Immediately influential when it was first published in 1997, author Jared Diamond had a runaway best-selling hit in Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – a title that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize (and deservedly so).
The book takes a deep dive into the history of humanity as well as the what, why, and how behind the disparate progress that certain civilizations enjoyed economically, sociologically, and politically compared to their contemporaries.
Diamond completely rejects the idea that there’s some sort of racial superiority or increased intellect that has allowed the Western world to dominate human history the way that it has historically, and instead goes on to describe how the history of the world as we know it today can be traced back to a handful of small geographic and environmental factors that all came together in a singular confluence at “just the right time”.
Interestingly enough, Diamond describes the genesis of this book involving a one-off kind of question asked by a friend of his from New Guinea. The friend initially asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea whereas black people had so little cargo of their own?”.
This set Diamond off on a multi-year research project that covered areas of history, anthropology, economics, and so much more – all of which come together in the form of Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
At the end of the day, Diamond puts forth that the power structures we see worldwide today can all be traced back to a handful of circumstances (some influenced by humans, some foisted upon our ancient ancestors merely by chance or a divine shaping) that occurred 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.
New flora and fauna spread rapidly through the “Birthplace of Civilization” – the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, what we now call the Fertile Crescent. Our ancient ancestors were able to domesticate crops and animals and were able to turn natural resources into cloth. As soon as agriculture and domestication of animals reached a cultural tipping point there was a drive to settle places rather than to continue the hunting and gathering lifestyle that had sustained humanity for so long.
This changed everything.
Diamond describes how a lot of our modern society and the way we look at civilization as a whole today remains heavily influenced by the systems, structures, and philosophies these ancient cultures wove together from scratch.
As people settled down, populations grew, urban areas were established and a natural division of labor was created.
All of a sudden you had elite classes that controlled a significant portion of resources, working classes that had some opportunity for – and plenty of allusions of – upward mobility, and slave classes that were seen as nothing more than another resource to be exploited.
Rules were established and later codified into law, languages were invented that changed the trajectory of human history forever, and religion was established as well.
The same kind of worldwide changes was happening in China, Mesoamerica, and throughout Europe around the same time as well – but the New World, Africa, and other more far-flung regions weren’t “influenced” by these ideas of civilization quite as quickly.
Interestingly enough, it was the agricultural movement that allowed food production per unit area to skyrocket significantly that helped a lot of these “farmer nations” to defeat hunter/gatherer cultures. This happened in large part because the excess food surpluses allowed for bigger populations, more available resources, and more individual people – and that’s where the power concentrated.
At the end of day, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Diamond remains incredibly influential for the “aerial view” it takes of humanity as a whole and also for the more micro and macro approaches to zooming in, looking at snapshots of humanity and civilization from numerous different angles, and then figuring out how this human tapestry we’ve all been helping to weave came together in the first place.
There’s a reason why this book, now 22 years old, continues to be highly popular and recommended reading at numerous universities and private organizations the world over. The prose is fantastic, the story engaging, and the sheer depth of research that Diamond conducted to put Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies together makes it something really special.
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