Guns, Germs and Steel Summary and Study Guide

Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel

  • 74-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 19 chapter summaries and 3 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD in English and a Master's degree in Philosophy
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Guns, Germs and Steel Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 74-pages guide for “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 19 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Biology versus Geography and Food Production versus Hunting and Gathering.

Plot Overview

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an anthropological study that charts and explains the fates of different peoples throughout human history. In particular, it seeks to understand why some groups of people have prospered while others have failed to advance to the same extent. As the author, Justin Diamond, explains, this is a study of history’s “haves” and “have nots.”

This study also has a moral basis, as Diamond is aware that some people view inequality as biologically determined. In this view, some classes of human beings are inherently inferior to others. Diamond, however, believes that this perspective is both incorrect and harmful. One of his key motivations in writing this book therefore is to disprove this line of thought and provide a more accurate account of human development throughout history. His key claim here is that inequality has not been brought about by biology, but often by geography and ecological conditions.

Diamond covers a vast time period and geographical terrain throughout this book, starting with the beginning of humanity and covering human development and expansion into the earth’s five habitable continents: Africa, Europe, Eurasia, and North and South America. However, rather than dwelling on the earliest stages of humanity, Diamond’s focus is on what happened when human beings evolved to the level of modern humans and showed evidence of more advanced thought processing and skills (as indicated by the artifacts they left behind).

Above all, Diamond is concerned with the move from hunting and gathering to food production: a move that occurred more rapidly in some settings than others, or failed to occur at all. As Diamond explains, this is not just a dietary matter, as food production was the key to other developments such as more sophisticated technology, as well as writing, religion, and germs, or, to use the book’s title phrase, “guns, germs, and steel”.

Germs, which originated from the livestock, might not seem like a positive development, especially where they caused epidemics that swept through food producing communities. However, Diamond explains that epidemics allowed survivors to develop resistance. This had two benefits: if another group of people attempted to displace or conquer a community, such attempts could be thwarted by diseases to which the invaders had not developed resistance. Also, those who had developed resistance could transport diseases abroad for use as weapons during wars of conquest.

Wars of conquest constitute a major theme throughout this book, although, in some cases, these were not so much wars as instances of a single food producing community vanquishing a group of hunter-gatherers. Still, Diamond draws attention to major historical episodes involving conquest and colonization, with one well-known example being the European conquest of the Americas in 1492. Diamond details such events across the five continents, endeavoring to find out why some peoples triumphed over others.

Diamond’s overriding argument is twofold: Food production was a vital first step on the road to establishing more advanced societies that benefited from “guns, germs and steel.” However, not everyone was in an equally favorable position when it came to adopting food production. Diamond consequently describes the various geographical and ecological setbacks that limited the crops and livestock available in some regions. These setbacks could affect not only local resources but the import of resources from other areas. Hostile climate conditions and terrain, for example, could hinder the diffusion of food production to peoples who might have been able to reap its benefits.

Ultimately, Diamond’s argument is that the failure to adopt food production is not a sign of inferiority or ineptitude. People made the best out of what was available to them, and, in some cases, hunting-gathering remained the most viable—or only viable—option. Communities that have succeeded in food production and developed into more advanced societies are not composed of people who are more “advanced” or inherently superior. Often, they have simply been more fortunate in terms of their geographical position and surroundings.

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