Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jarred Diamond

This book is mainly about the development of early civilisations, and focuses on environmental and ecological explanations. So Diamond for example looks at the different kinds of crops and animals that were available to sub-Saharan Africans compared to Europeans and south Asians. He also looks at migration patterns dictated by the shape of the continents. So for example he notes that migration across Asia and Europe was east-west across the same or similar latitudes, so that migrants could retain their seed crops and domesticated animals. By contrast, in Africa and the Americas, the migration patterns were necessarily north-south. This meant crossing (over many generations) very different ecological zones, in which previous patterns could not survive.

For example, he notes that southern Africa is very horse-friendly country, and that the Bantu peoples (who migrated there from northern parts of Africa) had domesticated horses. However, the intermediate tropical zones through which they passed were hostile to horses, so over the generations they switched away from a horse culture. By the time they reached the southern temperate zones they had long lost the use or even the memory of horses. Diamond imagines how different history might have been if the British or the Boers had been confronted by Zulu cavalry!

I feel Diamond’s explanations get weaker the nearer they get to modern times. Thus he is very good (I think) in explaining why both India and Europe, say, developed more advanced civilisations than sub-Saharan Africa or pre-colonial North America, but less good at explaining why Britain overtook India, or the USA overtook Mexico, in modern times.

A discussion group member

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