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Guns, Germs, and Steel is a Powerful Anti-Racist Book. So Why Doesn’t the Left Love It?

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by European empires, the Western world awoke to the horrors that humans are capable of committing against those they perceived to be inferior.

· 14 min read
Guns, Germs, and Steel is a Powerful Anti-Racist Book. So Why Doesn’t the Left Love It?
Jared Diamond receiving an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuven, November 13, 2008 / Flickr

It has been 30 years since the publication of Jared Diamond’s first book, The Third Chimpanzee, and it has survived the test of time well. It examines the evolutionary foundations of human behaviours, and, in particular, looks at the differing behaviours of the sexes. In passing, while considering how our behaviours have been shaped by evolution, Diamond considers the controversial fact that genetically diverse groups of humans have fared so differently in their outcomes throughout human history—some have expanded across the globe and amassed wealth, while others have, until recently, lived in universal poverty. Still others have been pushed to the point of extinction. He concludes that these enormous disparities in outcome are not caused by biological differences between the various branches of humanity, but by variations in the geography and environment of different parts of the world.

Spurred perhaps by discussion and criticism of this conclusion, Diamond went on, six years later, to publish his best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. It set out to explain in vivid detail, region by region, and era by era, how some branches of humanity came to dominate and even eradicate others. This was an ambitious undertaking, and one that would inevitably clash with established ideologies and political interests. Perhaps most significantly, it provided a scientific rebuttal of white supremacist beliefs—one that had previously been missing from the debate on race. In the introduction, Diamond writes of racist theories of history: “The objection to such explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but they are wrong.”

On this basis alone, one might have expected the Left to have embraced the book; but in making its case, GGS steps on too many ideological toes. Where one encounters scepticism and hostility towards GGS or Diamond himself, it tends to come from people on the Left, rather than from white nationalists. By the time of the book’s publication, white nationalism had already retreated into the fringes. But it was not replaced by a new regard for scientific curiosity, but by dogmatic social science theories about “power” and “privilege,” built on a new set of mythologies, just as hostile to science as the old ones, and written from a thoroughly American perspective.

GGS provides an account of the entirety of human history over the past 13,000 years, since humans began to transition from hunting and gathering lifestyles into food-producing ones. In terms of its sweeping scope, it might be compared to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (which has an even broader scope). But Diamond and Harari are very different kinds of writers. Harari is a historian who skips lightly from subject to subject with a “trust me, this happened” approach; Diamond is a scientist to his core. For this reason, Sapiens is a shorter and easier read than GGS, but (for me at least) a less satisfying one. Diamond’s writing style is quite different to Harari’s—a methodical and unhurried approach that builds arguments from the ground up, answers questions as they arise, takes care to anticipate and deal with potential objections, provides a wealth of data and examples to back his claims, and doesn’t shrink from brushing up against controversial issues.

GGS opens by considering an apparently simple question that Diamond had been asked years earlier by Yali, a New Guinean politician: Why did Europeans have so much cargo (technologies and manufactured goods), while New Guineans had so little? To extend the question: Why are some societies so much more technologically and economically developed than others? It seems astonishing that such an obvious question about human history should still be either difficult or controversial to answer, but it is both.

Diamond doesn’t try to deny that there may be marked genetic differences between different branches of humanity—indeed, early in the book, he makes a strong (possibly devil’s advocate) case as to why he believes New Guinean highlanders may have evolved to be more intelligent than Europeans. His wider argument is that such differences do not in any case explain the broad sweep of human history. He suggests that if the peoples of Europe and New Guinea could have somehow traded places in prehistoric times, the histories of Europe and of New Guinea would have remained broadly unchanged. The same applies if Europeans were switched with native Americans or sub-Saharan Africans.

Diamond’s detractors attack his book on a number of levels. He is accused of geographical or environmental determinism; of diminishing the role of human agency in history; and of justifying colonialism. The first and second criticisms are somewhat fair. The third is not at all. But behind many of these attacks is a defensiveness of modern left-wing theology. The racial theories of the postwar Left were constructed to counter racist explanations for Eurasian dominance of the globe. If the racist Right believed that global disparities resulted from innate differences in ability, then the anti-racist Left would provide its own counter-explanation. The answer it found was systemic racism—the idea that white success and dominance resulted from oppression by whites of all other groups.

Systemic racism can explain, at least partly, the significant economic gap between blacks and whites in the United States, and also in South Africa, but this idea applies in few other parts of the world. In the Jim Crow era of American history, racial segregation was enforced by the state, much to the detriment of black populations. The formal ending of this system, won by the civil rights movement, did not immediately result in obvious economic and political gains for black people, and so some activists theorised that the power structures were still embedded in the American consciousness. Over time, this analysis was re-applied internationally. From the early 1960s, a series of progressive theories emerged that sought to re-explain human history and political affairs in terms of racist dominance, subjugation, and exploitation. By the late ‘80s, sundry post-colonial, Third-Worldist, anti-Imperialist, anti-racist, and feminist doctrines had cohered into a general consensus that the West had enriched itself off the backs of the world’s poor.

All of this had many logical and factual flaws. Not least among these was the fact that the whole theoretical edifice was firmly based on the history and mythology of the United States, and almost entirely ignored the diversity of experience in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, today’s fashionable explanation for why the native peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas are all on average economically poorer than Europeans is that European colonisers invaded, slaughtered, enslaved, occupied, stole from, and enriched themselves at the expense of the other continents.

These things did, of course, all take place. But as Diamond points out, the global era began with Eurasians possessing numerous advantages over the other continents. When the Old and New Worlds collided in the 15th century, both Europeans and the Chinese had ocean-going ships that had been funded with the help of monarchs who ruled over millions of people. They carried steel swords, shields, and guns, and wore steel armour that greatly outmatched any other weaponry on the planet. They were literate and skilled in the tactics of war. They rode horses, and they carried germs against which many populations had no immunity. Disparities in development had clearly existed long before European empires rose to prominence.

The importance of farming

Diamond’s argument is that there is no point merely looking for proximate explanations for these imbalances between societies, but that one needs to go back to the dawn of food production around 13,000 years ago to find the answers. Before the first crop was harvested and the first domestic animal was milked or eaten (or later attached to a plough or cart), humans on every continent lived entirely from hunting and gathering, were almost entirely nomadic, and so owned no possessions other than those they could carry. The first two steps to becoming “civilised” were the domestication of crops and animals. In his characteristically methodical style, Diamond explains in detail the processes by which crops and animals came to be domesticated—a blind progression that took place over many generations, and of which the participants, possessing no more than an oral knowledge of their recent history, would have been unaware.

Farmers can produce more food in a limited area than hunter-gatherers, and so early farming societies were more densely populated than the peoples around them. Farming also leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, and the building of villages, because farmers need to sow seeds, tend their crops, harvest them, and store them, over the span of at least several months. Farmers tend to create crop surpluses, meaning that not everybody in the community needs to be involved in food production, and so other skills and technologies—from pottery to writing, from weaponry to government—can begin to evolve.

In the first great wave of colonisation, our species first spread across Africa, and then, perhaps 70,000–100,000 years ago, a few people—the ancestors of all non-Africans—left the continent and dispersed around the world. Along the way, they assimilated and eradicated other human species that had left Africa long before. Around 13,000 years ago, farming began the second wave of human colonisation.

Of the countless diverse groups of people that must have occupied the continents 13,000 years ago, only six broad divisions of mankind survive today, and three of those are on the verge of extinction. Almost everyone alive is descended from just three groups, which expanded out from the Middle East, China, and West Africa respectively to colonise the rest of the world. These were not the only farming revolutions to take place—farming also began in other parts of Africa, in several parts of the Americas, and in New Guinea—but these were more limited in effect. So in order to answer Yali’s question, Diamond sets out to answer more questions: Why did farming appear in some places and not others? And of the peoples that first began farming, why did some and not others come to build large-scale civilisations and dominate their regions? The answer begins in three parts: plants, animals, and geography.

Plants, animals, and geography

Anyone who believes the whimsical idea that nature is bountiful would be cured of this belief by reading GGS. The key reason that farming began in so few places is that suitable plants and animals simply did not exist in many parts of the world. For many cultures, hunting and gathering provided more nutrition than food production could, and so they retained their old lifestyles (sometimes with technological modifications, such as the creation of canals for fish capture by some native Australians). The chapters covering domestication are probably the driest in the book, but are packed with fascinating data, and are essential to the rest of the narrative. Diamond takes a geeky delight in exhaustively listing species of large-seeded cereals, or large mammals, region by region, which were candidates for domestication.

By far the luckiest place on the planet in terms of suitable plants (wheat, barley, oats) and animals (pigs, goats, sheep, cows) was the Fertile Crescent spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This was also the first place where wide-scale farming began. Armed with such a variety of foods, the people originating in this region—who Diamond loosely refers to as “whites”—expanded to dominate Europe, western, central, and south Asia, and north Africa, and eventually expanded into the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. China was the second place to begin farming, within a couple of thousand years of the Fertile Crescent, and was also blessed with raw materials, including rice. The people of this revolution came to dominate China and Mongolia, and then the rest of east and south-east Asia, before later expanding to lowland New Guinea, Polynesia, and eventually Madagascar. The majority of people in the world—and virtually all non-Africans—descend from these two farming revolutions.

Besides the availability of plants and animals, the other fundamental factor driving the success of certain peoples was geography, and specifically the shape, alignment, and position of the continents. This helps explain why New Guineans, despite being among the first farmers, never expanded to colonise wider regions, and why black people from West Africa succeeded in colonising most of sub-Saharan Africa but nowhere else. It also helps to explain why American civilisations were largely destroyed when they came into contact with Eurasians.

Eurasia (including north Africa) is mostly in the northern hemisphere, and spans thousands of miles east to west, covering a significant part of the world’s land area. This means that the crops and animals domesticated in the two first centres of food production—the Fertile Crescent and China—could spread rapidly to neighbouring regions with similar climates. Within about 5,000 years of the first crop domestication, farming was widespread across a vast expanse from East Asia to the Atlantic coasts of Ireland and Morocco, using crops domesticated across the whole continent. Although the Americas also span a huge distance, they are aligned from north to south. Crops domesticated in temperate North America would have to cross a narrow tropical region (where they would not grow due to differences in rainfall and daylight length) in order to be adopted in temperate South America—and vice versa. So it was that China and western Asia freely exchanged domesticates, and the entire expanse of Eurasia developed a large and diverse farming ecosystem. A different story unfolded in America, where three centres of civilisation came into existence in the Andes, Mexico, and the Mississippi valley, each with their own separate packages of crops and animals, and with very little exchange taking place between them.

In sum, Eurasia conquered the Americas, rather than the other way around, because it began with the best selection of plants and animals, because it was large and lacking in major geographic obstacles, and because it was aligned east to west. The Eurasian invaders arrived armed with a package of plants and animals that would thrive in America, but to which native Americans had never previously had access. This was even more true in Australia, a land so lacking in useful plants that even modern farming techniques have only managed to domesticate one native crop: macadamia nuts. Without their ready-made crop and animal packages, which were well suited to Australia’s climate, European settlers would have no more been able to create a farming economy in Australia than the natives who had previously survived there for 40,000 years.


Another vital advantage that ensured Eurasian dominance of the Americas was immunity to disease. The mass extinction of American megafauna in prehistoric times, probably at the hands of the first Americans (though some debate exists over this), is ironically one of the key reasons why native Americans were mostly wiped out after 1492 by European invaders. The Old World was rife with disease because the peoples of Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa had, for thousands of years, lived alongside their animals, and animal germs had, accordingly, evolved to exploit humans. The resulting waves of pandemic that swept Eurasia had allowed people to evolve resistance to a wide range of diseases. Native Americans, on the other hand, possessed no immunities to Eurasian germs. Europeans encountered three civilisations in the Americas—in the Andes, Mexico, and the Mississippi valley—all of which had developed food production and built large populations with a degree of political organisation. All of these societies were destroyed primarily by Old World germs.

Lacking any large domestic animals (except the llama, which was restricted to the Andes), Americans had few germs of their own with which to repel foreign invaders. Estimates of the native American death toll from Eurasian germs range up to 95 percent of the population. Although sometimes accused of justifying colonialism, Diamond does not shy away from recounting atrocities committed by whites against surviving American (or Australian or African) natives. His point, though, is that the first great battle for the Americas was in large part won by germs.

The rise of Africa

A visitor to Africa 5,000 years ago would have found the temperate northern region colonised by farmers and crops of Middle Eastern origin. Farmers from the north-east (of Middle Eastern origin) had also spread down the east coast as far as Tanzania (a fact revealed only recently by DNA evidence). The rest of the continent was sparsely populated by three distinct groups of hunter-gatherers of separate origins, each with their own separate language families. In tropical west Africa were the Bantu people (the people generally known in the Western world as “black”); across much of the tropical centre were Pygmies; and in the south and east were Khoisan people. The total population of all three groups was tiny in contrast to that of Eurasia. It would have seemed obvious to our observer that the people from the north would eventually spread south and colonise the whole continent, just as their close cousins had already occupied Europe, the Middle East, and much of west, central, and south Asia.

Diamond’s case is made by the fact that this didn’t happen. Middle Eastern crops would not grow in the tropics, and so Eurasians didn’t cross the Sahara. Instead, the eventual winners in sub-Saharan Africa were black farmers from west Africa, who domesticated crops about 5,000 years ago, and proceeded to colonise tropical Africa from west to east, as well as much of the south, in a series of waves collectively known as the Bantu Expansion. The success of black people in taking over the continent was at the expense of Pygmies and Khoisan, both of which have endured thousands of years of encroachment into their territories by black farmers. Both groups now hover close to extinction—remaining Khoisan people are being integrated into black-majority societies across southern and eastern Africa, and Pygmies have faced countless waves of genocide and enslavement.

The appalling plight of the Pygmies is as tragic as the genocides that have taken place in the Americas or Australasia, and it continues today. But it is largely unknown because African history is so widely ignored, even within the continent. Similarly ignored displacements of indigenous people have taken place as the Chinese expansion has progressed through south-east Asia into the Pacific region over the past few thousand years.

European attempts, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to colonise most of sub-Saharan Africa were only short-lived. They were almost entirely repelled by growing black populations and tropical germs. European colonisers were only successful in the Cape, which Bantu farmers had not reached because their tropical crops would not grow there. Black people, who are generally seen by American leftists as marginalised and helpless, are in fact the third and final racial group after whites and Chinese to achieve significant global numbers. Black people are less numerous than Eurasians only because they were geographically constrained within a smaller continent. From west to east, tropical Africa provides a far smaller space to colonise than the huge expanse of Eurasia, from Ireland to Japan.

A similar case against white superiority is made by the New Guinea highlanders, who by 9,000 years ago (long before agriculture had reached Europe) had developed one of the most sophisticated systems of agriculture on the planet. And yet highland society barely advanced from that time onward. Highland crops could not grow in the very different climate of the New Guinea lowlands, and so highland society could not expand to the New Guinea coast, let alone overseas. It remained, and still remains, constrained into a tiny space. As on the rest of the continents, it was its environment and geography that predicted the fate of New Guinea.

An Evolutionary Explanation for Unscientific Beliefs
To understand morality from an evolutionary point of view, one needs to realize that humans have always existed in groups.

The role of human decision-making

While Diamond’s global view of history is certainly deterministic, he does not deny the role of human agency and political or cultural decisions at the more local level, as is alleged by his critics. Indeed, perhaps stung by this criticism, he followed Guns, Germs, and Steel with the book Collapse, which focuses exactly on this issue, and contains case studies of societies that have failed due to their own mistakes rather than external intervention. He also points out that in each region, some groups have come to dominate others, often because they were more enthusiastic about adopting foreign technologies. Examples he gives include the Igbo of West Africa and the Navajo of north America.

It is unsurprising but sad that the modern story of race has been written by North Americans; first by the racist whites who saw blacks and native Americans as essentially inferior, and now by academics and commentators who see racial history in terms of nothing but systemic oppression. Each argument is based on the same, US-centric viewpoint: namely that the story of the native Americans is shared by indigenous peoples worldwide (which is barely true) while black people are universally the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath (which is not true at all).

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by European empires, the Western world awoke to the horrors that humans are capable of committing against those they perceived to be inferior. It is not surprising in this context that postwar liberals set out to eliminate the concept of race from Western thinking. But in doing so, the Left has progressively painted itself into an ideological corner. Guns, Germs, and Steel advanced the discussion by providing a powerful explanation for disparities in outcome that relied neither on racial differences nor on a belief in invisible power structures, and on that basis deserves to be seen as an important contribution to the ongoing battle for equal rights.

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