By Michael Tabone of Evolution of Economics
Jared Diamond outlines in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel various possible determinants for civilizations growth in various parts of the world. A great variable brought up by Diamond is that geographic proximity is a determining factor in the success or failure of a civilization. Diamond uses geographical anthropology to show historical factors of animal and plant domestication along similar environmental conditions. Since societies who share commonality along latitude and on the same land mass more than likely to have similar crops, animals and seasonal living, they are more than likely going to have overlapping developments in their societal growth.
I personally agree with Diamond that geography has much to do with a society’s success or failure. The concept of which mammals and not only their availability but ability to be domesticated was very persuasive to me, with the major five being the cow, sheep, goat, pig and horse (Diamond, 1997, p. 159). These animals were not only utilized as beasts of burden, food sources, war instruments and other pure survival intents, but freed up humans from some basic hunter-gatherer endeavors which allowed for more innovation and specialization in other capital appropriations (these areas not addressed by Diamond very well).
Another great point was that “indigenous crops from different parts of the globe were not equally productive” (Diamond, 1997, p. 147). When looking at specific places like New Guinea, we can see that being absent of different crops can lead to protein deficiencies, while a society in the Fertile Crescent would have more species to choose from which provide a better nutritional base. Again, when the basics of survival are systemized due to these resources, than other human advancements can occur.
This leads us to the portion of Diamond’s arguments of population density. Diamond proposes that a societies population density is determined largely by it being based on a hunter gather society or a farming/”root based” society. I believe Diamond is on to something, and while he does point out the problem with disease in higher populated societies, apparently much of the world was and is willing to deal with the tradeoff of “crowd diseases” regardless of past historical events (Diamond, 1997, p. 205).
These factors shape human action in all geographic land masses and saying that “geographic determinism” is or is not what lead to a downfall/success of a society is an over simplification (Diamond, “Geographic Determinism”). I believe many of Diamonds detractors often use “geographic determinism” as a pejorative term against his work, because Diamond does at times have incongruent application of rationality to his theory. As an example, in Collapse, Diamond uses the examples of the Vikings setting up winter settlements on targeted coasts so they can begin raiding more efficiently the next season (Diamond, 2005, p. 184). This is a perfect example of human beings acting in contrast to geography through the technology the society has amassed. While geography may have played a part in the capital stocks (grain, animals, natural resources, etc) that helped shape a society, geography being the only factor which determines societal action is a theory left wanting.
Human beings innovating ways in which to survive or achieve goals is often overlooked by Diamond, even when he mentions them specifically. I feel this is because he is metaphorically holding a hammer and looking for nails when screws, hooks, wires, connectors, holes and plugs are also in the mix. Diamond is not looking at these as a possible variable to be incorporated into his “law” or overarching theory of societal growth/collapse because they cannot be so simply squeezed into “nice to measure” parameters as his scientific background. Diamond even writes how “purposeful experiments” cannot be carried out in the social sciences, even if he wishes this were not so (Diamond, 1997, p. 55).
The geography of a society provides a stimulus of individuals to action, provides the means of achieving that which those stimulus have provoked and can be a limiting factor in achieving those ends by restraining means. A society which can work together in order to take of basic survival of small groups can progress into larger societies though the accumulation of capital. This capital saving of individuals in the community is largely determined by the geographic limitations Diamond explores, but more often than not Diamond shows how even the worst off society (in terms of natural resources) finds innovative ways for survival. This innovation alone can in some ways be the evolutionary next step to the survival of the society, or its supposed “mastery” over another natural obstacle of man’s survival.
Diamond’s theories from both Guns, Germs and Steel as well as Collapse seem to me great starting points for investigation into the formation and fall of societies, but I would not be bold enough to say they are a complete treatment on the subjects as I believe that could be an intellectual fatal conceit of his proposed massive undertaking.
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Apples or Indians. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies (p. 147). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Diamond, J. (n.d.). Geographic Determinism. Retrieved September 25, 2016, from
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Lethal Gift of Livestock. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies (p. 204). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Up to the Starting Line. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies (p. 55). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Diamond, J. M. (1997). Zebras, Unhappy Marriages and the Anna Karenina Principle. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies (p. 159). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Diamond, J. M. (2005). The Viking Prelude and Fugues. In Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed (p. 184). New York: Viking.