In Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian Jared Diamond attempts to answer the question of why some societies succeed over others. More specifically, he sets out to discover why the European civilization apparently managed to spread out over most of the globe, conquering along its way, while the societies and civilizations on other continents — the civilizations of Africa or the New World or Australia, for example — did not. The perennial example that Diamond uses in his book is the fall of the Incan empire to the Spanish Conquistadores: the Conquistadores brought about the fall of the Incas in a decisive battle where thousands of Native American warriors died, but not a single Spanish soldier did, even though the Spanish were vastly outnumbered. Diamond suggests that the Spanish victory was due to their superior weaponry and their superior political organization.
The big question, though, is how did this superiority come about? It wasn’t, as historians and racist thinkers in the past have suggested, due to any genetic superiority of the Spanish over the Native Americans. Diamond argues that, instead, geographical and environmental differences led to the disparities between the two societies. For example, the European continent was able to produce a wider variety of crops more reliably than the South American continent; this allowed European peoples to grow more food and transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, which allowed for larger populations and more sophisticated political organizations. Farming societies also tend to have far more diseases that affect humans (for a contemporary example, see how the crowded conditions on Asian poultry farms seem to generate annual flu pandemics). People in these societies develop better immunities to those diseases, therefore, but the diseases themselves don’t go away; this is why one of the major reasons for the genocide of the Native American socities was smallpox.
Another major factor is the prevalance of domesticable animals. The New World had very few animals that could be domesticated for human use, while Europe had plenty. This fact led to even more agriculture and better organization. A farming oriented society allowed for people to specialize in fields other than farming, such as crafts or politics. A society where craftsmen were allowed to focus on, say, the development of swords and armor was probably going to produce more such goods than a society which could not afford to specialize that way.
Innovation is another major factor in the development of societies. While any member of any society is capable of being an innovator that could help a society progress technologically, societies with specialization and a more sophisticated structure are more likely to produce more innovators and more innovations. And the development of a particular innovation is not guaranteed to be very useful. Certain societies in Mexico, for example, certainly developed the wheel; but the lack of domesticable animals in that region and the difficult terrain made the wheel impractical as anything more than a child’s toy.
Diamond’s conclusions seem to make sense to me, and I feel that his arguments are sound and well constructed. The difficulty with historical arguments such as this, though, is their inherent lack of demonstrability. With scientific theories, one can construct a laboratory experiment to support or disprove the theory in question; with history, this is not possible. Diamond anticipates this objection and suggests that historical research, as a field, can be considered a science along with the other historical sciences such as evolutionary biology and astronomy. I’m not entirely convinced of this personally, because many of the conclusions of modern evolutionary biology and astronomy grow not out of observations in those fields but out of observations in other areas. The conclusions and theories of modern astronomy grow more out of our understanding of physics rather than from pure astronomy; and our modern understanding of evolutionary biology has just as much to do with experiments and conclusions from fields as disparate as molecular biology as well as observation of the development of species. I can’t think, off-hand, of ancillary sciences that would support history as a science in the same way, unless they are anthropology and geography, neither of which are considered truly empirical sciences.
Still, this book is a valuable and insightful work, which I recommend very strongly to anyone interested in the development of human society and history.
Addendum: I also watched the National Geographic special based on this series on DVD. It is worthwhile, and should be available from your local public library