would have actually learned and remembered something.


p. 37 Figure showing the spread of humans over the globe, with dates.
10,000 BC humans in Americas (Clovis)
40,000 BC modern humans (Cro Magnon)
When humans came to Australia and the Americas, most large mammals became extinct.

p. 86 Food production started 10,000 years ago.
Farmers ultimately win out over famous warriors.
This book could be titled: The Attack of the Killer Farmers.

p. 112 The Fertile Crescent didn't develop food production earlier because there were still lots of wild mammals, and the climate was not yet good for wild cereals.

p. 115 Oak has still not been domesticated. Pecans were only domesticated in 1846.

p. 132 A dozen species make up 80% of modern crop tonnage: wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum; soybean; potato, manioc, sweet potato; sugar cane, sugar beet; banana.

p. 135 Civilization arose from farming due to dense human population, stored food surplus, and feeding of non-farming specialists.

p. 142 By 6000 BC some Fertile Crescent societies are domestic.

p. 153 Food production developed late in New Guinea and the Eastern U.S., and not at all in California.

p. 189 2000 BC: wheat from the Fertile Crescent and horses from Ukraine reach China.

p. 195 Domination due to germs, literacy, technology and central government.

p. 238 Deserts as barriers to the spread of writing. But NOT to the initial (though slow) spread of humans?

p. 253 Islam used to be innovative.

p. 261 Technology differences between Europe and America due to 1) the onset of food production and 2) geographic barriers to diffusion.

p. 277 Religion served to justify central authority and the transfer of wealth, and to maintain peace between unrelated individuals.

p. 358 Urban America in the Andes, Mesoamerica, and the US Southwest.

p. 358 Technology due to dense population, specialist workers, centralized government. Which in turn resulted from food production.

p. 370 Eurasia had an advantage over America due to a chronological head start, better food production (especially animals), and fewer geographical and ecological barriers.

pp. 412-13 A fragmented Europe was good for innovation. Centralization in China proved detrimental to innovation.


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