Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

by Feb 1, 2012Books

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.

Diamond views the history of the entire world through evolutionary lenses, and he has no room for God except as an evolutionary development that needs to be explained by reference to those lenses. But if I put on my biblical lenses, there’s still great value to be had in Diamond’s work.

Those biblical lenses tell me that God has a Plan A (a decretive will) that human history never deviates from, but that He uses earthly means to accomplish that heavenly work. The various plants and animals available to different peoples is surely part of how He structured his story.

I found Diamond’s description of plant domestication to be particularly interesting and engaging. I had heard about corn domestication, but it never occurred to me to wonder when and how most other staple foods were brought under human dominion.

And that little word is a tip-off to another major portion of the biblical lens: I read Diamond’s sweeping narrative (can anything but the Bible be more sweeping?) not as a record of the evolutionary progress of homo sapiens but as an outworking of God’s original mandate to man:

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth. (Gen 1:28 CSB)

Perhaps I’m building too much on a minor point, but I believe that the word “blessed” suggests that this mandate is both an indicative and an imperative. God didn’t just give man a task but a blessing. Maoris, Austronesians, and Incas all exercise dominion whether they know about Yahweh or not, because God blessed them with that ability and yearning.

I can’t say I know the reasons behind God’s providential organization of the continents, but Diamond persuaded me that the obvious difference in axes is significant to world history. Simply the first “food production package”—the full suite of plant and animal domesticates necessary for hunter gatherers to become sedentary farmers—developed in the Fertile Crescent (any connections to the Bible there?). And that zone connects to others contiguously all across the massive Eurasian continent, making it easy for the package to spread. The same is not true for north-south oriented continents like Africa and the Americas. Developments in dominion, up to and including writing, could not make their way easily up and down through different temperature zones and over mountain ranges. And Eurasia had the best candidates for plant and animal domestication to begin with.

It was the superior food production package which gave Eurasians the edge anytime they encountered other cultures. High yields-per-man-hour allowed some people to specialize in politics, marshaling man-power to produce even higher yields through things like irrigation products. This sedentary lifestyle also helped farmers develop guns, germs, and steel. It was these things which were most effective in raising Eurasians to prominence over others. Germs were especially powerful. Farmers living close together developed immunities to certain germs, and those germs utterly annihilated North American Indian populations without anyone ever having to fire a shot. (The story of Pizarro capturing the Inca god-king Atahuallpa is especially vivid and interesting.)

In any case, this book answered for me decisively the question of whether racial superiority is the reason Eurasians have taken the ascendance in many ways in this world. Diamond tackles that question head-on and gives a firm answer: no.

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