SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

reviewed: 6/98 Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond. W.W. Norton (New York, 1997). ISBN 0-393-03891-2. $27.50 cloth.

How did China become Chinese? Why did white people develop so much "cargo" (material goods) and carry it to New Guinea, while the black people there had so little cargo of their own? Given our common evolutionary origins and the spread of humans around the globe from some ancestral population, why have some cultures flourished more than others? These are the formidable yet compelling questions that motivate Jared Diamond in this wide-ranging and sometimes dizzying volume.

Diamond launches his analysis with a striking description of the "collision at Cajamarca," where Pizarro confronted the Incans in 1532 and where 168 Spaniards defeated over 80,000 Incans in a single afternoon. Diamond pieces together several vivid first-person accounts that dramatize the asymmetry that would lead to more than a century of devastation by Europeans in the New World. This event serves as a benchmark for posing the question: why did Pizarro conquer Atahuallpa, rather than the reverse? Why did Incans not cross the ocean and conquer Europe?

Diamond's answer is partly conventional but, as a biologist, he adds some novel and provocative claims. The title image of guns refers to armaments of all kinds, and steel refers to both metal weapons and other forms of technology, including ocean-going vessels. Both of these contribute in obvious ways to how one culture dominates another. But Diamond gives equal credit to germs. The transfer of diseases and the ability to cope with them have proven crucial in many cultural encounters. For example, smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, bubonic plague and other infectious diseases "imported" from Europe killed nearly 95% of the Pre-Columbian Native American population—far more than ever succumbed to gunshots or steel blades. In a parallel way, malaria significantly interfered with European colonization of central Africa.

But do these proximate factors have any deeper, ultimate causes? Here, Diamond's background in biogeography emerges. He notes that where wild plants and animals can move east and west (along similar climatic belts), they exchange genes more freely, leading to a greater number of species. The diversity allows humans options to domesticate them, thereby promoting agriculture. With farming comes food storage and food surpluses, the first critical factors in developing a stable population that can truly civilize. With civilization and extra labor (beyond subsistence) comes technology, the source of guns and steel swords.

The domestication of animals and the close contact between them and humans, especially in stable settlements, means that specialized pathogens more commonly "jump" species and create epidemic diseases among humans. Within a certain locale, fortunately, human populations can develop immunity and pathogens adapt to modest virulence of their hosts. But when the mircoorganisms come in contact with people from another geographic region, the strange new diseases can overhwelm them. Hence, Diamond's provocative proposal is that human cultures are ultimately shaped by the biology of where they live, especially through farming and disease organisms.

In a book of such scope, Diamond must make some assumptions and disregard many details. Whether his generalizations will survive closer scrutiny remains to be seen, but in the meanwhile, he has provided a startling thesis and a bold scientific conjecture on a subject that brings science to central cultural questions.

--Douglas Allchin

  SHiPS helps teachers share resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology in the science classroom. E-mail us at for our quarterly news.