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Guns, Germs, and Steel

(article, Caroline Cummins)

A modern classic, Jared Diamond's 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel is, like its title, both macho and lazy. (A better title would have been the less redundant but far less sexy Guns, Germs, Latitude, and Biodiversity.) Ever wonder why it is that Europeans went out and colonized the planet, instead of, say, the powerful-in-their-day Aztecs? Diamond's got the answer: not the Great Man theory of history, nor the even more antiquated theory of racial superiority, but simple chance.

If you want to move from skins and caves to world domination, Diamond writes, you need a trifecta of geobiological opportunity: a temperate climate, a welter of easily domesticated plants and animals, and land that runs east-west instead of north-south, to facilitate same-climate travel and settlement. These conditions stimulate not just the development of agriculture but the spread of civilization. 

Here's how: If you can keep planting those same grains of wheat as you head west, you can, more or less, build Rome in a day. But if you're trying to plant corn as you travel north, you've got to keep stopping to breed cold-tolerant corn. Which is why the Romans did just fine conquering Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa (all on an east-west axis), while the Aztecs never took over North America.

Agriculture means people settling down and living in close quarters, which in turn means veritable open season for germs and their buddy, disease resistance. But it also means the creation of the class system, and the opportunity for some folks to give up farming in favor of, say, gunsmithing. Germs and guns together helped the Europeans quash any resistance to their world explorations. But it was plants (all those pliant grasses of the eastern Mediterranean) and animals (all those domesticable pigs, sheep, goats, cows, and horses of the same area) that carried the Europeans around the globe.

Diamond's writing is forceful and his arguments supported by an unusual blend of scientific study and personal experience (he's an expert on bird evolution who studied in New Guinea). But at nearly 500 pages, Guns, Germs, and Steel is bloated; his arguments are good, but they don't benefit from repetition.

"All human societies contain inventive people," Diamond writes on page 408. "It's just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments." There you have it: the history of the world, distilled.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

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