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article imageOp-Ed: Jared Diamond's 'Guns Germs and Steel': Is It Worth the Hype?

By J Ocean Dennie     Jan 8, 2011 in Science
The environmental determinism espoused by geologist Jared Diamond, particularly in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel" remains a compelling theory of the rise and fall of civilzations but Ian Bremmer's J-Curve concept is a more apt geopolitical rationale .
The UCLA professor, almost 15 years ago, posited a theory seeking to elucidate why some regions of the world become affluent and powerful through technological development and conquest while other regions simultaneously follow a fate of impoverishment and subjugation. While Diamond's theory, outined in his highly regarded book Guns Germs and Steel, is an appropriate analysis of historical geography, Ian Bremmer's J-Curve paradigm, however, is more ideally suited for examinations of current geopolitical trends. Each thesis therefore has a proper timeframe as its subject of study and through a fusion of both paradigms, today's students of geography can glean a tremendous amount of insight on the conditions that have faced and continue to face humanity. Culture, religion and ethnicity, while important considerations to keep in mind, remain ancillary to the environmental factors outlined by Diamond as will be explained below.
Diamond's work seeks to adress a question that few academics had ever properly considered previously, namely, how is it that the Eurasians managed to not only thrive in sophisticated civilizations but wind up conquering vast stretches of the rest of the planet where the inhabitants were not as 'developed', some not advancing beyond mere hunter-gatherers. It is beyond the scope of this paper to review in detail the full extent of Diamond's theory, however, some salient and persuasive points can certainly be extrapolated here to demonstrate its appeal. Of these, perhaps one of Diamond's powerful assertions is that "the emergence of such societies in Eurasia was no accident. It had long antecedents with clear environmental causes." One of these early environmental causes involved the abundance of certain plant and animal species suitable for domestication, In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond offers up the convincing fact that of the 14 domesticable animals on the planet, 13 of them were found in Eurasia, one in South America and none in the rest of the world.
Such beneficial environmental causes were enhanced by another fact that Diamond observes in his book, namely, that "Eurasia's large landmass and long east-west distance increased these advantages". Plant and animal breeds domesticated on one point of this long latitudinal orientation could be replicated elsewhere along that axis due to similarities in climate and seasonal cycles. Conversely, we find other land masses such as Australia or Africa are more north-south oriented, and as a result, rates of germination, growth and disease resistance were far slower. This view has been attacked by some critics such as Georgetown's J.R. McNeill as too simplistic or in his words, "a crude summary".
McNeill offers a valid criticism. He acknowledges that though Diamond's theory goes "a long way towards explaining the formidability of some Eurasian societies vis-a-vis those [found] elsewhere", the fact that, over the past few thousands years, Eurasia's population accounted for approximately eighty percent of humanity, implies that this formidiability could simply not have happened anywhere else due simply to the numbers involved. The more pressing question for critics like McNeill is not why Eurasia, but "why, among Eurasian societies, was it those of western Europe that in the past 500 years (or only the past 200 according to some recent scholarship) emerged to dominate the rest of the planet?" Although, Diamond does briefly address this question in the last chapter of Guns, Germs and Steel, he is unable to move beyond geographical considerations, focusing on matters of topography, for instance. His reasoning falters according to McNeill for it does not address more temporary phenomena such as political fragmentation that form "synergistic combinations" too complex to append to methods applied "best to long-term and large-scale inquiry".
In providing an historical response to McNeill's modified question, this is perhaps the departure point from Diamond's theory and the point where Bremmer's ideas on societal adaption, openness and stability have some validity since they more astutely focus on the shifting geopolitical dynamics of the past half millenium. It is obvious from a mere casual observation of the era in question that socio-political and religious factors have had just as much if not more influence on the fate of humanity than Diamond's geo-biological determinism.
In a 2006 Washington Post article, Bremmer expands upon his J-Curve theory of why nations rise and fall: "History suggests that all closed states eventually wither or explode; their walls merely hide their potential instability from the world. Only an openness that links citizens within and across nations can help states build stability and social and economic dynamism."
According to Bremmer, countries today are more likely to be prosperous and stable because they have adapted to the pressures of change and the crosscurrents of globalization. Bremmer's reasoning is that "as the energies of globalization open up the least politically and economically developed areas of the world, as the citizens of closed states learn more about life beyond their borders and discover that they don't have to live as they do, tyrants must expend more and more effort to isolate their societies". This understanding is certainly applicable not only to modern international relations but can also readily be applied to an historical analysis of the last five hundred years and potentially explain the seemingly meteoric rise of western Europe in relation to the rest of the world. The argument could be made that western Europe simply maintained a stronger cultural openness and (relative) political stability that enabled that part of the continent to flourish at a faster rate.
In the final chapter of Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond acknowledges that, in spite of charges that his theory is too deterministic, more humanized factors such as creativity and individuality do in fact matter, that our destiny is not exclusively conditioned by bio-geography, but that environmental conditions simply provided a more convincing foundation for some societies over others. In a NY Review of Books article, Diamond concurs that "propagated cultural developments independent of environmental differences...are conspicuous in history over shorter times and smaller areas. But, over the hundreds of generations of post-Ice Age human history, and over a large continent’s thousands of societies, cultural differences become sifted to approach limits imposed by environmental constraints." This is an effective rebuttal essentially creating space for his wide-ranging ideas to remain publicly accepted for perhaps generations to come.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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