View Full Version : Jarred Diamond - Guns Germs and Steel

04-02-2007, 10:25 PM
have just seen the 3 part PBS documentary.

very important for me personally to understand the geographic conditions which through out history have given europeans their advantage over the civilizations that they conquered. conditions such as the best crops and farm animals existing in, or brought to their land, enabling much more efficient agriculture, wealth, and for them to advance technologically compared to other places; the similar latitudes of vast regions with similar climates which enabled cross fertilisation of culture, which the great Azetec and Mayan civilizations of N. America did not have; etc., etc.

certainly cleared up some questions I had concerning the inequalities existing in the world. I knew it not to be the case, and now there are some explanations... but is it me or do many in the world still overtly or subtly hold the belief that european conquest is a result of their particular ingenuity, bravery, and indeed, racial superiority over native populations in North and South America and Africa?

also, others who know much more about Jarred Diamond and his work, are there issues over which other archeologists disagree? are there alternative, academic or otherwise, positions which are atleast partialy opposed to this one?

05-02-2007, 11:56 AM
i read this - rather than seeing it - and was very impressed. But i've also heard mumblings about accuracy that I've never followed through..

captain easychord
05-02-2007, 03:36 PM
i've read his latest, 'collapse', which is kind of the opposite of GGAS in that in describes civilizations that fail due to environmental factors. i found it pretty compelling and rigorous, weaving together many separate studies, be they archaeological, social or scientific. some critics have made mention of diamond as a determinist. in 'collapse' he explicitly addresses these criticisms, pointing out that societies choose whether to address environmental problems or not. for example, medieval japan, recognizing that it was running out of wood established a meticulous system of quotas and successfully got the problem under control. likewise, the dominican republic and haiti are a living example of the same island managed in two different fashions.

Mr. Tea
05-02-2007, 07:43 PM
There are all sorts of different ways in which a society can be 'advanced'. I mean, the Mayans had unrivalled astronomical and mathematical knowledge, and skills in monumental architecture to rival those of ancient Egypt, but that doesn't really give you any military advantage. They had no wheeled vehicles and no metal tools, which people had worked out in the Middle/Near East five or six thousand years ago.

Then the Spaniards turn up with ocean-going warships, horses, steel swords and guns, and the result's pretty much a forgone conlcusion. I don't think many people these days would seriously claim this means the Spanish had a 'superior' civilisation - they had the Inquisition, the Mayans and Aztecs had human sacrifice, so hey ho - but they had superior military technology, and a world view that allowed - in fact, encouraged - them to use it on anyone else they could.

05-02-2007, 07:56 PM
superior military technology, and a world view that allowed - in fact, encouraged - them to use it on anyone else they could.

when Diamond asked the question "why did the spaniards conquer the Aztecs and not the other way around" and I was wondering if the Aztecs would have been interested if they had the technology... for instance, China didn't do shit with the gun-powder they invented but make elaborate "smoke sculptures" and light shows.

Mr. Tea
05-02-2007, 08:06 PM
Well, the Aztecs were pretty keen on conquering all their neighbours - they used to go on huge campaigns with the express intention of capturing as many live prisoners as possible for use in their mass sacrifices. It's not really an exaggeration to call them the Nazis of pre-Colombian central America.

I'm pretty sure the mediaeval Chinese had war-rockets and other gunpowder-based weapons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder

05-02-2007, 09:22 PM
yes all civilizations have histories of war and brutality.

damn. guess i can't hate on whitey all that much anymore... :)

Mr. Tea
05-02-2007, 10:45 PM
Indeed. There's a great bit in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where one of the characters, a Jew who is obsessed with the Holocaust and with preventing anything like it ever happening again, says to another character (a non-religious WASP type) "What happened when the Spanish arrived in Mexico?". The other guy starts to give the standard answer about the Aztecs being brutally wiped out by the Spaniards when the first guy says "No, fuck the Aztecs!", and goes on to elaborate how, as rapaciously greedy and violent as the Spanish were, the one good thing that came of their conquest of Mexico was the destruction of the Aztec empire.

Not sure where I'm going with this, other than that it's an interesting point, and not one I'd come across before.

Edit: all I'm saying is that no single civilisation has the monopoly on being utter cunts to everyone else. :)

06-02-2007, 09:28 AM
I don't think many people these days would seriously claim this means the Spanish had a 'superior' civilisation -


Mr. Tea
06-02-2007, 09:45 AM

06-02-2007, 11:19 AM
Then the Spaniards turn up with ocean-going warships, horses, steel swords and guns, and the result's pretty much a forgone conlcusion.

Interestingly enough, the spanish never really conquered the maya, contrary to what people usually say. basically, the spanish managed to get hold of the yucatan coastline, and the mayas couldn't really do much about it, but most of them lived in the jungles where the spanish weaponery was not very effective, consequently the mayas withdrew and the uneasy standoff between continued, in some sense until today. the arrival of spanish speaking TV all over mexico is probably doing more to erase the remains of mayan culture than the spanish! the collapse of mayan civilisation predates the arrival of the conquistadors.

Mr. Tea
06-02-2007, 11:41 AM
Oh, for sure. I guess I was generalising - of course it was the Aztecs who were the dominant power in the area at the time, but I don't think they had any technology the Mayans didn't have.

Torben Grut
07-02-2007, 02:00 PM
i read this - rather than seeing it - and was very impressed. But i've also heard mumblings about accuracy that I've never followed through..

Well, there is the a contradictory problem of the continental definitions for instance. This is espescially concerning in the case of Northern Africa (north of Sahara), which, when needed as biogeographical evidence for Diamonds thesis is seen as a part of Eurasia, but is categorized as a part of Africa when Diamond discuss the continental axis-issue. This becomes problematic especially since Africa without Northern Africa has infact a eastern-western axis and thus is counterevidence of the axis theory.

Another thing worth noticing is that Diamond overplays the reasons for Eurasias development. One could argue that it all depends on the fact that the eurasian continent during the course of time always harboured 80% of the worlds entire population. Any other outcome would have been highly unbelievable, animals available for domestication and continental axis aside.

All this being said, I think the pros of the book highly exceeds the cons, especially in putting the geography forward as a major development factor.

08-02-2007, 03:23 PM
My recollection of the book is a little hazy at this point but I want to address the North Africa issue. It is treated as part of Eurasia because it is connected to it and crops/animals would have no problem traveling to or from there. The rest of Africa is surrounded by ocean and separated from North Africa by the Sahara.

Since there were no suitable crops/animals in Southern Africa the only place they could come from would be North Africa but the Sahara prevented this. So it makes sense to treat North Africa as part of both Eurasia and Africa because it is connected to both.

Please elaborate on how the east/west axis of Southern Africa invalidates the axis theory. I don't understand this part.

Torben Grut
08-02-2007, 10:12 PM
First of all, sorry for the hard to understand english.

My argument is based on that I think it's arbitrary of Diamond to use northern Africa as a part of Eurasia as well as a part of Africa, whenever one or the other suits his theory. If I find his argument for the crops being more convincing than the axis one, and therefore consider Northern Africa to be a part of Eurasia, it is obvious that the axis of Africa without Northern Africa runs in fact east/west, and not north/south as displayed on one of the graphs in the book. Which would, at least in my ways of seeing things, weaken the axis argument.

The fact that Australias east/west axis never gets mentioned is also troublesome, and hints at size being the thing that matters, at least more so than direction of the axis. This especially since Eurasia with Diamonds own definitions is by far the largest continent and also harbours 80% of the worlds population (as already mentioned above).

08-02-2007, 10:41 PM
I was a little disspointed that Diamond never fully address Asia. I guess geography didn't play that much of a role in European advantage in this case, but more of an "ancient, world dominating empire in decline, fallen behind, and can't fend off imperialists"... of course I'm thinking of china.

09-02-2007, 02:32 PM
Wait a second, what is this axis that he is talking about? I don't think he defines axis by how the climatic zones run but by the geometric shape of the continent. Africa is long in the north/southd dimension and short in the east/west direction. So there is more land/people/resources north/south of a given point than east/west. However the north/south movement in Africa is impeded by varying climatic zones.

The map here (http://empathosnationenterprises.com/Consulate/EN-Library/Black-Studies/afclimate.html) shows African climatic zones. I guess it's not strictly north/south that the zones vary as much as in Eurasia but they are not really east/west either. It's kind of a mess.

08-05-2007, 02:29 PM
Just been reading this - a really interesting book.

13-05-2007, 03:57 PM
anyone read his new one Collapse?

14-05-2007, 06:58 PM
Yeah, I read it. Good stuff. It's funny how he maintains optimism when everything in his book depicts a very grim situation with regards to the modern world.