Guns Germs and Steel, a well known novel written by Jared Diamond explains how and why certain civilizations grew faster than others and the different ways in which they developed. In order to find a different outlook on this topic I’ve also read through J.R McNeil”s critique of the novel. According to McNeil’s book review the well renowned Guns Germs and Steel has a lot of false ideas on how different continents and civilizations developed. McNeil also believes that Diamond is stating that the development was due to intelligence and the development of crops, whereas he believe it all has to do with environment from which these people lived.
McNeil believes that the ultimate factors leading to the development of some civilizations before others is the environment in which they live in. In contrast Diamond believes was caused this development in some civilizations before others was the domestication of plants and animals. To fight back McNeil notes that the domestication of plants and animals are an effect of living in a decent environment, “Indeed, the successful spread of crops and livestock is surely determined in large parts by factors other than geography…but the spread of useful species was usually a conscious act.
They could not, of course, flourish where ecological conditions did not permit.” (McNeil 172) Without the proper environment in which to grow your plants and keep your livestock healthy there is no chance of domestication. You are forced into a hunter gatherer lifestyle from which you can not create a flourishing civilization.
There is no time for art or the growth of culture.
Throughout Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond seems to be implying that a population’s level of intelligence has something to do with how fast a society develops, while respectively this could be true it is also was enforces racism and stereotypes.
The spread of crops and agriculture is a sub-topic of the ultimate factor of domestication. Even though Europe did not have the best environment or climate for farming they did develop civilization faster than any other continent. They became more advanced at domesticating animals which lead to population growth. This in turn created surpluses of food allowing for the development of trade. Trade spread ideas as well as plants and animals.
Sailing technology was created which bettered trade but also added the spread of disease.
This became one of the main reasons why Europe was able to conquer so quickly. The diseases they brought to different continents from animals and population growth killed off many of the inhabitants of the lands they were trying to conquer.
Interactions between Europe and Africa were bad. When Europe arrived they brought disease with them which killed many of the native Africans who lived there. “In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”(Diamond 401) Most of early European conquering was done by disease which came from the animals they domesticated such as cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. The real question Diamond is trying to answer is how Europe was the first to domesticate even though there were enough environments elsewhere to allow for it.
J.R. McNeil’s critique of Guns, Germs and Steel was very helpful in understanding the novel because it gave lots of details and insight that one might have missed the first time reading Guns, Germs and Steel, while still being respectful to Diamond’s work and inputting his own ideas and opinions. McNeil believes that Diamond makes some valid points but that his overall hypothesis is incorrect. McNeil instead believes that civilizations formed and expanded due to the environments they were in. If a society lives where there’s a warm climate they must plant crops and domesticate animals associated with that climate or else die out. Same thing goes for a cooler climate. The environment affects what plants can be grown and to what extent the agriculture and animal domestication could progress can build up to.
The society would also need to fully be able to invest in their farming which is why a lot of civilizations didn’t transfer to domestication right away.
It is almost impossible to have the time to care for crops while being constantly on the move looking for new prey because obviously a steady agriculture supply requires time and a steady environment. In order for these early hunter/gatherer societies to build a stable civilization they needed to be able to settle into one place. This was a risk that could possibly leave the society in trouble if it didn’t work out. In order to farm a steady fresh water supply, meaning to be near a river, lake, or at least have some sort of irrigation system to water the plants is necessary. Being near a water source also means the ability for transportation.
Allowing the spread of sailing technology and new ideas such as “writing, wheels, (the compass), and other inventions that Diamond mentions in his argument, [that are] surely determined in large part by factors other than geography, and geography is much more complex than the axes suggest[s].”(McNeil 172) Without new ideas civilizations would not advance or survive.
All in all the spread of domesticated plants and animals, new ideas/ innovations, disease, and the shift from a hunting/gathering society to a pastoral culture was all due to environment. Depending on where you are on the map and what the climate is in that area, you have opportunities to profit off of what is able to be made there. It is true that some climates and environments are better suited for agriculture and domestication that other which explains why some civilizations rose to power quicker than others.