Retro Review: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997)

In 1972, Jared Diamond was researching the evolution of birds in New Guinea. As he was walking along a beach, he had an hour-long conversation with a local politician named Yali, who asked him, “Why did you white people develop so much merchandise and did you bring to New Guinea, but we blacks had few goods? of ours? (page 14)

We’ve known for some time that the answer has nothing to do with race or genetics. So what is it? Diamond pondered the Yali question for more than two decades and tried to answer it with his now classic book. Guns, germs and steelwho turns 25e anniversary this year, and has been adapted into a PBS documentary series. Diamond’s answer is geography.

Guns, germs and steel make what might be the definitive case that this geography matters. In this regard, Diamond is compelling, but his singular focus rules out other things that matter as well. These include culture, institutions, psychology and political choices.

It is important to include these other factors because the Yali question, and its variants, are among the most important questions in the world. Humanity has made great strides in reducing poverty since around 1800. Since then, life expectancy has doubled and infant mortality has fallen by more than 90%. Average income increases about 30 times in rich countries, and many poor countries are catching up. Nothing like this has happened before in human history on a lasting basis.

Continuing this progress is the 21st decisive project of the century, in particular because there is still much to do.

When Yali and Diamond spoke in 1972, New Guinea’s GDP per capita was $294. That’s about 80 cents a day for the average person. In 2021, it was $2,916, or about $8 a day. That’s a 10-fold increase in what is now less than one life. Yet, there is still much to do. The average person in the United States earned about $190 a day in 2021, about 23 times more than the average New Guinean. How can New Guineans reach or exceed this level of prosperity?

In 2019, according to the most recent data available, more than 670 million people worldwide still live on $2.15 a day or less, which is the current extreme poverty line. This represents about 8.4% of the world’s population, the lowest ever. While COVID-era data will likely show a temporary setback when available, even a global pandemic is unlikely to change the fundamental trajectory of the past two centuries.

But that’s still 670 million people. About twice the population of the United States still lives without electricity, modern sanitation, education, decent medical care, and other things that even the poorest of the richest countries take for granted.

If we can understand what made rich countries rich, we can better understand how these 700 million people can get out of extreme poverty.

One thing that holds Diamond back from this project is that he seems at least as concerned with fighting inequality as he is with fighting poverty; they are different things. The fight against inequality is about mathematical ratios, while the fight against poverty is about improving the lot of people. One of them is ethically irrelevant, the other ethically primordial. But whether you prioritize ratios or people, Diamond shows that geography is an important part of both worldviews. You don’t need to share his ideological background to better understand the Yali issue.

If you look at a map of the world, one thing that immediately stands out is that the dominant axis of the Eurasian landmass runs horizontally from east to west. Both Africa and the Americas have a vertical North-South orientation. This, Diamond shows, is important in explaining why Europeans were the first to develop guns, germs and steel. Geography is the reason Europeans colonized Africa and the Americas, not the other way around.

Eurasia’s horizontal orientation means it has a massive temperate climate belt stretching about 9,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This means that similar crops can grow over large areas. When people figured out how to domesticate a few high-calorie temperate zone crops like wheat and legumes, they were able to spread widely.

This was not possible in Africa, the Americas or Oceania. Many parts of these regions lack temperate zones and depend on less nutritious tropical crops, such as plantains or yams. The Great Temperate Belt of North America grew mainly corn before Columbus, which is less nutritious than Eurasian crops. Corn-centric diets make people vulnerable to pellagra if they don’t get nutrients like niacin and tryptophan from other food sources.

Eurasia’s east-west temperate belt is also good economic luck, and not just gastronomically. This facilitates the construction of commercial networks. This is one of the reasons why there was no vertical American or African equivalent to the horizontal Silk Road that linked Asian and European traders in the temperate zones.

Easy calories and easy trade allowed the development of villages, then of cities. These population centers allowed for specialization and trade, which led to better technology over time. Geography gave the Eurasian civilizations a technological head start in developing the guns and Diamond title steel they needed to colonize the rest of the world.

Geography also has to do with germs. Again, this is more down to luck than anything else; most domestic wild animals were found on the Eurasian landmass. Our most common pets have Eurasian origins, including horses, pigs, cows, cats, and dogs. Native American civilizations did not domesticate any large species apart from llamas and alpacas, which are not strong enough to carry heavy loads or drive plows like camels, oxen, or horses. While wild Eurasian horses and pigs are domesticated, their African relatives, such as zebras and warthogs, are not.

This matters for diseases because, as many people have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, some diseases can jump from species to species. When people welcomed animals into their homes and villages, they also welcomed their diseases, some of which were zoonotic. This appears in the very name of certain diseases like chickenpox and cowpox.

The early rates of illness and death from animal domestication must have been brutal, especially without a germ theory to explain why it was happening. But over time, human versions of diseases like influenza, malaria, and smallpox have become rampant and (usually) non-lethal. High mortality from disease was part of the price of sedentary life, but survivors developed substantial immunities.

Thousands of years later, when the Old World met the New World with its guns and steel, the Eurasian sprouts arrived. It didn’t matter much to Europeans and their built-up immunities, but it mattered a lot to Native Americans who had never been exposed to European diseases. Up to 90 percent of some native populations perished from disease in the first generations after contact.

According to Diamond, this is how geography can explain why guns, germs and steel appeared when and where they did, and why the Eurasian civilizations were the colonizers and not the colonized. It’s a compelling story and an important part of the answer to Yali’s question.

But that’s not the whole answer. The disadvantage of Guns, germs and steel is that it is, at heart, a single-variable answer to a multivariate question. It remains essential reading 25 years after its publication, especially for those who believe that good economic policies are the only variable that can answer Yali’s question. But because of Guns, germs and steelreaders interested in helping to fight global poverty should consider Diamond as only part of the answer.

A good place to turn for a more holistic approach is the short, readable text by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin. How the World Got Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth, which shows how all the important growth engines work together. In addition to geography, they answer the Yali question with cultural attitudes toward openness, progress, and trade; political and social institutions; population growth; and relatively market-oriented economic policies. None of these things have enriched the world. All have interacted – and the process is still ongoing.

They also argue that colonialism and slavery have impoverished the world. The old model of wealth through exploitation is proving to be a failure. Colonialism certainly enriched individual monarchs and East India Company stockholders, but it was also costly vanity schemes that impoverished societies as a whole. Empires use more military and economic resources than they produce, as Adam Smith and several Americans pointed out in 1776, and as the Spaniards and Dutch discovered the hard way a century before Smith.

Diamond’s other analytical flaws are his determinism, his Malthusianism, and his over-emphasis on this old empirical economic exploitation. It is significant that the subtitle of Guns, germs and steel is the deterministic sound The destinies of human societiesand that its follow-up volumes are the climate and population themes of 2011 Collapseand 2019 Upheavalwhich focuses on how societies can recover from future crises.

A good antidote to Diamond’s pessimism is that of Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley Overabundance: the story of population growth, innovation and human flourishing on an infinitely generous planet. Tupy and Poole show the astonishing magnitude of the modern wealth explosion. Like Koyama and Rubin, they offer multicausal insight into its origins. They also offer insight into why many people, including Diamond, tend to be pessimistic about the future, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Geography matters, but it is no longer destiny. As Julian Simon pointed out, the human mind is the ultimate resource. He learned to cross oceans, fly over mountains, desalinate ocean water, stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and connect global trade networks. There are only a limited number of atoms in the world, but there are almost endless ways to arrange them. While Diamond is right that the orientation of the continents matters more than most people realize, we’ve also reached a point in history where other things matter far more.

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