„Guns, germs and steel“ and „Collapse“ by Jared Diamond

Why did the development of societies proceed at different rates on different continents? And why did some societies collapse and disappear? Jared Diamond has written two fact-filled books in which he tries to answer these two questions. In his 1997 book „Guns, germs and steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years“ Diamond searches for explanations for the differing rates of development of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In „Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive“, first published in 2005, Diamond looks at the opposite problem, and examines how past and present societies have collapsed and disappeared. In both books Jared Diamond uses a method of comparative history with insights from other sciences like ecology, evolutionary biology, geography, linguistics and genetics in order to search for ultimate explanations for the development and decline of past and present societies.

In „Guns, germs and steel“ Diamond takes the long view of human history and a global perspective in order to look for ultimate causes that shaped the development of peoples and societies. In one of the chapters, Diamond looks at the Spanish conquest of Native American societies and identifies several factors behind the conquest, like Spanish germs, horses, literacy, political organization, and technology. Those factors are proximate causes for the spanish conquest but Diamond is in search for the ultimate causes that led to the development of those factors in Spain but not in Peru. Diamond identifies as ultimate cause for the build-up of societies the rise and spread of food production, i.e. the shift away from hunting and gathering to agriculture and herding allowing for complex political and military organisation. The rise in agriculture in turn was linked to the natural environment in which peoples evolved and the availability of wild seeds and animals for domestication. In a nutshell, Diamond attributes the different historical development of societies to the different environments in which they evolved and the possibilities for exchange and learning they had with neighboring societies.
The comparative method employed by Diamond proves especially fruitful when he looks at the development of Polynesian societies which spread into the Pacific on islands with greatly differing environments. Within a few thousand years, the development on those islands differed markedly, with some societies remaining hunter-gatherer tribes and others developing into proto-empires. The different development of those island societies serves Diamond as a model to understand the more complex historical dynamics on a world scale.

In „Collapse“ Diamond proposes a five-point framework of factors that lead to the collapse of societies: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners (or the lack of it) and a society's responses to its environmental problems. In the course of the book Diamond gives examples of collapses of past and present societies and analyses the role played by one or several factors of his five-point framework.
One interesting case study, that of Easter Island, is presented by Diamond as an example for a pure ecological collapse of a society, due to total deforestation leading to war and resulting in a massive population die-off.
Another case study which is discussed at length is the collapse of the medieval Norse population in Greenland. This well documented case serves Diamond to show how all the five factors of his framework were at work to cause the collapse of a society. Furthermore, this case study is interesting as it also demonstrates the influence of culture in the downfall of a society. The Norse society in Greenland which aspired to a medieval European economy and lifestyle vanished whereas the Inuit with a very different lifestyle survived in the same environment.
In the last part of the book Diamond tries to draw practical lessons from his historical analysis for the environmental challenges faced by today's societies. The difference between past and present societies is of course, that whereas past societies have lived partly in isolation and their decline was thus a local or regional phenomenon, today's societies live in a globalized world facing global environmental challenges, with the prospect of a global decline. Despite the enormous environmental challenges faced by today's societies, Diamond displays a cautious optimism in his book and believes that if we learn from the mistakes made in the past we might succeed in solving today's challenges.

Diamond's quest for the ultimate causes of human history is a fascinating intellectual journey and he manages to convincingly explain the broad patterns of human history. Both books are full of insights and interesting historic details. Diamond clearly identifies environmental factors as major drivers behind human history but he does not fall in the trap of environmental determinism. Nevertheless, sometimes Diamond's analysis is a bit too narrowly focused on environmental factors at the expense of the role of culture, political institutions and individuals in shaping human history. For example the discussion of modern Rwanda in „Collapse“ identifies environmental factors and population pressure as the ultimate cause the 1994 genocide. However, colonialism, political injustices and ethnic hatred that has developed over decades in Rwanda, might suffice to explain the 1994 genocide and might be the ultimate and not just proximate cause for the Rwandan collapse.
If you read only one of the two books, then „Guns, germs and steel“ is to be recommended. The pace of the book is faster, the insights more numerous and the structure of the book is more coherent than in „Collapse“.

Robert Moosbrugger

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