A Summary of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and J.R. McNeill's Critical Response in The World According to Jared Diamond

Critique Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel attempts to answer the ultimate reasons why Europeans had become imperial powers and wealthy nations whereas others had not. Diamond refutes the idea of intellectual or genetic advantages of certain races to others and instead utilizes the agricultural complex from 11,000 B.C. to describe the difference in the rate of development among different societies. However, J.R. McNeill’s The World According to Jared Diamond, argues that Diamond’s agricultural complex theory exceeds its limits in the determination of the difference in development speed of different societies.

Although McNeill correctly identifies the explanatory limits of Guns, Germs, and Steel and successfully undermines Diamond’s agricultural complex theory, he fails to to go further to explain or even propose the ultimate reason or reasons for the differing development rates of different societies which instead are attributed to political, economic, and cultural aspects of the individual societies themselves.

The political differences among societies challenge both Diamond’s agricultural complex theory and McNeill’s rebuttal to Diamond as major factors in the different development rates of different societies. Diamond states that numerous Chinese treasure fleets that sailed between A.D. 1405 and 1433 were “then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics,” (Diamond, 396). Diamond indicates the Chinese empire’s command to end Admiral Cheng Ho’s oceanic voyages in 1433 displayed how the political structure of a specific country could end possible imperial expeditions, reduce the possibility for encounters with surrounding areas, and therefore reduce the possibility of sharing and developing technologies and ideas.

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He strengthens this argument by comparing the Chinese end of oceanic voyages to the legacy of Christopher Colombus’s voyage to the Americas and Spain’s eventual “colonization of America,” (Diamond, 396). The political structure of Spain in the late fifteenth century allowed for the expansion of the Spanish, the subsequent colonization of the Americas, and ultimately a faster rate of development of Europe in comparison to other societies because of the increased exposure of Europe to disease, warfare, and economic opportunities.

Diamond generalizes this finding to argue that the differing development rates of different societies could be explained because Spain was politically fragmented whereas China was relatively unified. However, McNeill criticizes this “Optimal Fragmentation Principle” as too broad and references West Africa and India as societies in which fragmentation did not necessarily induce an advantage in the rate of development, but rather a disadvantage. Because Diamond’s Optimal Fragmentation Principle incorrectly generalizes fragmentation as a factor in faster development rate of a society, one must infer that instead, the political structure of societies themselves is the factor in the differing development rate.

Economic differences, interpreted here as the gains from movement of resources and knowledge across locations, among societies provide another explanation for the differing development rate of different societies. Diamond describes that goods such as pigs and wheat “rapidly spread along [the] east-west axes” whereas similar goods had a “slow spread along [the] north-south axes” due to differing climates and day length along different latitudes (Diamond, 171). Thus trade and movement allowed numerous cultures throughout Eurasia to share the use of advantageous varieties of grain, domesticable animals, and technology. In contrast, civilizations in the New World and Africa were placed along a longitudinal axis that comprised of different weather conditions and limited exchange which slowed economic diffusion that could have led to the quicker evolution of advanced technologies. Additionally, the New World and Africa’s high transaction cost of movement resulted in a reduced exchange and slowed technological progress. Because Eurasia experienced a greater facilitation of movement of economics in comparison to Africa and the Americas, it obtained a wider range of domesticable agriculture and animals that allowed it to sustain sedentary, larger populations, centralized governments, and ultimately allowed it to develop faster than other societies.

In addition to the spread of resources and knowledge, economics can be stretched to encompass the spread of diseases and immunities to diseases as an advantageous “tool” in the development of a society. Diamond recounts how the Spaniard’s decisive advantage with small pox “proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitláhuac,” (Diamond, 202). Diamond describes that the Spaniard’s immunity to smallpox served as an economic advantage when it came to the colonization of the New World. In doing so, Diamond first portrays that economics are not limited solely to resources and knowledge, but also include the development of immunities to disease. Second, he proves that this development of immunities facilitated the conquest of North America and the subsequent faster rate of development of Europe, now imperialistic powers, in comparison to other societies.

McNeill criticizes Diamond’s “tilting axes” theory as an over-simplistic and therefore incorrect factor of explanation for the differing societal rates of development. He references the vast variety of climatic conditions, high mountains, deserts, and tropical forests along a single latitude line in Eurasia to depict the incorrect generalization Diamond has made. In doing so, McNeill successfully casts doubt on Diamond’s broad generalizations about the ease of diffusion of economics in Eurasia. Thus, one must infer that if Diamond’s “tilting axes” theory can not account for the differing rates of development among societies and look toward a more focused approach, such as the individual economic structures of the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa, respectively to understand the differing rates of development among societies.

Furthermore, cultural differences among societies also serve as another alternative to Diamond’s agricultural complex theory. Diamond describes the stark differences between the Maori and Moriori and stresses that “the Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully” instead of engaging in retaliation against the invading Maori (Diamond, 52). Because of this, the Moriori were completely decimated and repopulated with a subset of the Maori population.

Diamond underlines how the unwillingness of the Moriori to retaliate, as part of their culture, led to their eventual extinction. He goes further to describe how “an organized resistance by the the Moriori could still then have defeated the Maori, who were outnumbered two to one,” (Diamond, 52). Diamond displays that the Moriori were completely capable of defending themselves but instead chose not to because their cultural background influenced them to attempt a peaceful resolution and thus led to their downfall.

Additionally, Diamond describes how Japan’s “samurai-controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, then introduced a requirement of a government license for producing a gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government,” (Diamond, 247). Diamond depicts how the introduction of gunpowder and mass gun production were viewed as a threat to the samurai form of warfare. This cultural aspect of Japan slowed the development and spread of gunpowder throughout Japan. However, this was not solely limited to Japan but also in China when the Chinese government “rejected and abandoned the use of oceangoing ships, mechanical clocks, and water-driven spinning machines,” (Diamond, 247). Such cultural requirements that limited and in even some cases “technologically reversed” developments throughout the country prove to deter the rate of development of the respective society. In essence, societies that did not exercise cultural values that limited advancements in technology and agriculture would have develop exceedingly faster than societies that did exercise those cultural practices.

Although Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is an overarching book about the history of the world since 11,000 B.C., he leaves many of his most critical arguments open to opposition from incorrectly generalizing information about the different continents on Earth. J.R.

McNeill addresses the explanatory limits of Diamond’s agricultural complex theory and successfully casts doubt on Diamond’s theory of how the world came to be. Instead of an overarching agricultural complex as the ultimate reason for the differing rates of societal development, the reasons are more likely attributed to differences in political, economic, and cultural aspects of individual societies themselves.


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A Summary of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and J.R. McNeill's Critical Response in The World According to Jared Diamond. (2022, Feb 22). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-summary-of-jared-diamond-s-guns-germs-and-steel-and-j-r-mcneill-s-critical-response-in-the-world-according-to-jared-diamond/

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