A Critique Of Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Role Of Cultural Factors

History of human kind is consisted of conquest and exploration. Mostly, Western European countries possessed enormous amount of wealth and power, while people in Africa and South America stayed rather behind. So why exactly did humans on different continents live at such different rates? Although the reasons behind this remain controversial, Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, tried to answer this question by stating that the differences among people’s environments, rather than their biological differences, affect their rate of development. Although this book received lots of compliments, famous historian McNeil raised the issue that while emphasizing the environmental factors, this book neglected the potential cultural aspects to answer this question. Further, in his review of the book, he tried to explain the issue from social and cultural aspects, which added great points to Diamond’s view.

In the prologue of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond stated clearly that this book was framed around the question from Yali, who was a politician from Native New Guinea and wanted to know why the Europeans, not them, possessed more advanced technology. The author’s main idea was straightforward: Although most people believed it’s the innate abilities that caused the differences, natural environments actually played a more significant role. To prove this point, he gave an example of the natural experiment happened to the Moriori and Maori people on two pacific islands. While Moriori people had to be hunter-gatherers because the climate’s not suitable for agriculture, Maori people practiced agriculture and had food surpluses for their suitable geography and environment. In this case, it was not surprising that the Maori people had greater population density, developed more complex social and political structure, including chiefs and kings, and produced fine tools as well as other aspects of material culture. Because of these advantages, Maori people eventually conquered the Moriori.

Having proven his thesis that natural environment’s the leading factor, Diamond, in his later chapters, further illustrated the connections between food and conquest. According to him, “food production is an indirect prerequisite for guns, germs, and steel.” Farmers domesticated plants and animals in areas suitable for agriculture, which resulted in denser populations and “settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies.” That after all explained why literacy, weapons and germs evolved in more stable societies rather than hunter-gatherer tribes. Spain, as Diamond discussed in the book, possessed all the qualities to successfully captured Atahuallpa. They had steel weapons, horse, marine technologies, and enough food storage. They also had a “centralized political organization that financed the army.” Furthermore, with the existence of writing in Spain, “information could be spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing than it could be transmitted by mouth”, while Atahuallpa had little information about his enemies.

Although this book provided some new perspectives on this old-fashioned question, McNeil stated some criticism in his 1997 review of the book, mainly because neglecting the distinct culture of each country, Diamond simply attributed every process to be the “natural, inevitable result of geography interacting with increasing human numbers.” (McNeil, page 8)

One point of criticism that McNeil emphasized was the negligence of culture autonomy and cultural idiosyncrasy, which Diamond claimed to be “a mere reflection of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of difference plants and animals in difference parts of the world.” Religion, according to Diamond, was simply a tool to rank social status. Furthermore, McNeil also claimed that wealth and power also depended on the way ancestors reject or accept information, which had nothing to do with the environment. Lastly, he argued that Diamond didn’t present the whole historical picture, that is, he started on the history when food production was getting started, and without explaining what happened in between, he attributed all the “contemporary differences among human societies” to the environment. These criticisms brought u by McNeil added great points on Diamond’s attempt to answer Yali’s question.

First and foremost, distinct culture does influence the development of human societies. People born in a country will be exposed to vastly different cultures than those born in another, which in turn had varied world views.

The invention of language, for example, allowed the ancestors to communicate and understand each other in a symbolic and abstract way, creating a shared meaning that distinguished one society from another. According to Lera Boroditsky, a well-known cognitive scientist, it is language which shaped our way of thinking and constructing reality. Religion is another important part of culture, because it created a sense of community which held people together through similar spirituality. However, religion really started to impact the society when a culture is dominated by those who believed in it, only accepting those thoughts and behaviors. The development of societies can either be accelerated or hindered by this process. For example, in mid-century Europe, famous scientists like Copernicus and Galilei were summoned to Rome and found guilty for challenging the existing belief of Roman Catholic Church. In this case, the rate of scientific development clearly depended on the cultural idiosyncrasy distinct to a country.

Furthermore, McNeil’s argument that people’s ability to evolve affects the rate of development was also eye-opening. Although environments did play a role in early phases of human history, they were no longer significant factors when people adopted more effective approaches. For example, after people domesticated horses and other wild animals, they became the main source of transportation for Western countries, but also provided a source of protein for the hunter-gatherer tribes. Thus, through the course of human development, people gradually started to “reshape actual environment to suit their purposes.” 

In conclusion, Diamond’s book provided a rather brief and direct explanation of why different continents had different rate of development. In his view, the gaps in power and wealth originated from environmental differences rather than genetic superiority. McNeil, while appraising him for the well-informed content, pointed out the cultural aspect that Diamond had left out when answering the question. McNeil’s review of the book raised excellent points that added on to Diamond’s view and provided a more well-rounded explanation in attempt to answer Yali’s question.                

16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now