Food, Glorious Food! (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel)

Broadening History’s Scope

In 1972, while studying bird evolution on the Island of New Guinea, biologist Jared Diamond was asked a striking question by a local politician named Yali. Yali’s question was simple and straightforward, though of course like many simple questions it would prove to be infinitely more complicated. Yali asked Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people have so little cargo of our own?” What Yali was really asking was one of, if not the, most profound questions of history, which Diamond phrases as follows: “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?”

There’s little doubt that our modern world is fundamentally unequal where wealth and resources are concerned, prosperity generally  having been concentrated in particular regions while others seem perpetually bound to poverty and strife. Furthermore, the divide between the haves and have-nots appears to almost perfectly mirror another divide, that between the conquerer and the conquered. Indeed, the role of conquest and conflict in shaping the world as we know it today cannot be understated, and Diamond is sure to give close examination to this collision between the Old and New Worlds.

The first decisive victory of Europeans over their Native counterparts in the New World came, according to Diamond, with the capture of the Incan Emperor Atahuallpa by Francisco Pizarro in 1532. The author describes the encounter early in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”:

Atahuallpa was absolute monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, while Pizarro represented the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V…monarch of the most powerful state in Europe. Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers, was in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants, completely out of touch with the nearest Spaniards…and far beyond the reach of timely reinforcements. Atahuallpa was in the middle of his own empire of millions of subjects and immediately surrounded by his army of 80,000 soldiers, recently victorious in a war with other Indians. Nevertheless, Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within a few minutes after the two leaders first set eyes on each other. Pizarro proceeded to hold his prisoner for eight months, while extracting history’s largest ransom in return for a promise to free him. After the ransom – enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet – was deliverd, Pizarro reneged on his promise and executed Atahuallpa.

This is a story with which we are all now familiar, along with all the various conquests that followed in the Americas. The question posed by Diamond still looms large. It is still unclear why the conquest of the New World unfolded in the manner it did.

I was first confronted with this major question in the summer after my first year of university when I decided to pick up an extra credit with a course covering early Caribbean history, a period of my own history of which I sadly knew absolutely nothing. The instructor made it clear that he wished to avoid the emotional approach to history, stating (I’m paraphrasing), “One thing that people expect is for every other word out of my mouth to be ‘racism.’ The fact is that colonialism was not solely driven by racism and that suddenly a group of people decided to conquer another purely out of ethnic hate. It’s more complex than that.” Subsequently, Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel was recommended as an optional reading for the class and one that would truly help one understand the complex underlying forces that shaped modern civilization. Now, four years after sitting in that class, I have finally read Diamond’s book.

Our instructor was certainly correct that to ascribe the process of colonialism to sheer racism was wrongheaded. Conversely, it would be wrongheaded to opt for the racist explanation that Europeans conquered the New World thanks to some innate physical or biological superiority to their counterparts in the Americas. The problem with the latter explanation is that it is simply wrong. Diamond notes that “..peoples who until recently were technologically primitive – such as Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans – routinely master industrial technologies when given the opportunity to do so.” Diamond provides a complex rebuttal to genetic explanations of conquest by noting that Europeans have been living for thousands of years in environments where infectious diseases developed, in turn allowing generations to develop immunity to those diseases which they passed on to subsequent generations. Those subsequent generations could survive infections regardless of their intelligence. In contrast, mortality in traditional societies like New Guinea was driven by murder, tribal warfare, and problems obtaining food, rather than by infectious diseases, a fact which entailed that natural selection promoted intelligence rather than body chemistry. Comparing the intelligence of two societies thus becomes difficult and explanations relying on such comparisons quickly lose traction.

Similarly, to claim that the events of 1532 and beyond were purely products of racism narrows the scope of history and fails to take into account the underlying factors that made Atahuallpa’s capture possible. Even if one were to acknowledge or assert that the European conquerors had superior culture, including the guns, germs, and steel that allowed them to kill off Native populations, along with a drive to conquer underpinned by racism, the question of how they came to enjoy those advantages is once again unanswered. The scope of these answers are just too small and insular, limiting history to an incredibly minuscule timeframe, one which assumes that such momentous events had causes which preceded them immediately.

Jared Diamond understands that events in history have causes which reach back perhaps thousands of years and are not limited to social or cultural developments. Physical and environmental factors play an equally significant role in shaping the course of events and by lending focus to such phenomena, Diamond makes an invaluable contribution to the study of history.

Food, Glorious Food

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a book so ambitious in scope that I could not possibly cover all of its themes here, nor would I want to since this is not meant to be a summary. Rather, I want to offer a comment on why Diamond makes such a compelling case for the fact that the shape of history and conquest specifically is rooted so much in environmental factors and in some sense pure luck and why this in turn offers a new and important way of understanding history.

Atuahuallpa’s people were conquered by the superior weaponry, animals, and diseases of European invaders. How the European’s got to such a position of technical superiority has much to do with the origins of food production according to Diamond. The superior crops, conditions, and livestock of certain regions simply gave way to an entirely different system of living that allowed for a move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one which allowed for technical specialization in areas other than farming, such as the advent of writing and military mobilization as well as religion and nationalization, all of which are crucial to bringing cohesion an organized state or society and giving it leverage over its less organized counterparts. The key drivers of this process are the ability of crops to spread and be stored and the ability to domesticate animals for use in farming, which in turn allows labour to be diverted to other areas.

With regard to domestic animals, Diamond writes,

In human societies possessing domestic animals, livestock fed more people in four distinct ways: by furnishing meat, milk, and fertilizer and by pulling plows. First and most directly, domestic animals became the societies’ major source of animal protein, replacing wild game. Today, for instance, Americans tend to get most of their animal protein from cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, with game such as venison just a rare delicacy. In addition, some big domestic animals served as sources of milk and milk products such as butter, cheese, and yogurt.

Once animals can be used in this way to foster more efficient food production and food storage, the path is cleared for specialized bureaucrats and a stable hierarchy of officials meant to deal with the administrative duties of taxation and distribution. This newly hierarchical societies are far more capable of mobilizing armed forces than more egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. In this way, certain regions of the world enjoyed a distinct advantage. Of the fourteen major domesticable species that Diamond identifies (sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and horses being the major five), thirteen were initially confined to Eurasia, the area surrounding the Fertile Crescent, in the form of their wild ancestors. Diamond notes, in addition, “South America had only one such ancestor, which gave rise to the llama and alpaca. North America, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa had not at all.”

The wild ancestors of vital crops prove similar, having found their origins in Eurasia in proximity to the Fertile Crescent and coupled with a more congenial environment to spread across Eurasia thanks to its primarily east-west axis which entailed that climate varied less from Southwest Asia, the origin of most crops, to present day Europe and China. Diamond summarizes this phenomenon as follows:

We thus have many different phenomena converging of the same conclusion: that food production spread more readily out of Southwest Asia than in the Americas, and possibly also than in sub-Saharan Africa. Those phenomena include food production’s complete failure to reach some ecologically suitable areas; the differences in its rate and selectivity of spread; and the differences in whether the earliest domesticated crops preempted redomestications of the same species or domestications or close relatives.

The broader range in climate in continents with an axis running primarily north-south due to its shape accounts for many species of crops spreading to areas of North Africa but failing to find their way south. Wider shaped continents like Eurasia, in contrast, were far more conducive to the spreading of crops and the move from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to one of sedentary farming. In fleshing out these concepts, Diamond reaffirms his thesis that environment was powerfully determinant in shaping the course of history and creating the division of the conquerer and the conquered.

In reiterating Diamond’s thesis, I have painted with incredibly broad brushstrokes and frankly done his book a disservice as far as summarizing is concerned (this is a book that must be read in its entirety), but the sections to which I have lent focus I believe illustrate why Diamond’s book is so valuable to any student of history. Specifically, the author expands the scope of history and provides a theory which is, no pun intended, fertile in the sense that it can be applied to various cases of conquest throughout history and have its implications tested, namely that those societies which were earliest to develop food production and possessed a wider range of domesticable animals would more easily conquer those which did not have such characteristics.

Diamond gives ample evidence to support this notion, transposing his thesis to China and East Asia and examining the process of language replacement in that region. The author writes,

These language replacements in East Asia remind us of the spread of European languages, especially English and Spanish, into the New World, formerly home to a thousand or more Native American Languages. We know from our recent history that English did not come to replace U.S. Indian languages merely because English sounded musical to Indians’ ears. Instead, the replacement entailed English-speaking immigrants’ killing most Indians by war, murder, and introduced diseases, and the surviving Indians’ being pressured into adapting English, the new majority language. The immediate causes of that language replacement were the advantages in technology and political organization, stemming ultimately from the advantage of an early rise of food production, that invading Europeans held over Native Americans. Essentially the same processes accounted for the replacement of Aboriginal Australian languages by English, and of subequatorial Africa’s original Pygmy and Khoisan languages by Bantu languages.

With regard to China, where 800 million of its just over 1 billion residents speak Mandarin and 300 million others speak some language quite similar to it, food production once again lies at the core of its ability to have exerted so much influence over the rest of East Asia. China, Diamond writes, may have comprised of two or more independent centers or origins of food production much like the Fertile Crescent. Diamond adds,

As elsewhere in the world, in China food production gradually led to other hallmarks of “civilization…” A superb Chinese tradition of bronze metallurgy had its origins in the third millennium B.C. and eventually resulted in China’s developing by far the earliest cast-iron production in the world, around 500 B.C. The following 1,500 years saw the outpouring of Chinese technological inventions…that included paper, the compass, the wheelbarrow, and gunpowder…[s]tratified societies whose rulers could mobilize large labour forces of commoners are also attested by huge urban defensive walls, big palaces, and eventually the Grand Canal, linking North and South China.

This head start in food production is what has made modern China so distinctly “Chinese.” Diamond concludes,

Within East Asia, China’s head start in food production, technology, writing, and state formation had the consequence that Chinese innovations also contributed heavily to developments in neighbouring regions. For instance, until the fourth millennium B.C. most of tropical Southeast Asia was still occupied by hunter-gatherers making pebble and flake stone tools belonging to what is termed the Hoabinhian tradition, named after the site of Hoa Binh, in Vietnam. Thereafter, Chinese-derived crops, Neolithic technology, village living, and pottery similar to that of South China spread into Southeast Asia, probably accompanied by South China’s language families. The historical southward expansions of Burmese, Loatians, and Thais from South China completed the Sinification of tropical Southeast Asia. All those modern people are offshoots of their South Chinese cousins.

What Guns, Germs, and Steel ultimately provides is a more in-depth manner of examining history that goes beyond immediate causes. The events that so profoundly shaped our modern world find their roots in incredibly remote regions and eras and go far beyond the actions of humans themselves. By adopting Diamond’s multidisciplinary method of studying history and understanding that simple explanations which cannot truly be tested are simply doing scholars a disservice, a more serious manner of scholarship emerges, one which truly begins to dig at the most important questions we can ask about the world in which we live. Furthermore, by soundly putting to rest any narrow-minded or racist explanation of colonization or developments on various continents which are ultimately more political than scholarly, Diamond makes a remarkable and largely successful effort to tell us what has really happened over the last 13,000 years and what this means for our present and perhaps our future.

As I’ve reiterated throughout this piece, I have painted with very broad brushstrokes in examining this book, and would recommend that it be read in its entirety in order to truly appreciate the remarkable scope of Diamond’s project and a better understanding of the complex web of dimensions which encompass the formation of our modern world.

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1 Comment

  1. Sapan KC

     /  October 10, 2010

    I had read a few excerpts for my environmental psychology course. It really is an illuminating read. Definitely going to read this book after the midterms. thanks Ravi


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