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Determinism, Unsound Science, and Unfortunate Implications

The Flaws in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Emily Fraser (Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management, Carleton University)
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee

photo of Jared Diamond

By Kenneth Zirkel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel attempts to explain the roots of European dominance and conquest through the lens of environmental determinism. The intentions of the author seem noble enough. It is not difficult to understand how, when faced with a litany of theories based on the purported racial and cultural superiority of Europeans, a plucky biologist-turned-historian might take refuge in the apparent impartiality of science.1 However, the resulting text is also deeply flawed, albeit in a much more subtle and insidious way. In his determination to counter bigoted theories with science, Diamond strips away all political and cultural factors, uses unsound science to provide evidence for his theories, perpetuates myths about colonization, and absolves Europeans of their responsibility for the atrocities of conquest.

One of the most striking flaws of Guns, Germs, and Steel is its complete disregard for the way in which culture, political decisions, and human agency influence history. This can be understood as a rebellion against previous theories that presumed the inherent superiority of European cultures; however, I would argue that when faced with a racist interpretation of cultural influences, it is much more effective to counter the racism than to deny the influence of culture. Diamond’s insistence on the unlimited explanatory power of geography causes him to completely neglect human factors, resulting in an incomplete interpretation of historical events. For instance, despite all of the importance that he places on the number of domesticable plants and animals in a given area,2 he fails to consider that “the spread of useful species was usually a conscious act…where they went when was largely a human affair, determined by trade links, migration routes, and happenstance”.3 One of the recurring themes in the text is that domesticable species, and therefore the way in which they are spread, play a huge role in the development of advanced agricultural societies, yet the way in which human activities affect their diffusion was never discussed. Diamond makes a similar mistake when he ignores the role of culture in the adoption of agriculture. He assumes that all pastoral societies would change their primary mode of subsistence to agriculture if only the geography of their land would give them the ability to do so,4 forgetting that “changing from a pastoral economy to an agricultural one requires a rather drastic change in other aspects of culture”.5 Again, we see that Diamond’s dismissal of human and cultural factors severely weakens his proposed explanation for European dominance. Furthermore, Diamond completely ignores the political factors, such as Luther’s revolt, the English civil war, and the French revolution, that liberated the peoples of Europe.6 Liberty, equality of opportunity, and the free market both allowed people to innovate and provided an incentive to do so. The resulting wealth and technological advances greatly contributed to Europe’s dominance. Due to its dismissal of the role of human factors in shaping history, Guns, Germs, and Steel promulgates the belief that the success of societies can be, “defined in terms of survival and spatial spread”.7 This is a gross oversimplification of the significance and achievements of any given society; it requires that we judge ancient Greece by its ability to fend off the Romans.

Considering Diamond’s reliance on science and geography as explanatory factors at the expense of all else, one would expect that his science would at least be sound. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. For example, many of his arguments rest on the supposed difficulty that people (and therefore technology), plants, and animals experience in travelling along a North-South axis, as in the Americas and Africa, as opposed to an East-West axis, as in Eurasia.8 However, this argument is considerably weakened when one considers that Eurasia also has an “extreme variety of climatic conditions…high mountains, deserts, and tropical forests”.9 The idea that the geography of Eurasia includes no significant barriers to diffusion is patently absurd. Diamond constantly uses the problem of the axis as evidence that Eurasian advances in technology and agriculture can be explained by geographic factors alone, but it has no basis in reality, which severely undermines his claim to scientific authority. This claim is also weakened by his matter-of-fact assertion that agriculture first arose in the fertile crescent.10 Although, “the majority of specialists think it likely that the Fertile Crescent was the first such [agricultural] center, … all are aware that there are alternative candidates with good credentials”.11 By misrepresenting the Fertile Crescent’s status as the first agricultural centre as an unequivocal fact, Diamond again demonstrates either a willingness to distort geographical, historical, and archaeological findings to support his theory or an ignorance of the same. These distortions likely stem from his determination to find scientific explanations for every historical event that he is faced with. It compels him to produce unquestionable, purely geographic causes where they simply don’t exist.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it perpetuates some of the most pervasive myths about colonialism. First, Diamond constantly writes of “Pizarro’s tiny army of Spaniards”.12 He paints a vivid picture of a handful of Europeans facing off against hordes of Inca and Aztec soldiers and defeating them single-handedly. This is the myth of the white conquistador,13 a harmful distortion of history that ignores the role of indigenous allies in the conquest of the Americas. Through its assertion that the conquistadors could triumph over the empires of the New World even when grossly outnumbered, it implies indigenous weakness and European superiority. The effect of Native American allies in battle is an important political factor to consider when examining colonization; Diamond’s insistence upon a purely geographical explanation of European dominance causes him to disregard it. Thus, in his determination to counter explanations based on European superiority, he perpetuates a myth that presupposes it. Diamond also overstates the role that technology played in the Spanish conquest of the Americas.14 In doing so, he perpetuates the myth of superiority,15 the idea that the cultural or technological superiority of the Europeans was the most important cause of conquest. In his refutation of European cultural superiority, Diamond relies on the explanatory power of European technological superiority, likely because it could plausibly be explained by geographic factors. However, the Spaniard’s “game-changing” technology was not widely available during the conquest, and the indigenous were able to adapt their strategies to its limited use.16 Much more important factors in the success of conquest were disease, which to his credit, Diamond did examine,17 disunity within the Inca and Aztec empires, and the disadvantages that came with fighting on their own land. The indigenous peoples of America needed to protect their homes and families, which forced them to accept lopsided compromises with the conquistadors.18 Once again, Diamond’s refusal to consider a non-geographic cause for European dominance prompts him to omit facts and distort history, inadvertently promulgating one of the more pervasive myths about colonialism.

Finally, the deterministic theories put forth in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel ultimately absolve Europeans of their responsibility for the conquest of the Americas. For example, when discussing the effects of the Pleistocene extinctions on the availability of domesticable American species, Diamond states, “If it had not been for those extinctions, modern history might have taken a different course. When Cortes and his bedraggled adventurers landed on the Mexican coast in 1519, they might have been driven into the sea by thousands of Aztec cavalry”.19 The use of the word “when” is significant here. To Diamond, European conquest of the Americas was inevitable; it was not a case of if the Spaniards showed up, but of when. He seems to believe that “Europe was fated to be the ultimate winner, mainly because Europe’s environment is superior”.20 It’s true that this explanation of Spanish conquest is more palatable than those that rest on a belief in the racial or cultural superiority of Europeans. However, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as well as any other instance of European colonization, was not a product of fate; it was the sum of a million little decisions by myriad individuals. The choices of these individuals collectively resulted in the displacement, slaughter, and exploitation of entire societies, and they should be held accountable for them. In Diamond’s efforts to prove that European dominance was predetermined because of geography, as opposed to the innate superiority of Europeans themselves, he has effectively excused the colonizers for their decision to colonize.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond attempts to find purely environmental causes for the phenomenon of European dominance, in order to disprove older theories that rested on the idea of inherent European cultural or racial superiority. However, his narrow-minded focus on geographic explanations causes him to disregard the vital role that cultural and political factors play in the making of history and promote damaging myths about colonization. Ironically, these myths are damaging precisely because they imply innate European superiority. Furthermore, his desperation to find purely environmental causes where they may not exist causes him to use unsound science to support his arguments. Finally, his deterministic worldview absolves the European conquerors of the atrocities of conquest. These deep-rooted flaws result in a text that, while well-meaning, ultimately does far more harm than good.

Notes

1 Audra Diptee, “Globalization: Networks, Institutions, Ideas,” Lecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, September 19, 2016.

2 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 355.

3 J. R. McNeill, “The World According to Jared Diamond,” The History Teacher 34 (2001): 172, doi: 10.2307/3054276.

4 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 389.

5 J. M. Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 159.

6 Deirdre McCloskey, “How the West (and the Rest) Got Rich,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2016.

7 McNeill, “The World According to Jared Diamond,” 166.

8 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 366.

9 McNeill, “The World According to Jared Diamond,” 171.

10 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 409.

11 Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians, 154. 12 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 355.

13 Audra Diptee, “Colonialism Part 2,” Lecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, October 3, 2016.

14 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 358.

15 Audra Diptee, “Colonialism Part 2,” Lecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, October 3, 2016.

16 Ibid.

17 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 357.

18 Audra Diptee, “Colonialism Part 2,” Lecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, October 3, 2016.

19 Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 355.

20 Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians, 165-166.

 

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