Guns, Germs and Steel – Understanding the Roots of Global Inequality

The following set of videos are based on Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, Guns, Germs and Steel which traces humanity’s journey over the last 13,000 years – from the dawn of farming at the end of the last Ice Age to the realities of life in the twenty-first century.  Inspired by a question put to him on the island of Papua New Guinea more than thirty years ago, Diamond embarks on a world-wide quest to understand the roots of global inequality.

When you set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel what was it you actually wanted to prove?

JD: When I set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel I wasn’t trying to prove anything, but I was trying to answer a question; the biggest question of history – why history unfolded differently on the different continents over the last 13 thousand years and the usual answer to this question is the answer that racists come up with; they say its because some people are superior to other people. What we found is that the answer doesn’t have anything to do with people and it has everything to do with people’s environments.

Jared Diamond is one of America’s most celebrated scholars. A professor of Geography and Physiology at the University of California, he is equally renowned for his work in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology, and for his ground-breaking studies of the birds of Papua New Guinea.

Author of eight books and numerous academic monographs, Diamond’s best-selling The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee won two science prizes in 1992. It was the 1997 publication of Guns, Germs and Steel, which sealed Diamond’s global reputation. The book has since won the Pulitzer Prize, been translated into 25 languages and sold millions of copies around the world. Here is a video based on the findings in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Jared Diamond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Bessarabian Jewish family. His father was the physician Louis K. Diamond, and his mother the teacher, musician, and linguist Flora Kaplan. He attended the Roxbury Latin School, earning his A.B. from Harvard College in 1958, and his Ph.D. in physiology and membrane biophysics from the University of Cambridge in 1961.

After graduating from Cambridge, he returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties, he also developed a second, parallel, career in the ornithology of New Guinea, and has since undertaken numerous research projects in New Guinea and nearby islands. In his fifties, Diamond gradually developed a third career in environmental history, and became Professor of Geography at UCLA, his current position. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Westfield State University in 2009.

As well as scholarly books and articles in the fields of ecology and ornithology, Diamond is the author of a number of popular science books, which are known for combining sources from a variety of fields other than those he has formally studied.

The first of these, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), examined human evolution and its relevance to the modern world, incorporating insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, and linguistics. It was well-received by critics, and won the 1992 Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books[9] and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 1997, he followed this up with Why is Sex Fun?, which focused in on the evolution of human sexuality, again borrowing from anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary biology.

His third and best known popular science book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, was published in 1997. In it, Diamond seeks to explain Eurasian hegemony throughout history. Using evidence from ecology, archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and various historical case studies, he argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.

As a result, the geography of the Eurasian landmass gave its human inhabitants an inherent advantage over the societies on other continents, which they were able to dominate or conquer. Although certain examples in the book, and its alleged environmental determinism, have been criticized, it became a best-seller, and received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, an Aventis Prize for Science Books[9] (Diamond’s second), and the 1997 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. A television documentary based on the book was produced by the National Geographic Society in 2005.

Diamond’s next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), examined a range of past civilizations in an attempt to identify why they either collapsed or succeeded, and considers what contemporary societies can learn from these historical examples. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, he argues against traditional historical explanations for the failure of past societies, and instead focuses on ecological factors. Among the societies he considers are the Norse and Inuit of Greenland, the Maya, the Anasazi, the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Japan, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and modern Montana.

While not as successful as Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse was again both critically acclaimed and subject to accusations of environmental determinism and specific inaccuracies.[citation needed] “Collapse” was the third book written by Diamond that was nominated for Royal Society Prize for Science Books (previously known as the Rhône-Poulenc and Aventis Prize) but this time he did not win the prize, losing out to David Bodanis’s Electric Universe.

Most recently Diamond co-edited Natural Experiments of History, a collection of essays illustrating the multidisciplinary and comparative approach to the study of history that he advocates.