Guns, Germs, and Steel

What do you think of the thesis in this book? Geographic determinism, not biological.

It makes racists very angry.

I think Diamond makes a good case. Wouldn’t say it’s determinism, exactly.


I read this shortly after it was first published. My impression at the time was that it was far more nuanced than the tag “geographical determinism” would imply. Jared Diamond is a fine writer and a genius at bringing together insights from multiple disciplines. The Wikipedia article cites several subsequent critiques of the book, but not in sufficient detail for me to determine the substance. One recurring theme in the criticism seems to be that he “lets colonialism off the hook”. Does he?


I can’t imagine why or how. Off the hook for what? The thesis doesn’t explain why Europeans were able to be the colonizers, since it puts all of Eurasia into a single category. Are they off the hook for introducing diseases into the Americas? But of course they didn’t do that deliberately, except in a few cases, and in those cases it doesn’t absolve them of blame but merely provides them with the ability. Someone needs to explain.


I agree. The criticism isn’t mine. It was from the Wikipedia article. I see that I mangled the quote. It was “lets the West off the hook” and was attributed to Kathleen Lowrey.

I don’t think the question is about the morality of colonialism, but rather how and why Europeans, and not everyone else, created global empires. Why was it them, and not Africans and Asians? That doesn’t mean colonialism was morally acceptable, at all.

The theory of race suggested it was because if inherent superiority.

If we reject that theory, we were left with it being a fluke event, which is one real null hypothesis.

But he puts forward the idea that it was the geographic superiority, with respect to world domination, that prepared and enabled Europe to colonialism everyone.

Of course, if they were more just and Righteous and moral, colonialism could have been far more benevolent, and might not even have be called colonial in the end. So that doesn’t take away any moral responsibility for what happened. And I’m sure Shaka Zulu and the Aztecs would have done just the same to the world if in fact they had the means to do so. They had fairly evil empires too, but just never had the opportunity to become global empires.


As far as I can tell, all the criticisms mentioned in the Wikipedia article are based on a confusion of what Diamond was attempting to explain, which was about the various advantages of living on a continent that’s long east to west rather than north to south. Nothing to do with Europe, per se, but with Eurasia. Some of the critics seem to have interpreted “Eurasia” as a code word for “Europe”, but that’s all on them, not Diamond.

He does also explain why it is Europe, not Asia, that dominates the world.

Nice to meet you @jchapman . Tell us about yourself?

It’s been a while since I read the book. What is that explanation? It can’t have anything to do with his central thesis.

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IIRC Jared distinguishes Europe from Asia by noting that Asia is much more uniform in terrain, and therefore less divisible into separate small nations, thus having less international conflict and less need for advances in military technology. So Europeans were able to be the colonizers not just because of the continent’s horizontal shape, but also because of its tightly-packed natural boundaries. The navigable coastlines and waterways and islands requiring maritime access helped too.

Roy’s answer seems pretty good to me. Many years ago I used this book for many years in a class, and his points reminds me of details I had forgotten.
It is a deep irony that the modern form of horses (big grass-eating herd animals running on single functional toes) got their start in North America, and then they spread into Asia, and eventually into Europe and Africa. And along the way they speciated. Meanwhile in the Americas horses went extinct and were entirely missed by the early Indians. What if it was even a little bit different? If Indians always had horses, perhaps they would have domesticated them, and then who knows? Its interesting to think of possibilities where horses and other resources were arranged differently, so that perhaps the colonizers and the conquerers were not Europeans, but were some other civilization. That is a thing I took away from the book. That who conqured who was a matter of dumb luck.

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