Highlights from Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

*The documentary film Guns, Germs and Steel based on the book of the same name expounds on a original thesis by author Jared Diamond.  The main highlights of the film are as follows.

*In the 13,000 year history since the end of the last Ice Age, European civilization has advanced the most compared to other geo-ethnic populations.

*The primary driver for their domination is not greater intelligence due to genetic superiority but an array of favourable environmental factors in Europe.

*European superiority manifested in three key domains: the development of advanced weaponry, the inherent immunity to certain epidemic diseases and technological progress.  In sum these key factors are Guns, Germs and Steel.

*One of the turning points that ushered in progress of human civilization was agriculture. Agriculture was directly responsible for the development of cities as surplus food afforded people the time to specialize in various crafts.  It also allowed society to be neatly organized based upon specialisation of skills and crafts.

*And at a key juncture in history, about 4-5 millenium ago, agriculture was invented and established in the Indo-European geographies. Those societies that embraced it first held a great advantage over those who learnt and applied agriculture later.

*Although agriculture developed in many parts of the world, European inhabitants were advantaged by the flora and fauna thriving to their geographies.  For example, species of goats, sheep and other cattle were present in Europe in greater numbers and varieties for domestication.  Similarly, barley, wheat and pulses were also suited to the European environmental conditions.

*And the greater variety of animal species in Europe made it possible to identify and tame suitable species to aid in agricultural production.

*The large landmass of Eurasia, as well as its long east-west spread made possible more plant and animal species for domestication.  Such advantages were not present in the American or African landmasses, as geographic and ecological conditions did not present a consistent character across their length.

*The aforementioned natural advantages in Eurasia, allowed and encouraged the formation of city civilizations, where society could be systematically organized and people could specialize in crafts and skills.

*The close proximity of urban civil arrangements made exchange of information easier.  On the flip side, the congested accommodations in ancient cities made the population susceptible to epidemic attacks.

*The initial struggles of European population with epidemic diseases would prove to be an advantage later on, as they tuned their immune system to resist such germs.  But such immunization did not happen to American or African populations, making them succumb to the germs introduced by European colonizers.

*Hence, it was favourable environmental factors, which played the most important role in promoting European civilization, culture and technology.  This explains their domination over other masses of the world continuing to this day.

There is much evidence to support the central thesis of the documentary, in that Europeans have excelled in domains of technology, medicine, art and architecture for much of recent human history.  But this view comes across as simplistic and Euro-centric in that it does not take into account the notion of cultural relativity.  In other words, while European colonizers looked upon indigenous people as primitive if not outright barbaric, the natives themselves never felt inferior.  Be it the British occupation of India or the French occupation of North Africa, colonialism was viewed by the locals as a form of oppression.  In many ways, Jared Diamond’s thesis can be said to reinforce Edward Said’s thesis called Orientalism, where the Middle and Far-Eastern civilizations are perceived as underdeveloped, exotic and mysterious despite no objective evidence to back the claim.  The other problem with Diamond’s thesis is its narrow definition of progress and advancement.  Military domination and technological invention (guns and steel) are not the only measure of progress.  It is perhaps a telling reflection of this flaw in Diamond’s argument that Eastern mysticism (including Zen Bhuddhism, Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi and other spiritual practices) are seeing newfound respect from Westerners.  This phenomenon is a recognition of the fact that there are worthwhile human pursuits outside of guns, steel or germs.