Secondary source historical argument analysis
1.HISTORY 1: OPTIONAL SHORT PAPER ASSIGNMENT
SECONDARY SOURCE HISTORICAL ARGUMENT ANALYSIS
In this paper you will analyze and compare (not simply summarize) the two assigned
articles (see attached) in the context of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of
Human Societies. The prompt is intended to guide your analysis of the documents:
INTRODUCTION: The assignment will require you to compare and evaluate the two assigned
articles – “History Upside Down” and “Jared Diamond, reply by William H. McNeill” (a
historian of European science, technology, and military power) – first discuss the articles in
terms of what you have learned in the class and your own opinion. You must then compare
the two source’s historical arguments.
PROMPT: Discuss how convincing you find William H. McNeill’s criticism of Jared Diamond’s
book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In your discussion, you should
analyze his argument’s line of historical reasoning and use of historical evidence. It may be
appropriate in your analysis to call into question certain assumptions underlying his argument
and/or to indicate what evidence might weaken or strengthen the argument. It will also be
appropriate to discuss how your own understanding of Diamond’s argument. This assignment
is a critical thinking task requiring a well thought out response. Consequently, the analytical
skills displayed in your paper carry great weight in determining your score; however, the
clarity with which you convey ideas is also important to your overall score. You are being
asked to evaluate the logical soundness of an argument of another writer and, in doing so, to
demonstrate the critical thinking, perceptive reading and analytical writing skills.
This paper will demonstrate your ability to understand, analyze and evaluate historical
arguments and convey your evaluation clearly in your writing. There is no “right” or “wrong”
opinion. But your evaluation must be backed up by evidence and a logical argument. You will
also need to use the Strayer text and/or the class lectures to provide evidence to support your
evaluation and final judgement.
Your task is to discuss the logical soundness of the McNeill’s case (and Diamond’s response)
by critically examining the line of reasoning and the use of evidence. This task requires you to
read his argument carefully, but construct your own response in terms of your own reading of
Diamond’s book (which you should also have read). I highly recommend you read the
argument more than once and make brief notes about points you want to develop more fully
in your evaluation.
In addition, you should consider the structure of his argument — the way in which these
elements are linked together to form his line of reasoning; i.e., you should recognize the
separate, sometimes implicit steps in the thinking process and consider whether the
movement from each step to the next is logically sound. In tracing this line, look for transition
words and phrases that suggest the author is attempting to make a logical connection (e.g.,
however, thus, therefore, evidently, hence, in conclusion). Here are some questions that you
will need to address in writing your essay:
What is Diamond’s main argument?
What is McNeill’s main criticism of Diamond’s argument?
What parts of Diamond’s argument does McNeill agree with?
McNeill implies that Diamond’s argument is reductionist (McNeill 5). Others have
criticized Diamond’s book for being an overly “deterministic” explanation of history?
Think about how these terms are related? Is Diamond’s argument “reductionist” or
“deterministic”? If so how?
Why or how would the accusation of being “reductionist” or “deterministic” be negative?
What does McNeill mean by “Cultural Autonomy”?
Is “Cultural Autonomy” important? Why or why not?
Are McNeill’s concerns and criticism of Diamond’s argument valid?
What is your overall impression of McNeill’s and Diamond’s respective interpretations?
Are they convincing?
What questions rise in these different interpretations?
Find evidence from the Strayer text and/or the class lectures that supports your
evaluation and final judgement.
Other questions to consider:
Who was the author and who was the audience of each document?
What was the purpose of the document or motive for writing it?
Are there any contradictions in the argument? If so, provide examples.
As you read these articles remember that secondary sources do not just present facts — they
provide an interpretation of events. Look for the ways that these authors present their
IMPORTANT: You are also expected to consult and reference the lectures and texts for
the class (i.e. Strayer) for historical context or background in your analysis of these
documents. In other words, how is whatever author’s side you choose backed up by
specific historical evidence provided by the class lectures and the other textbook for
the class? Please italicize or underline all book titles. The title of a scholarly article
should be put in quotation marks.
Remember you must provide the citations for all your sources of specific information
(including the lectures). But do not rely on long quotes in your paper! Quotes should
be no longer than one sentence long. You should paraphrase (write in your own words)
wherever you can, but you must still cite your source when you do so. If and when you
do directly quote your sources, you must introduce the quote and not leave it standing
by itself. If need be, you must also specify if you’re quoting Diamond’s book or his
“Response to McNeill.”
This is not a “research” paper assignment; therefore, do not consult any external
sources (class notes and class texts are exceptions and should be referenced). Papers
must be grammatically correct, well-structured, and have citation of relevant texts and
Sources of information (lectures and texts) must be correctly cited in your paper.
Information taken from a source (even if it is not in direct quotation marks) that is not
correctly cited is technically considered plagiarism, a very serious academic crime. It
does not matter, in this assignment, what particular citation style you choose to use.
APA, MLA, Chicago, etc. are all appropriate. But please choose to use one of them. A
Works Cited page or Bibliography is required in this paper.
I suggest this paper be written with proper MLA citations. Please use the following link
for information on MLA citations:
Please also use the HOW_TO_CITE_A_CLASS_LECTURE.PDF.
Note for History Majors (and Minors): I recommend you use Chicago Style footnote
citations in this paper to become accustom to it, since this is the citation method you
will be using in all your upper division history classes. Please use the following link for
information on Chicago Style footnote citations:
Use formal academic writing in your paper; in other words, college appropriate
language and vocabulary. Please do not use slang or text-speak abbreviations. Your
paper should be written entirely in the third person. You should not use the first or
second person (i.e. “I” or “you”).
Diamond and McNeill should be cited using the appropriate page numbers in the PDF.
If you cite from Diamond’s reply to William H. McNeill you should distinguish it from
his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, thusly: e.g.
“(Diamond’s Response to “History Upside Down” 12)”. The lectures can be cited by
including the appropriate date: example, “(History 1 Lecture, September 18, 2018).”
Papers should be 5-6 pages typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and
12-point Times New Roman font. Please number the pages in your paper. This is a
short paper; therefore, you should not have section titles. Paragraphs should have
appropriate transitions between them.
Hardcopies of the papers are due at the beginning of class on the due date stated on
the syllabus. Papers must also be uploaded to Turnitin via the “Optional Paper” link by
11:59pm the same day. Neglecting to perform both these tasks will mean that the
assignment will not be considered complete.
Consequently, uploading your paper but not handing in a hardcopy of your paper, by
no later than the next school day, will result in an immediate and permanent 2% point
penalty. Not uploading a copy of your paper to Turnitin will result in a 10% point
penalty, which will be removed only when the paper is uploaded. A paper will be
considered submitted on time if it is uploaded by the deadline stated above; however,
you will only have until the end of the next school day (following the deadline) to hand
in your hardcopy to avoid the 2% point penalty.
Late assignments will be penalized .5% per weekday (i.e. Monday-Friday).
A successful paper will:
have a solid introduction with appropriate context that introduces the piece
analyze, not solely describe or summarize the document
be well organized with coherent paragraphs relevant to the topic
have a concluding paragraph that accurately and concisely summarize the main
points of the paper
adequately explain the central objectives or arguments at work in the source(s)
draw on appropriate evidence from your source to substantiate the claims made
properly cite and punctuate quotations and evidence
be well written, well edited and well documented
New York Review of Books
History Upside Down
MAY 15, 1997
William H. McNeill
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs, and Steel is an artful, informative, and delightful book, full of surprises
for a historian like myself who is unaccustomed to examining the human record from the
vantage point of New Guinea and Australia, as Jared Diamond has set out to do. The book is
oddly titled, for Diamond has little to say about guns and steel, though he devotes a chapter
to the role of germs in human history. A better title would be History Upside Down: A
Biological View of the Human Past. But the author, a researcher in “evolutionary biology and
biogeography” specializing in birds, would surely object to such a description of his book,
arguing instead that it is historians who err by approaching their subject downside up, thanks
to their myopic concentration on literate societies and the last five thousand years of history.
No matter: there is nothing like a radically new angle of vision for bringing out unsuspected
dimensions of a subject, and that is what Jared Diamond has done.
Diamond frames his book around “Yali’s question.” Yali, a politician of some note in his
native New Guinea, overtook Diamond while he was walking along a beach there in 1972,
and during a lengthy conversation asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much
cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” “Cargo”
means all the useful material objects—metal axes and the like—that Europeans introduced to
New Guinea, whose peoples still used stone tools, resembling those of Europe’s Neolithic
Age, when traders from Europe first showed up on the island’s coasts a few hundred years
ago. As Diamond says,
such huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think would be obvious.
Yet Yali’s apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn’t have an
answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solution; most are no
longer even asking the question…. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts
to answer Yali [14-15].
The easiest answer is to attribute differences in levels of human technology and culture to
innate differences in the minds and bodies of the various peoples concerned. “Today,”
Diamond explains, “segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many
(perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or
subconsciously.” But, according to Diamond, “modern ‘Stone Age’ peoples are on the
average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples.” That, he
suggests, is because biological selection in Eurasian civilized societies was mainly for body
chemistry resistant to infectious diseases which “had little to do with intelligence,” whereas in
New Guinea the major causes of death were “murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and
problems in procuring food. Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape
those causes of high mortality,” with the result that “natural selection promoting genes for
intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely
populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was
instead more potent.” Why then, Diamond asks, “did New Guineans wind up technologically
primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?”
Diamond’s answer is simple in principle, but complex (and largely dependent on
inference) in detail, for he asserts that “the roots of inequality in the modern world lie far back
in prehistory…because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological
differences among peoples themselves.” This sort of geographic reductionism is radically out
of fashion these days, and Diamond’s thesis, so baldly stated, seems unlikely to win many
converts. Yet he makes a good case for the critical importance of
continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting
materials for domestication. That’s because food production was critical for the
accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food- producing specialists, and for
the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers
even before they had developed any technological or political advantage .
In addition, toward the end of the book he discerns three additional environmental
factors that are relevant to answering Yali’s question because they have an affect on the
frequency of technical inventions and the rates of their spread. These are: (1) mountains,
deserts, and day-lengths, varying with latitude and “affecting rates of diffusion and migration,
which differed greatly among continents,” (2) distances across open water, “influencing
diffusion between continents,” and (3) “continental differences in area or total population size.”
Those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be
quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute. While one can contest my
subjective impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians,
one cannot deny that New Guinea has a much smaller area and far fewer big animal
species than Eurasia .
Quite so. No one can doubt the general accuracy of Diamond’s account of the environmental
differences that he makes so much of. Yet one can doubt whether there was not greater
scope for what I would call “cultural autonomy” than is allowed by Diamond’s effort to reduce
(or raise?) history to the level of the biological sciences. What I have in mind is the way the
propagation of an idea or cluster of ideas can provoke a group of human beings to alter their
concepts of reality, and then by acting accordingly make all sorts of changes in their social
and physical environments. It seems clear to me that human beings have been doing this
ever since the invention of language permitted our ancestors to construct a world of shared
symbolic meanings, and then to begin to adjust individual behavior to fit the needs and
expectations of those around them. Indeed, personal and collective behavior shaped by
shared meanings is what distinguishes us from other species. It is the hallmark of humanity.
Diamond’s effort to make human history “scientific” by emphasizing the tyranny of natural
environments while neglecting the way diverse symbolic worlds shape and reshape human
societies and their physical environments thus seems misguided.
Diamond does not explicitly dismiss conscious human action as a factor in history.
Indeed he recognizes the importance of language and is, in fact, deeply interested in, and
extraordinarily well informed about, the linguistic history of humankind. It is rather that he
seizes upon the early era in the unfolding of human capacities when food production was
getting started some 13,000 years ago, and then, with a single leap of the imagination,
attributes all the contemporary differences among human societies to the relative advantages
particular populations have enjoyed as a result of the differences in the plants and animals
available for domestication in different parts of the earth.
No doubt prevailing tendencies and customs are always constrained by environmental
factors. Yet the vast differences in the wealth and power that different human societies have
at their command today reflect what long chains of ancestors did, and did not, do by way of
accepting and rejecting new ways of thought and action, most of which were in no way
dictated by, or directly dependent on, environmental factors. But Diamond seems to think that
cultural innovation is a mere reflex of numbers, because “all human societies contain
inventive people.” And since, when agriculture was new, local distribution of the numbers of
human beings did depend rather directly on the crops and domesticable animals that
happened to be available on different continents and more isolated islands like New Guinea,
he feels justified in treating the usual subject matter of history, i.e., everything that has
happened since, as no more than a natural process of elaboration whose pace and direction
have been ineluctably dependent upon, as well as derived from, prehistoric differences in
local agricultural resources.
He is, of course, well aware of how his effort to envision humankind as a biological
species competing and cooperating with other species in the food chain departs from
prevailing notions about the human past. “Among other factors relevant to answering Yali’s
question,” he says,
cultural factors and influences of individual people loom large. To take the former first,
human cultural traits vary greatly around the world. Some of that cultural variation is no
doubt a product of environmental variation, and I have discussed many examples in
this book. But an important question concerns the possible significance of local cultural
factors unrelated to the environment. A minor cultural feature may arise for trivial,
temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more
important cultural choices, as is suggested by applications of chaos theory to other
fields of science. Such cultural processes are among history’s wild cards that would
tend to make history unpredictable .
Does unpredictability make human history irredeemably unscientific? Diamond does not
commit himself. Instead he dodges the question by arguing that the significance of “cultural
idiosyncrasies, unrelated to environment and initially of little significance,… constitutes an
important unanswered question” . It can best be approached by concentrating attention
on historical patterns that remain puzzling after the effects of major environmental factors
have been taken into account.
If so, what historians usually concern themselves with is no more than a bothersome
residual left over after the material, biological constraints on human existence have been
scientifically studied and understood.
I do not accept Diamond’s dismissive appraisal of “cultural idiosyncrasies unrelated to
environment”. A more persuasive view might be to suppose that in the early phases of
our history, when technical skills and organizational coordination were still undeveloped,
human societies were indeed closely constrained by the local availability of food, as Diamond
convincingly argues. But with the passage of time, as inventions multiplied and more effective
modes of coordinating collective effort across space and time were adopted, the course of
human history became increasingly autonomous simply because our capacities to reshape
actual environments to suit our purposes became greater and greater. Cultural
idiosyncrasies—systems of meaning constructed out of nothing more tangible than words and
numerical symbols, and largely independent of any external referent whatever—came into
their own. This is the ordinary domain of history; and Diamond is wrong to dismiss it as a
mere reflection of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of
different plants and animals in different parts of the world.
All the same, those initial constraints were never entirely overcome. As we all know,
Amerindians never caught up with Eurasians, still less did the peoples of New Guinea. By
emphasizing those constraints and their enduring effects across subsequent millennia,
Diamond therefore draws attention to an important dimension of the human past. Indeed, his
account of the domestication of plants and animals and the subsequent expansion of
linguistically distinct groups of food-producers at the expense of older populations of hunters
and gatherers is a brilliant tour de force. Except for a few rhetorical exaggerations, his
reconstruction of what happened in neolithic prehistory struck me as very convincing, and
much of what he has to say about developments in South-east Asia and the islands of the
southwest Pacific was nothing short of a revelation.
After posing Yali’s question (and giving its most summary answer) in the prologue,
Diamond divides his book into four parts. The first part presents three short, contrasting
stories, dramatizing the development of diversity among human societies from initial stages of
simplicity and near-uniformity. Accordingly, the first chapter sketches human evolution and
the simple and uniform life of hunting and gathering bands. Then, beginning about 13,000
years ago, food production got going in several different parts of the earth, and inaugurated
radical inequalities among the populations concerned, populations that Diamond sees as the
ancestors of those peoples Yali asked him about.
He then sketches “a natural experiment of history” by showing how diversely
Polynesians exploited the natural resources of different Pacific islands—coral atoll, volcanic
peak, or continental fragment (New Zealand), as the case might be. For example, small
communities in the Chatham Islands turned into peaceable bands of hunters and gatherers
because the climate was too cold for the tropical crops their predecessors had relied upon. At
the opposite extreme, in the tropical and relatively spacious islands of Tonga and Hawaii,
fertile volcanic soils sustained the development of intensive agriculture, radical social
differentiation, organized warfare, and large-scale political consolidation. Diamond uses this
example to show how geography can cause differences among human societies that have a
common starting point, and how such features of civilization as class differences, warfare,
and imperial governance emerge, as it were automatically, from a mere multiplication of
numbers resulting from intensive food production.
In a later chapter, Diamond highlights the proximate factors behind European
expansion in modern times by recounting how Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire of Peru.
Diamond attributes Pizarro’s success to steel weapons, guns, horses, disease germs,
maritime technology, centralized political organization, and superior information, thanks to
writing and printing. “The title of this book,” he observes,
will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors, which also enabled modern
Europeans to conquer peoples of other continents. Long before anyone began
manufacturing guns and steel, others of those same factors had led to the expansions
of some non-European peoples, as we shall see in later chapters.
But we are still left with the fundamental question why all those immediate
advantages came to lie more with Europe than with the New World .
Accordingly, the next two parts of his book address the “questions of ultimate causation” of
contemporary human inequalities. The section called “The Rise and Spread of Food
Production” is the heart of the book. The successive chapter titles show both its scope and
the author’s rhetorical playfulness: “Farmer Power: The roots of guns, germs, and steel”;
“History’s Haves and Have-Nots: Geographic differences in the onset of food production”; “To
Farm or Not to Farm: Causes of the spread of food production”; “How to Make an Almond:
The unconscious development of ancient crops”; “Apples or Indians: Why did peoples of
some regions fail to domesticate plants?”; “Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna
Karenina Principle: Why were most big wild mammal species never domesticated?”; and,
finally, “Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes: Why did food production spread at different rates on
These chapters convincingly show how Eurasia, the combined continents of Europe
and Asia, outstripped Africa, America, Australia, and all the lesser islands of the earth, partly
because domesticable plants and animals in Eurasia were better suited to human needs than
those anywhere else, and partly because the size and shape of Eurasia allowed larger
populations to interchange crops and techniques more quickly and across longer distances
than anywhere else.
Diamond regularly goes out of his way to emphasize the basic importance of food
In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence
much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas)
the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the
development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex,
technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and
animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed
earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents .
Diamond’s account of why relatively few herd animals can be successfully domesticated was
news to me. He explains that the wild ancestors of domesticated large mammals maintained
“a well-developed dominance hierarchy among herd members,” and that this “is ideal for
domestication, because humans in effect take over the dominance hierarchy,” thereby
creating a social structure bringing humans and animals into a new symbiosis . Diamond
goes on to explain why, for this and other reasons, efforts to domesticate apparently
promising species like African zebras, Peruvian vicuñas, and Asian cheetahs all failed; but he
does not discuss why American bison have never been domesticated. Bad disposition?
Tendency to panic? Do these characteristics counteract the social dominance hierarchy
which, I believe, prevails among buffalo herds as it does among wild horses and cattle?
Diamond never raises the question; but the failure of American Indians to domesticate the
buffalo surely magnified their handicaps vis-à-vis European intruders.
Diamond’s observation that some of the major fertile regions of Eurasia lie at
approximately the same latitude, so that crops can travel east and west without having to
adjust to seasonal differences in day-lengths, was also an eye-opener for me. He argues that
this accident of geography facilitated crop exchanges across the breadth of the continent,
thereby enlarging local food supplies, provoking population growth, and in general
accelerating the elaboration of civilized forms of society throughout Eurasia. By contrast, both
the Americas and Africa extend north-south across many degrees of latitude. This meant that
crop exchanges between fertile regions in different latitudes required genetic alterations in
order to synchronize sprouting, flowering, and fruiting with different seasonal patterns. In
particular, he points out that the spread of maize from its heartland in Central America was
hindered by the fact that its growth pattern, linked to changing day-lengths, had to wait many
centuries for random genetic variation to produce plants adapted to different latitudes.
Perhaps Diamond makes too much of Eurasia’s east-west axis. After all, India and
Southeast Asia occupy different latitudes from Europe, the Middle East and north China; and
the deserts and highlands of central Asia pose obstacles to diffusion of crops comparable to
any in Africa or America. All the same, by emphasizing climatic and geographical obstacles to
the diffusion of crops and other useful innovations within the Americas and Africa, he brings
out an important dimension of the past which I had never considered before.
Diamond’s Part Three, entitled “From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel,” condenses
recorded history into four very interesting but radically inadequate chapters—inadequate, that
is, in describing the richness and complexity of the cultural innovations and interactions that
actually took place in Eurasia and beyond from neolithic times to the present. Yet Diamond’s
criteria for inclusion and exclusion are, as usual, clear, logical, and explicit. “Farmers,” he
tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own morepowerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate
elites better able to wage wars of conquest. Hence the next four chapters will explore
how the ultimate cause of food production led to the proximate causes of germs,
literacy, technology, and centralized government .
What he says about how infectious diseases, systems of writing, technological inventions,
and political structures arose among human societies is well informed. But his point of view is
provocative, for he argues that each process was the natural, inevitable result of geography
interacting with increasing human numbers. This leaves scant room for human ideas and
ideals, and it leads Diamond to disregard the emergence of modern science entirely and to
treat religion as a mere device for making complex societies more formidable. “The remaining
way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying
kleptocracy,” he remarks, and goes on to explain:
Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion
brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or
religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together
without killing each other—by providing them with a bond not based on kinship.
Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their
lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as
soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies
or resisting attacks .
A biologist accustomed to studying ants or birds may find such an account of the usefulness
of religion convincing. I do not, and feel that Diamond’s reduction of the tangled web of
recorded history to four natural processes, each apparently evolving independently of the
others, is a clever caricature rather than a serious effort to understand what happened across
the centuries and millennia of world history.
The last part of the book is made up of four far more satisfactory chapters dealing with
the separate histories of Australia and New Guinea, of East Asia, and of the expanse of
Austronesia—the vast region of the Pacific extending from Madagascar to Easter Island, in
which ethnologists find island peoples speaking related languages. This is followed by a brisk
comparison of Eurasian with American history. Once again, much of what Diamond has to
say in these chapters was entirely new to me. I was not previously aware, for example, that
archaeological investigation in the uplands of New Guinea seems to show that inhabitants of
those secluded valleys resorted to food production not very long after the earliest known
development of agriculture in the Middle East; and they may have contributed sugar cane and
bananas to the rest of the world in subsequent centuries.
Diamond’s account of how speakers of Austronesian languages expanded their
domain across enormous distances was also a surprise. Starting from the southern
coastlands of China, he tells us, they first colonized Taiwan, and there presumably invented
outrigger canoes and used these seaworthy craft to occupy an extraordinary variety of new
environments, including Indonesia and part of the Malay peninsula as well as Madagascar, far
across the Indian Ocean to the west, and even the more distant trans-Pacific Polynesian
islands to the east. Linguistic affinities and archaeology provide the basis for this
reconstruction of one of the most far-ranging human migrations of all time. I had never before
understood how its separate episodes combine into a single pattern.
I was less impressed by the epilogue entitled “The Future of Human History as a
Science.” Diamond begins modestly, declaring that
a host of issues raised by Yali’s question remain unresolved. At present, we can put
forward some partial answers plus a research agenda for the future, rather than a fully
developed theory. The challenge now is to develop human history as a science, on a
par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and
evolutionary biology .
He hopes “to quantify further, and thus to establish more convincingly the role of,
intercontinental differences …that appear to be most important.” In addition, “smaller
geographic scales and shorter time scales than those of this book” are needed to discover
why, within Eurasia, Europeans “became politically and economically dominant in the modern
He hopes, or perhaps merely wishes, to discover that environmental factors will suffice
to explain European dominance. But the dozen pages he uses to “at least indicate the
relevance of environmental factors to smaller-scale and shorter-term patterns of history” are
thin and contain several dubious statements and at least one clearly incorrect remark . I
conclude that Diamond knows a lot about prehistory and linguistics, but that he has never
condescended to become seriously engaged with the repeated surprises of world history,
unfolding lifetime after lifetime and turning, every so often, upon single, deliberate acts.
Diamond concludes his book by admitting that
it is much more difficult to understand human history than to understand problems in
fields of science where history is unimportant and where fewer individual variables
operate…. But introspection gives us far more insight into the ways of other humans
than into those of dinosaurs. I am thus optimistic that historical studies of human
societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs—and with profit to
our own society today, by teaching us what shaped the modern world, and what might
shape our future [408-9].
Quite so: but introspection, surely, tells us that conscious purposes and shared meanings
govern much of human behavior; and a science of history that leaves this dimension out, as
Diamond’s does, is unlikely to explain satisfactorily the modern world or any other part of the
‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ June 26, 1997
“Under Alexander the Greatpower finally made its first shift irrevocably westward,” because,
as he goes on to explain, the “ecologically fragile” environments of the Middle East had been
destroyed by human actions. This conveniently disregards the fact that Middle Eastern
Muslims exercised world primacy for about four centuries after 632 AD.?
Copyright © 1963-2013 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.
‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’
JUNE 26, 1997
Jared Diamond, reply by William H. McNeill
IN RESPONSE TO:
History Upside Down from the May 15, 1997 issue To the Editors:
After warmly praising my book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
as “artful, informative, and delightful” [NYR, May 15], the distinguished historian William H.
McNeill identifies two contrasting approaches to history: the traditional emphasis on
autonomous cultural developments that he favors, versus my book’s emphasis on
environmental factors. Without disputing the value of McNeill’s approach, I believe that our
differences arise from the different historical scales that we consider. My focus is on trends
over whole continents since the last Ice Age; his, on much smaller areas for shorter times.
History’s broadest pattern is its different unfolding on different continents over the last
13,000 years. In 11,000 BC, all societies everywhere were bands of preliterate huntergatherers with stone tools. By 1492 AD, that was still true in all of Australia, much of the
Americas, and some of sub-Saharan Africa, but populous Eurasian societies already had
state governments, writing, iron technology, and standing armies. Obviously, that is why
Eurasians (especially Europeans) conquered peoples of other continents. Why did history
unfold that way? Why didn’t Africans instead conquer Eurasia, bringing Native Americans as
That broadest pattern poses history’s biggest unsolved question, which historians
scarcely discuss today. Even so-called world histories focus overwhelmingly on literate
Eurasian states since 3000 BC. Yet the emergence of such societies in Eurasia was no
accident. It had long antecedents with clear environmental causes. No hunter-gatherer
society ever developed states, writing, metal technology, or standing armies. Those
developments depended on food production (agriculture and herding), which arose
independently in different parts of Eurasia by 8000 BC. The resulting dense populations, food
storage, social stratification, and political centralization led in Eurasia to chiefdoms (5500 BC),
metal tools (4000 BC), states (3700 BC), and writing (3200 BC). Agriculture’s rise was much
slower in the Americas, such that writing, states, and so on did not appear until thousands of
years after their Eurasian emergence. Multiplied over succeeding millenia, that huge head
start let Eurasians eventually sail to and conquer peoples of other continents. Hence Guns,
Germs, and Steel discusses the differences among continental environments responsible for
Eurasia’s head start: especially the differences among plant and animal species suitable for
domestication, and among continental areas, isolations, axes, and internal geographic
Mr. McNeill faults me for underemphasizing cultural autonomy—i.e., propagated
cultural developments independent of environmental differences. Naturally, they are
conspicuous in history over shorter times and smaller areas. But, over the hundreds of
generations of post-Ice Age human history, and over a large continent’s thousands of
societies, cultural differences become sifted to approach limits imposed by environmental
constraints. How could cultural autonomy possibly explain the distinctive course of Aboriginal
Australian history? Australia had hundreds of tribes, whose cultures diverged greatly. Some
built villages with canals and intensive fish management, while others were nomads
mastering the most unpredictable deserts on Earth. If any tribe had developed agriculture,
armies, or metal tools, it would thereby have been able to conquer the rest of Australia. But
Was that failure because of independent stultification of all those hundreds of
autonomous cultural developments in Australia? Of course not. Instead, the responsible
environmental factors are clear: Australia is the smallest, least productive, most isolated
continent, with no domesticable wild animal species and almost no such plants. Qualitatively
similar, though quantitatively milder, differences stamped the long-term, continent-wide
differences in human societies among the other continents.
After noting my book’s unusual perspective, Mr. McNeill wonders whether “it is
[instead] historians who err by approaching their subject upside-down, thanks to their myopic
concentration on literate societies and the last 5,000 years of history.” I would answer: yes
and no; it depends on the historical questions being asked. To understand the tragedy of
World War II, you must understand the contrasting cultures of Germany, France, and other
European countries in preceding decades. That is the traditional approach to history, and its
value needs no defense. But if you instead wish to understand why Eurasian societies
destroyed Native American societies, by developments leading after 13,000 years to guns,
germs, and steel in Eurasia but not in the Americas, you must explore the differing biological
and physical environments within which human cultures operated. Alas, the answers depend
critically on biogeography, crop cytogenetics, microbial evolution, animal behavior, and other
fields remote from historians’ training.
Historians’ failure to explain history’s broadest pattern leaves us with a huge moral
gap. In the absence of convincing explanations, many (most?) people resort, consciously or
unconsciously, to racist assumptions: the conquerors supposedly had superior IQ or culture.
That prevalence of racist theories, as loathsome as they are unsupported, is the strongest
reason for studying the long-term factors behind human history.
Department of Physiology
University of California at Los Angeles Los Angeles, California
William H McNeill replies:
Jared Diamond’s letter restates his argument more concisely than I managed to do in my
review, but on the central issue of how important cultural autonomy may be in the long run as
well as in shorter time perspectives I still disagree with him. How can he claim that “over the
hundreds of generations of post-Ice Age human history, and over a large continent’s
thousands of societies, cultural differences become sifted to approach limits imposed by
environmental constraints”? Much more powerfully than any other species, we change the
environment around us; and have done so ever since our ancestors began to control fire and
to use tools. Learned behavior, channeled along innumerable different paths by divergent
cultures, is what allows us to do so. Human beings do indeed often “approach limits imposed
by environmental constraints” only to find a way to overcome and escape those constraints,
as the history of technology repeatedly illustrates. I hasten to add that failures also figure
largely in the historic record when environmental constraints disrupted human schemes and
drastic depopulation and cultural collapse ensued.
Of course Eurasia had basic advantages over the other continents, simply because of
its size and internal variability; nor do I doubt that Europeans took advantage of that fact, and
of their borrowings from parts of Africa and Asia when they crossed the oceans and began
colonizing and exploiting the rest of the earth. But I do deny that their culture was an
automatic product of their environment “sifted” (by what mysterious hand of nature, pray tell?)
across millennia to conform to “environmental constraints” as Diamond so strangely asserts.
Secondly, Diamond accuses historians of failing “to explain history’s broadest
patterns.” I answer that some few historians are trying to do so, among them myself, and with
more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history.
He wants simple answers to processes far more complex than he has patience to investigate.
Brushing aside the autonomous capability of human culture to alter environments
profoundly—and also irreversibly—is simply absurd.
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