Guns, germs and collapse (part 1)

Part 1 (of 2 or 3) of an extended review of the following books— mostly in short note form. They cover overlapping ground, so there should be some kind of a common theme running through these posts.

Jared Diamond:
Guns, Germs and Steel
(Part 1)

McAnany and Yoffee (eds):
Questioning Collapse
Walker and Salt:
Resilience thinking
(Part 2)

Jared Diamond (ed):
Natural Experiments of History
(Part 2 or possibly 3)

The first two I read some time ago, and the others more recently. ‘Questioning Collapse’ (QC) unsurprisingly questions ‘Collapse’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ (GGS); ‘Resilience Thinking’ describes an idea that QC references as part of its riposte to Collapse and GGS, but doesn’t really elaborate; and ‘Natural Experiments of History’ I’ve got but haven’t read yet (it looks like Diamond’s defence of his methods, as a slightly tangential reply to QC).

Firstly, Collapse and GGS. I haven’t gone back to these books after my initial readings, so these notes will serve as a “what sticks in the mind several years later” impression (with some prompts from having just read McAnany/Yoffee’s book).


Guns, Germs and Steel:

The premise of this book is that the long term success of societies is determined, to a large extent, by “biogeography”. The reasons why European civilisation is globally preeminent today, rather than, say a pre-Columbian American, African or Australasian civilisation, have much to do with Europe being part of the Eurasian landmass—the largest on the planet— and Eurasia’s horizontal orientation across the globe. This means that when agriculture developed, there was a greater pool of species available for domestication (plants and animals for food). New crops, domesticated animals, ideas and technologies could spread more easily between communities on a single large landmass than they could between groups on smaller, widely separated ones, so the pace of change (“progress”) was faster.

The East-West alignment of the Eurasian landmass meant that domesticated species could be readily transplanted laterally, within the same broad climatic zones they were adapted to. The distribution of groups of species on a North-South oriented landmass, however, is limited to narrow climatic bands at each latitude. Other natural barriers— seas, mountains etc— also play a part, and of course all the usual human cultural and political factors on much smaller spatial and time scales, but it is the large/small and vertical/horizontal continent categories that determine the big picture, setting the underlying speed at which agriculture and civilisation can develop.

It’s a simple, elegant, and powerful idea, persuasively repeated throughout the book with lots of illustrative examples. The supposed “backwardness” of the Australian aborigines is nicely explained: being on a small isolated continent, it was taking them a long time to develop agriculture, and although there were some promising signs they would have got there eventually, the “advanced” Europeans arrived first— with unfortunate consequences for the native population.

A powerful reason why the Boers are so vehemently attached to their bit of southern Africa is explained thusly: their perception of national identity is coloured by their being the first to practise agriculture on that land (European technology— ships— leap-frogged settlers and their temperate cereal crops into a comfortable climate, while the Bantu peoples migrating overland from the tropics were stuck with tropical species unsuited for agriculture in the far south).

In short, the all-powerful guns, germs and steel of European civilisation are a result of fortunate accidents of geography and biology (domesticable species distribution), rather than any inherent racial, cultural or political superiority. This idea is repeatedly laid out throughout the book and buttressed with a good spread of evidence.

It’s a very impressive book, with the numerous examples supporting an admirably clear, structured and methodical argument (if anything— and a very minor quibble— I found the constant restating of the argument at repeated intervals throughout the book a bit wearing).



This originally had the tagline “Why societies choose to fail or succeed”. Its central thesis is that the environmental choices made by a society can determine its ultimate success or failure. This is a slightly harder sell, as the reasons behind societal collapses aren’t always very obvious, and Diamond admits to being selective in the examples he uses. He prefers to discuss isolated societies in fragile environments, where the proposed sequence of events (overpopulation, overexploitation of resources, last-ditch attempts to remedy the situation, grisly failure) play out faster and with fewer extraneous confounders (such as external conflict or complex cultural and political interactions). The first half of the book deals with historical examples, while the second half applies the idea to modern situations.

Possibly the clearest expression of the idea is in his description of the Norse settlement of Greenland. This society died out in the mid fifteenth century in the midst of the of the ‘Little Ice Age’, but it’s proposed that the Norse could have survived had they been more adaptable and adopted some of the ‘live off the land’ practices of their Inuit neighbours (particularly consumption of seals and fish). Their adherence to European-style pastoral agriculture was unsustainable in the face of a cooling climate, yet they refused to change— and so in the end, their society collapsed.

Easter Island is another powerful example. When Polynesian settlers reached the island, which is widely separated from other Pacific island chains, they brought their agriculture with them and the population soon exploded. The extensive forest on the island provided trees, useful for erecting the giant statues the island is now famous for, and for making ocean-going canoes. But the demand for food led to complete deforestation, conflict, and ‘die-off’. Without the trees, the Easter Islanders could neither erect their characteristic statues, nor make canoes to escape to/communicate with other islands. Their society collapsed.

Several other examples portray a similar sequence of events, with variations. The modern examples include the role of overpopulation in the Rwandan genocide, a comparison of Haiti and and the Dominican Republic— countries that share the same island, but had different environmental policies which, in Diamond’s view, explains their different levels of ‘success’— and a discussion of recent environmental policies and their consequent impacts in the US state of Montana.

Like GGS, the book is engagingly written, and clearly laid out with a coherent thread of argument running through the chapters. There’s a kind of schadenfraude reading these societal stories that you already know— from the introduction— are not going to have a happy ending. This, of course, makes the message— that the same proposed sequence of events applies to our modern global society— all the more compelling.

Even at the time, some of the examples felt a little too neat. I think I preferred GGS, although Collapse was perhaps an easier, more entertaining read. But I’d thoroughly recommend both, forthcoming provisos notwithstanding.

To be continued.
(Part 2 to include review of QC aka The Anthropologists are Angry)


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