"Guns, Germs and Steel": Jared Diamond on Geography as Power

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 6, 2005

Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Why has one culture—namely that of Western Europe—dominated the development of the modern world?

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, scientist Jared Diamond argues that the answer is geography. The physical locations where different cultures have taken root, he claims, have directly affected the ability of those societies to develop key institutions, like agriculture and animal domestication, or to acquire important traits, like immunity to disease.

Now the book has been turned into a three-part National Geographic Special, which airs on PBS on three consecutive Mondays, July 11, July 18, and July 25, at 10 p.m.

National Geographic News spoke with Diamond, a professor of geography, environmental health science, and physiology at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Why over the past 10,000 years has the development of different societies proceeded at such different rates?

I say the answer is location, location, location. It's overwhelmingly due to the difference in the wild plant and animal species suitable to domestication that the continents made available. All the interesting stuff like technology, writing, and empires requires a productive economy that is producing enough food to feed technological experts, bureaucrats, kings, and scribes. Hunter-gatherer societies don't produce enough food surpluses to support those extra people. Agriculture does.

Where did the first farming societies appear?

The first farming, as far as we know, appeared in [the Middle East region known as] the Fertile Crescent some 11,500 years ago, and shortly thereafter in China. These places had the greatest variety of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication. Only a tiny fraction of wild plants and animals were both useful and possible to domesticate. Those few species were concentrated in a few areas, of which the two with the greatest variety were the Fertile Crescent and China.

What were the benefits of the agricultural lifestyle compared to the hunter-gatherer existence?

Farming lets you feed far more people than hunting and gathering. In a one-acre [0.4-hectare] wheat field there's more to eat than in a one-acre forest. In a one-acre sheep pasture, there are more animals to eat than in a one-acre forest. Also, farming lets you settle down in villages next to your wheat fields and pastures, whereas hunter-gatherers have to move around.

You point out that knowledge and new technology spread east and west much easier than north and south.

The reason is easy to understand if one understands geography. Climate, temperature, seasons, and habitat all depend strongly on latitude. Above 85 degrees north, you don't have tropical rainforest, you have Arctic ice fields. Certainly plants and animals tend to be adapted to particular habitats and climates. The same is also true of people. The practices of the farming societies in the Fertile Crescent are easily transferred west [to Europe].

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