Guns Germs And Steel: Analysis Of The Factors Of White Domination

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a comprehensive overview of world history from an anthropological and environmental history perspective — in particular, the rise of European colonization. At the beginning of the book, Yali, a Papua New Guinean, asks Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (Diamond, 1997, p.14). This is a rather loaded question, as it implies that the key difference in societal advancement was superiority of the white race, the same argument made in early 20th century eugenics movement and other racial “scientists”. Thus, the core of Diamond’s answer to Yali’s question could be defined as why whites were successful in colonizing the world despite a lack of genetic superiority or some other “biologically” justified superiority of the white race. Instead, the course of human history, which favored white domination, could be examined from factors such as physical geography of the continents, method of plant and animal domestication, immunity to disease, autocatalysis in the emergence of technologically complex societies, and population size. The second part of this essay discusses what Diamond termed “kleptocracy,” as well as its key elements. It is applicable to our modern-world socioeconomic order, as it characterized our modern society which colonization defenders believed to be a more “advanced” form of society than that of the hunter-gatherers’, though it is also arguably more unjust.

Before societal development begins, differences in the physical geography of the continents they originated on play an immense role in determining the course of history. Natural geographic diversity provides “starting materials” for burgeoning societies to work with in sustaining a civilization: food, shelter, etc. This is best encapsulated in the idea of “geographic determinism”, in which “some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments” (Diamond, 1997, p. 408). In particular, Diamond observed that axial orientation of the continents themselves help explain why Eurasia dominated Africa and the Americas -- in particular, areas with greater latitude tend to have quicker trans-cultural developments such as agriculture or trade. Not only are Europe and Asia of similar latitudes and climates, they also constitute the world’s largest landmass (Diamond, 1997, p. 262). These regions are shown to roughly lie on a single latitude, closer to the equator of the Earth than to the north-south longitude of the Americas and Africa. As such, geographical differences in the fertility of the places humans inhabit contribute to the rise of civilizations there, and are one reason the influence of geography on certain societies developing more than others.

Domestication of plants and animals, as perhaps the most significant human accomplishment, is the key factor in allowing for civilizations to increase: as well as the causation of guns, germs and steel development: the three tools of colonization. Plant and animal domestication resulted in human populations being able to become much denser, as the need for hunting and gathering was done away with, and people were able to maximize the amount of plants/animals for food that could be kept nearby. As the types of organisms considered “fit” for domestication are indigenous to certain regions only, early plant and animal domestication or associated “racial intelligence” cannot be concluded. Societies that never developed farming also cannot be considered less intelligent. Rather, it is possible there was no need for domestication due to abundance of resources, even without farming. Population sizes could be supported by food surpluses resulting from plant and animal domestication. The linkage between food production and population density is therefore also dependent on the richness of environmental resources, because resources available limit how much that autocatalyzation will occur. What Diamond termed autocatalysis, in which food production catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle (“autocatalyzation”), would imply that rising population density was allowed by food surpluses, further necessitating food cultivatio. As such, superiority in food production ability is another factor in European colonizer ability to dominate the world.

Location and isolation with respect to diseases is a direct result of animal domestication, and therefore immunity is more prominent in Eurasian societies which had already achieved domestication. As human immune systems are adaptable (acquired immunity), humans who domesticated animals early were less likely to be infected by animal-borne pathogens and to subsequently fall ill or die. Indeed; there was a lack of domestic mammal candidates in the Americas due to their deaths in the last Ice Age. Even what livestock was kept was handled in a way that did not facilitate the spread of, or isolated disease (keeping them in smaller numbers, not drinking their milk, etc.). Therefore there was little to no opportunity for Native Americans to develop immunity to disease originating from livestock, allowing for Spanish colonizers to spread animal vector-spread diseases such as smallpox, measles, malaria, and other diseases, causing Native American population to decline to only 5% of what it was prior to Columbus’s arrival. This is what cemented germs as one of the tools of colonization, even if less intentional than the guns and economic warfare that European colonizers brought to their colonies. Thus the spread of disease that killed many more non-Europeans than Europeans is essentially another example of chance that happened to favor them.

Also resulting from domestication was population size, specifically the explosion of population sizes in societies which had learned how to domesticate plants and animals. Diamond points out the similarity between the concepts of population size and population density, which he states have a cause-and-effect relationship: that is, population size results from population density. So, when dense and sizeable populations interact with each other through war, it is important to note any possible differences. Diamond notes that “wars tend to cause amalgamations of societies when populations are dense but not when they are sparse”. The three possible outcomes are as follows. Low population density defeated peoples are usually hunter gatherers and only need to move farther from their enemies. Moderately dense populations have little vacant areas for the defeated people to flee to, but without intensive food production need victors are more likely to take the women in marriage and kill the men, and take the defeated peoples’ land. Higher density populations, which are usually chiefdoms and state societies, may begin to also take slaves and resources from defeated peoples, and to integrate the defeated peoples’ land into their own while keeping the defeated at a lower socioeconomic status. This is most prominent in Spanish colonization: the Spanish took gold, corn, cotton, and other valuable crops from the Aztecs, while also taking many native women and decimating Native populations. Thus the fact that European conquerors for the most part happened to be of chiefdom and state societies led to the present conquering of many native people.

Finally, the emergence of technological complex societies, further expedited by “autocatalysis” that also applied to technological development meant the emergence of societies who came to dominate others. This is because weapons and vehicles are what directly allow cultures to visit faraway ones and subjugate, and thus the development of these tools could be considered the final step in establishing some cultures’ ability to invade. The concept of autocatalysis is best demonstrated by printing, which was developed independently in both Europe via ink and paper in 1455 A.D., and in Crete in 1700 B.C. on clay. Neither forms of printint could have resulted without prior innovation: screw presses for wine and olive oil, ink, and the alphabet for Gutenberg, and clay, stamps, and a syllabary for the Phaistos disk inventor. Diamond also posits the “necessity is the mother of invention” viewpoint, which is that technology is produced when a society is lacking in some necessary technology. One of the best known examples is the wheel, which today is nearly ubiquitous due to its immense benefit in transportation, but in Native American societies were only attached to toys (Diamond, 1997 p. 248). Thus there was no difference necessarily in intelligence levels leading to the development of cargo that Yali brought forth: merely, different societies found different applications for different inventions, if geologic conditions justified the usage of such inventions at all. Societies that necessitated complex inventions were therefore the societies that conquered.

The second part of this essay discusses what a kleptocracy is, and as Diamond defines the kleptocracy as arising from the chiefdom, it is first important to understand what the chiefdom is. Table 14.1 compares chiefdoms to non-kleptocratic societies such as the band or tribe in having population sizes >1000, forming the basis of relationships from class and residence as opposed to kinship, having a monopoly of force and information, religion to justify kleptocracy, intensive food production, presence of luxury goods, and presence of slavery (Diamond 2010, 268-269). Each of these differences are directly resultant from economic development than others, such as slavery and luxury good presence. As these more or less present an insurmountable class difference between some people and others within the society, chiefdoms run by corrupt officials begin to present inequalities.

Next, the definition of the chiefdom should be used to understand the kleptocracy. Diamond acknowledges that it is difficult to prevent chiefdoms or states from transforming into kleptocracies, as chiefdoms “... introduced the dilemma fundamental to all centrally governed, nonegalitarian societies. At best, they do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis. At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes. These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of one function than of the other” (Diamond, 1997, p. 276). In other words, Diamond believes that the difference between a chiefdom/state and kleptocracy is of a single degree, depending on how much wealth is redistributed to the common people, as well as how much is used in public works. Chiefdom leaders who profit from the peoples’ tribute are then considered kleptocrats.

Finally, to be argued is how modern societies North America, Europe, and other white-dominated chiefdoms and states fit the definition of a kleptocracy. It is rather obvious that the most developed societies fit the definition of a state, even more kleptocratic than the chiefdom. Diamond also outlines four solutions that kleptocrats used to keep power in their own hands: 1. To disarm the populace; 2. To redistribute tributes in popular ways; 3. To use the monopoly of force to promote happiness by maintaining public order and curbing violence, and 4. To construct an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy. North American kleptocrats, and the European kleptocrats who set many of North American infrastructure in place have historically used all four solutions. Though none of these solutions are “corrupt” on their own (for example, there is no need in a developed society for the general populace to be armed, and public works are necessary to modern society, still they are mere “consolation prizes” for societies that allowed, for example, the Conquistadors to take thousands of tons of commission from native peoples’ own resources for the Crown, and to convert Native Americans into a Conquistador-redefined form of Catholicism.

Thus the core of Diamond’s answer to Yali is that “cargo” and all it implies, from the ability for whites to produce items for trade to bring to Papua New Guinea, to the ability to subjugate Papua New Guineans and others to have them produce more cargo, is not due to some inherent genetic differences in racial intelligence that would justify the domination of the white race. It is rather due, most succinctly, to chance, as Diamond disagrees that the difference between societies is simply defined: he does not even believe that racial intelligence differences are even a factor. This chance is regarding the environmental resources provided to each society, as well as how much sense it made to take these resources and cultivate agriculture and livestock, increase in population density, develop immunity to disease caused by closeness plants, animals, and humans, for a long enough time period that technology could be developed and used to conquer.

Works Cited

  • Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel. New York, NY: Orion Press. 
16 December 2021
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