Guns, Germs & Steel

I have been told repeatedly that if I am creating a new world for role-playing, this book should be required reading. In this ambitious book, Jared Diamond lays out the foundations for why some societies came to dominate others. It is important to note that this book covers more than just the recent domination of Western Europe from ~1500 AD.


The question of why some societies come to dominate others is one that is difficult to ask. Even asking the question can lead to charges of racism. If one race (say whites) were able to thrive and develop a sophisticated society in an environment where another race (say Aboriginal Australians) lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly 40,000 years, doesn’t that indicate a fault with the aborigines? One cannot deny the historical fact that when Europeans arrived in Australia they possessed more sophisticated technology, were more numerous, and far more Aborigines died of European diseases than vice versa. In this book Jared Diamond provides an explanation that has nothing to do with the races in question or perceived differences – instead, his explanation is based on geography and historical distribution of animals and crops that make farming possible.


Some areas of the globe possessed the right materials for sedentary villages to spring up and for farming to evolve as early as 8,000 BC. Farming developed not because someone ‘invented’ it – it was instead an evolutionary process. A significant section of the book explains how this took place and why it took place in just a few areas in the world (the Fertile Crescent is the most well-known). Farming led to dense populations, and agricultural surpluses led to specialists (craftsmen), which in turn led to advances in technology, which is why the Fertile Crescent came to dominate the world.


Or not.


While the development of food production may be the single most important factor in developing a complex society, the Fertile Crescent is far from the Spain of 1492. After explaining the importance of the development of food production, Jared Diamond explains why some regions continued to develop more quickly. He also explains why the rise of other nascent farming (say in the Andes, Mesoamerica and the Eastern United States) did not lead to a society similar to Europe or China by the time the hemispheres came into intense interaction with each other.


There are four major factors. First of all, some regions had better crops than others. The plants in the Fertile Crescent were more nutritive than those in the Eastern United States and there was more variety. A Native American in the Eastern United states could not survive with just farming in 1 AD, hunting-gathering remained important for finding adequate protein. The availability of a package of plants that provide a complete ‘food package’ is an important factor.


Beyond the availability of plants is the availability of large mammals for domestication. Unfortunately, large animals in North America, South America and Australia were largely eliminated in the Pleistocene era (when humans arrived). This may have been the result of hunting, but long story short, there were few or no animals available for domestication. An important caveat is that the presence of large animals doesn’t mean that the animal can be domesticated – which is why Africa, with its collection of large mammals suffers a similar problem. Domesticated animals provided support for agriculture (pulling plows and providing manure for fertilizer) and helped provide a protein rich diet, allowing these societies to abandon the hunting half of hunting-gathering and become truly sedentary.


After laying a foundation for the importance of available wild plants and animals suitable for domestication, the book explains why some areas (like Europe) benefitted from farming developed in distant lands and some did not (like most of North America). One major factor is the continental axis. It should be no surprise that tropical plants grow well in tropical regions and temperate plants grow well in temperate regions. In Eurasia, plants developed in the Fertile Crescent could spread to Egypt, North Africa, India and China (which also developed agriculture independently) and Mediterranean Europe. Essentially, there were several thousand miles of contiguous territory where the same plants and animals could live, allowing for ancient peoples to spread out and displace and replace native hunter-gatherers. The spread of crops from Mexico faced more difficult challenges. While it was possible for plants in Eurasia to grow 3,000 miles from where they were originally developed, crops even 1,000 miles north of Mexico faced a very different climate and seasonal cycle. The spread of crops was much slower as a result of the difference in axis, providing a further head-start for Eurasians.


The speed at which food production began and the speed at which it spread lays the foundation for the development of complex societies. Those complex food production societies that had domestic animals also had the advantage(?) of being prone to disease. We should all be aware of swine flu and avian flu – we’re aware that a disease affecting animals can spread to humans, and they include some of the most severe diseases humans have dealt with. Eurasian societies that lived in close proximity to domestic sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, geese, and goats were exposed to extremely dangerous diseases. This is why when the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, as much as 95% of the indigenous population was killed by disease, but no correspondingly deadly diseases were transported from the Americas to Europe. If the Americans had large domesticated animals, it is quite possible that the spread would have been equal in both directions.


With animal husbandry providing the ‘germs’ from the title, and sedentary societies with food production surpluses supporting a denser population (including specialists that help drive technological innovation), you have all the ingredients for some societies to dominate other societies. As the original society spreads, those societies lacking those advantages will be absorbed, displaced, or will adapt the same technologies. Throughout the book several population expansions are tracked and the final results are explained.


More than just explaining WHY some societies came to dominate others, it explains why some didn’t. For example, the Bantu were a farming people that came to dominate most of Sub-Saharan Africa. What is most surprising is that they stopped before claiming South Africa as well. We know that South Africa is capable of supporting agriculture, and the Bantu lived as farmers. Why did they dominate the rest of the continent but not the cape? It turns out that the environment there was not well suited to tropical crops, having a Mediterranean climate. Once crops were introduced from the Mediterranean, the land became productive farmland. However, the European crops could not spread across the Sahara and through the tropics (environments for which they were not suited) until ships carried the crops directly. Thus, whites in South Africa came to dominate not because of racial superiority, but because they had inherited a crop package that provided for a complex sedentary society that suited the new environment, allowing them to displace the hunter-gatherers already present.


If you’re creating a game world, this book will provide you with lots of great starting points to make a more believable cultural mosaic. The examples and illustrations of prehistoric movements of people may even inspire the development of the world. For example, asking what crops/animals dwarves have domesticated will have an impact on their culture and their spread. If dwarves never developed or adapted food production, they may be a tiny island of hunter-gatherers surrounded by humans that dominate the land suitable for agriculture – forced high into the mountains on marginal land. If, on the other hand, they have domesticated barley and bighorn sheep, you would expect them to eat a diet of bread, beer, cheese and meat; they may successfully defend against encroachment of other complex food-producing societies and they may exist alongside humans as ‘equals’, rather than as primitives. If there’s anything that I’ve taken from this book, it is the awareness of the one-sidedness of interactions between food producers and hunter-gatherers. Thinking of ‘humanoid races’ in the hunter-gatherer role helps to explain much of their conflict with ‘civilized races’ without the need to refer to one race as ‘evil’.


In short, this book provides a lot of food for thought for a world-builder, and guidance in developing a consistent world – one that ‘may have happened’. If you don’t care for realism, however, this book will have little to no use for your game. When magic is real, there are certainly times when ignoring the book would be entirely appropriate. In the case where it isn’t useful, it’s still interesting regarding our own real-world history. While written for general readers, the book may be ‘dry’ – while the book is punctuated with exciting moments (Pizarro and 168 Spanish soldiers slaughter and drive off 80,000 Inca soldiers and capture the emperor Atahuallpa), the book focuses on why that happened, not what happened. And discussions of superior armor, weapons, horses, and cannons is incidental to the subject (proximate causes) the book is about how the development of intensive agriculture led to these technological innovations. You’re going to read much more about the differences between corn and wheat in terms of their growth habit and nutritional content than about the differences in warfare technology.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in a broad general theory of history and for anyone designing a game world that shares ‘historical principles’ with our own world.


Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Author: Jared Diamond

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Publish Date: 1997

ISBN: 0-393-31755-2

Pages: 440

Rating: 7 out of 10