Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - by Jared M. Diamond

Until the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 B.C., all peoples on all continents were still hunter-gatherers. Different rates of development on different conti- nents, from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500, were what led to the technological and political inequalities of A.D. 1500. While Aboriginal Australians and many Native Americans remained hunter-gatherers, most of Eurasia and much of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa gradually developed agriculture, herding, metallurgy, and complex political organization. Parts of Eurasia, and one area of the Americas, independently developed writing as well. However, each of these new developments appeared earlier in Eurasia than elsewhere.

Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

One of the key factors in world history: diseases transmitted to peoples lacking immunity by invading peoples with considerable immunity. Smallpox, measles, influ- enza, typhus, bubonic plague, and other infectious diseases endemic in Europe played a decisive role in European conquests, by decimating many peoples on other continents. Throughout the Americas, diseases introduced with Europeans spread from tribe to tribe far in advance of the Europeans themselves, killing an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population.

I do not mean to imply, however, that the role of disease in history was confined to paving the way for European expansion. Malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases of tropical Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea furnished the most important obstacle to European colonization of those tropical areas.


Food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. Hence geographic variation in whether, or when, the peoples of different continents became farmers and herders explains to a large extent their subsequent contrasting fates.

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents. The military uses of horses and camels, and the killing power of animal-derived germs, complete the list of major links between food production and conquest that we shall be exploring.

In short, only a few areas of the world developed food production independently, and they did so at widely differing times. From those nuclear areas, hunter-gatherers of some neighboring areas learned food production, and peoples of other neighboring areas were replaced by invading food producers from the nuclear areas—again at widely differing times. Finally, peoples of some areas ecologically suitable for food production neither evolved nor acquired agriculture in prehistoric times at all; they persisted as hunter-gatherers until the modern world finally swept upon them. The peoples of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and steel. The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.

We have considered examples of three contrasting areas, in all of which food production did arise indigenously. The Fertile Crescent lies at one extreme; New Guinea and the eastern United States lie at the opposite extreme. Peoples of the Fertile Crescent domesticated local plants much earlier. They domesticated far more species, domesticated far more productive or valuable species, domesticated a much wider range of types of crops, developed intensified food production and dense human populations more rapidly, and as a result entered the modern world with more advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epidemic diseases with which to infect other peoples. We found that these differences between the Fertile Crescent, New Guinea, and the eastern United States followed straightforwardly from the differing suites of wild plant and animal species available for domestication, not from limitations of the peoples themselves. When more-productive crops arrived from elsewhere (the sweet potato in New Guinea, the Mexican trinity in the eastern United States), local peoples promptly took advantage of them, intensified food production, and increased greatly in population. By extension, I suggest that areas of the globe where food production never developed indigenously at all—California, Australia, the Argentine pampas, western Europe, and so on—may have offered even less in the way of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication than did New Guinea and the eastern United States, where at least a limited food production did arise.

Initially, one of the most puzzling features of animal domestication is the seeming arbitrariness with which some species have been domesticated while their close relatives have not. It turns out that all but a few candidates for domestication have been eliminated by the Anna Karenina principle. Humans and most animal species make an unhappy marriage, for one or more of many possible reasons: the animal's diet, growth rate, mating habits, disposition, tendency to panic, and several distinct features of social organization. Only a small percentage of wild mammal species ended up in happy marriages with humans, by virtue of compatibility on all those separate counts. Eurasian peoples happened to inherit many more species of domesticable large wild mammalian herbivores than did peoples of the other continents. That outcome, with all of its momentous advantages for Eurasian societies, stemmed from three basic facts of mammalian geography, history, and biology. First, Eurasia, befitting its large area and ecological diversity, started out with the most candidates. Second, Australia and the Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions—possibly because the mammals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting skills were already highly developed. Finally, a higher percentage of the surviving candidates proved suitable for domestication on Eurasia than on the other continents. An examination of the candidates that were never domesticated, such as Africa's big herd-forming mammals, reveals particular reasons that disqualified each of them. Thus, Tolstoy would have approved of the insight offered in another context by an earlier author, Saint Matthew: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

Axis orientations affected the rate of spread of crops and livestock, and possibly also of writing, wheels, and other inventions. That basic feature of geography thereby contributed heavily to the very different experiences of Native Americans, Africans, and Eurasians in the last 500 years.

Localities distributed east and west of each other at the same latitude share exactly the same day length and its seasonal varia- tions. To a lesser degree, they also tend to share similar diseases, regimes of temperature and rainfall, and habitats or biomes (types of vegetation). For example, Portugal, northern Iran, and Japan, all located at about the same latitude but lying successively 4,000 miles east or west of each other, are more similar to each other in climate than each is to a location lying even a mere 1,000 miles due south.

There is no doubt that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology, and political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they conquered. But that advantage alone doesn't fully explain how initially so few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not have happened without Europe's sinister gift to other continentsthe germs evolving from Eurasians' long intimacy with domestic animals.

Why did the rise of agriculture launch the evolution of our crowd infectious diseases? One reason is that agriculture sustains much higher human population densities than does the hunting-gathering lifestyleon the average, 10 to 100 times higher. In addition, hunter-gatherers frequently shift camp and leave behind their own piles of feces with accumulated microbes and worm larvae. But farmers are sedentary and live amid their own sewage, thus providing microbes with a short path from one person's body into another's drinking water.

For many of the microbes responsible for our unique diseases, molecular biologists can now identify the microbe's closest relatives. These also prove to be agents of crowd infectious diseasesbut ones confined to various species of our domestic animals and pets! Among animals, too, epidemic diseases require large, dense populations and don't afflict just any animal: they're confined mainly to social animals providing the necessary large populations. Hence when we domesticated social animals, such as cows and pigs, they were already afflicted by epidemic diseases just waiting to be transferred to us.

Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest. The commands of the monarchs and merchants who organized colonizing fleets were conveyed in writing. The fleets set their courses by maps and written sailing directions prepared by previous expeditions. Written accounts of earlier expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what conditions to expect, and helped them prepare themselves. The resulting empires were administered with the aid of writing. While all those types of information were also transmitted by other means in preliterate societies, writing made the transmission easier, more detailed, more accurate, and more persuasive.

Technology, in the form of weapons and transport, provides the direct means by which certain peoples have expanded their realms and conquered other peoples. That makes it the leading cause of history's broadest pattern. But why were Eurasians, rather than Native Americans or sub-Saharan Africans, the ones to invent firearms, oceangoing ships, and steel equipment? The differences extend to most other significant technological advances, from printing presses to glass and steam engines. Why were all those inventions Eurasian? Why were all New Guineans and Native Australians in A.D. 1800 still using stone tools like ones discarded thousands of years ago in Eurasia and most of Africa, even though some of the world's richest copper and iron deposits are in New Guinea and Australia, respectively? All those facts explain why so many laypeople assume that Eurasians are superior to other peoples in inventiveness and intelligence.

Besides permitting sedentary living and hence the accumulation of possessions, food production was decisive in the history of technology for another reason. It became possible, for the first time in human evolution, to develop economically specialized societies consisting of non-food-producing specialists fed by food-producing peasants. But we already saw, in Part 2 of this book, that food production arose at different times in different continents. In addition, local technology depends, for both its origin and its maintenance, not only on local invention but also on the diffusion of technology from elsewhere. That consideration tended to cause technology to develop most rapidly on continents with few geographic and ecological barriers to diffusion, either within that continent or on other continents. Finally, each society on a continent represents one more opportunity to invent and adopt a technology, because societies vary greatly in their innovativeness for many separate reasons. Hence, all other things being equal, technology develops fastest in large productive regions with large human populations, many potential inventors, and many competing societies.

Let us now summarize how variations in these three factors—time of onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population size—led straightforwardly to the observed intercontinental differences in the development of technology. Eurasia (effectively including North Africa) is the world's largest landmass, encompassing the largest number of competing societies. It was also the landmass with the two centers where food production began the earliest: the Fertile Crescent and China. Its east-west major axis permitted many inventions adopted in one part of Eurasia to spread relatively rapidly to societies at similar latitudes and climates elsewhere in Eurasia. Its breadth along its minor axis (north-south) contrasts with the Americas' narrowness at the Isthmus of Panama. It lacks the severe ecological barriers transecting the major axes of the Americas and Africa. Thus, geographic and ecological barriers to diffusion of technology were less severe in Eurasia than in other continents. Thanks to all these factors, Eurasia was the continent on which technology started its post-Pleistocene acceleration earliest and resulted in the greatest local accumulation of technologies.

All these effects that continental differences in area, population, ease of diffusion, and onset of food production exerted on the rise of technology became exaggerated, because technology catalyzes itself. Eurasia's considerable initial advantage thereby was translated into a huge lead as of A.D. 1492—for reasons of Eurasia's distinctive geography rather than of distinctive human intellect.

As recently as A.D. 1500, less than 20 percent of the world's land area was marked off by boundaries into states run by bureaucrats and governed by laws. Today, all land except Antarctica's is so divided. Descendants of those societies that achieved centralized government and organized religion earliest ended up dominating the modern world. The combination of government and religion has thus functioned, together with germs, writing, and technology, as one of the four main sets of proximate agents leading to history's broadest pattern.

Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each otherby providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.

The size of the regional population is the strongest single predictor of societal complexity. In addition to that coarse correlation between regional population size and type of society (band, tribe, and so on), there is a finer trend, within each of those categories, between population and societal complexity: for instance, that chiefdoms with large populations prove to be the most centralized, stratified, and complex ones.

Intensified food production and societal complexity stimulate each other, by autocatalysis. That is, population growth leads to societal complexity, while societal complexity in turn leads to intensified food production and thereby to population growth. In addition, food production contributes in at least three ways to specific features of complex societies. First, it involves seasonally pulsed inputs of labor. When the harvest has been stored, the farmers' labor becomes available for a centralized political authority to harnessin order to build public works advertising state power (such as the Egyptian pyramids), or to build public works that could feed more mouths (such as Polynesian Hawaii's irrigation systems or fishponds), or to undertake wars of conquest to form larger political entities. Second, food production may be organized so as to generate stored food surpluses, which permit economic specialization and social stratification. The surpluses can be used to feed all tiers of a complex society: the chiefs, bureaucrats, and other members of the elite; the scribes, craftspeople, and other non-food-producing specialists; and the farmers themselves, during times that they are drafted to construct public works. Finally, food production permits or requires people to adopt sedentary living, which is a prerequisite for accumulating substantial possessions, developing elaborate technology and crafts, and constructing public works.

A large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts. A second reason is the growing impossibility of communal decision making with increasing population size. Hence a large society must be structured and centralized if it is to reach decisions effectively. A third reason involves economic considerations. Any society requires means to transfer goods between its members. Large societies can function economically only if they have a redistributive economy in addition to a reciprocal economy. Goods in excess of an individual's needs must be transferred from the individual to a centralized authority, which then redistributes the goods to individuals with deficits.


Of course, the continents differ in innumerable environmental features affecting trajectories of human societies. The first set consists of continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication. That's because food production was critical for the accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food-producing specialists, and for the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers even before they had developed any technological or political advantage. For both of those reasons, all developments of economically complex, socially stratified, politically centralized societies beyond the level of small nascent chiefdoms were based on food production. But most wild animal and plant species have proved unsuitable for domestication: food production has been based on relatively few species of livestock and crops. It turns out that the number of wild candidate species for domestication varied greatly among the continents, because of differences in continental areas and also (in the case of big mammals) in Late Pleistocene extinctions. These extinctions were much more severe in Australia and the Americas than in Eurasia or Africa.

On each continent, animal and plant domestication was concentrated in a few especially favorable homelands accounting for only a small fraction of the continent's total area. In the case of technological innovations and political institutions as well, most societies acquire much more from other societies than they invent themselves. Thus, diffusion and migration within a continent contribute importantly to the development of its societies, which tend in the long run to share each other's developments (insofar as environments permit). That is, societies initially lacking an advantage either acquire it from societies possessing it or (if they fail to do so) are replaced by those other societies. Hence a second set of factors consists of those affecting rates of diffusion and migration, which differed greatly among continents. They were most rapid in Eurasia, because of its east-west major axis and its relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers. The reasoning is straightforward for movements of crops and livestock, which depend strongly on climate and hence on latitude. But similar reasoning also applies to the diffusion of technological innovations, insofar as they are best suited without modification to specific environments. Diffusion was slower in Africa and especially in the Americas, because of those continents' north-south major axes and geographic and ecological barriers.

Related to these factors affecting diffusion within continents is a third set of factors influencing diffusion between continents, which may also help build up a local pool of domesticates and technology. Ease of intercontinental diffusion has varied, because some continents are more isolated than others.

The fourth and last set of factors consists of continental differences in area or total population size. A larger area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovations available to adoptand more pressure to adopt and retain innovations, because societies failing to do so will tend to be eliminated by competing societies.

Those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute. While one can contest my subjective impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians, one cannot deny that New Guinea has a much smaller area and far fewer big animal species than Eurasia. But mention of these environmental differences invites among historians the label “geographic determinism,” which raises hackles. The label seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are passive robots helplessly programmed by climate, fauna, and flora. Of course these fears are misplaced. Without human inventiveness, all of us today would still be cutting our meat with stone tools and eating it raw, like our ancestors of a million years ago. All human societies contain inventive people. It's just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.

The real problem in understanding China's loss of political and technological preeminence to Europe is to understand China's chronic unity and Europe's chronic disunity. Unlike China, Europe has many scattered small core areas, none big enough to dominate the others for long, and each the center of chronically independent states. For much of this book I have emphasized the diffusion of technology that takes place in the absence of formidable barriers. But China's connectedness eventually became a disadvantage, because a decision by one despot could and repeatedly did halt innovation. In contrast, Europe's geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe's barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.

The histories of the Fertile Crescent and China also hold a salutary lesson for the modern world: circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy. One might even wonder whether the geographical reasoning employed throughout this book has at last become wholly irrelevant in the modern world, now that ideas diffuse everywhere instantly on the Internet and cargo is routinely airfreighted overnight between continents. It might seem that entirely new rules apply to competition between the world's peoples, and that as a result new powers are emerging—such as Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, and especially Japan. On reflection, though, we see that the supposedly new rules are just variations on the old ones. Yes, the transistor, invented at Bell Labs in the eastern United States in 1947, leapt 8,000 miles to launch an electronics industry in Japan—but it did not make the shorter leap to found new industries in Zaire or Paraguay. The nations rising to new power are still ones that were incorporated thousands of years ago into the old centers of dominance based on food production, or that have been repopulated by peoples from those centers. Unlike Zaire or Paraguay, Japan and the other new powers were able to exploit the transistor quickly because their populations already had a long history of literacy, metal machinery, and centralized government. The world's two earliest centers of food production, the Fertile Crescent and China, still dominate the modern world, either through their immediate successor states (modern China), or through states situated in neighboring regions influenced early by those two centers (Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Europe), or through states repopulated or ruled by their overseas emigrants (the United States, Australia, Brazil). Prospects for world dominance of sub-Saharan Africans, Aboriginal Australians, and Native Americans remain dim. The hand of history's course at 8000 B.C. lies heavily on us.

Like cultural idiosyncrasies, individual idiosyncrasies throw wild cards into the course of history. They may make history inexplicable in terms of environmental forces, or indeed of any generalizable causes. For the purposes of this book, however, they are scarcely relevant, because even the most ardent proponent of the Great Man theory would find it difficult to interpret history's broadest pattern in terms of a few Great Men. Perhaps Alexander the Great did nudge the course of western Eurasia's already literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states, but he had nothing to do with the fact that western Eurasia already supported literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states at a time when Australia still supported only non-literate hunter-gatherer tribes lacking metal tools. Nevertheless, it remains an open question how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.

The difficulties historians face in establishing cause-and-effect relations in the history of human societies are broadly similar to the difficulties facing astronomers, climatologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and paleontologists. To varying degrees, each of these fields is plagued by the impossibility of performing replicated, controlled experimental interventions, the complexity arising from enormous numbers of variables, the resulting uniqueness of each system, the consequent impossibility of formulating universal laws, and the difficulties of predicting emergent properties and future behavior. Prediction in history, as in other historical sciences, is most feasible on large spatial scales and over long times, when the unique features of millions of small-scale brief events become averaged out. Just as I could predict the sex ratio of the next 1,000 newborns but not the sexes of my own two children, the historian can recognize factors that made inevitable the broad outcome of the collision between American and Eurasian societies after 13,000 years of separate developments, but not the outcome of the 1960 U.S. presidential election. The details of which candidate said what during a single televised debate in October 1960 could have given the electoral victory to Nixon instead of to Kennedy, but no details of who said what could have blocked the European conquest of Native Americans.