By Jared Diamond, 1997.

My ex-colleague Mike mentioned it years ago, so I know the basic points. When I joined the Scientific American book club I needed to buy a book, so I searched the catalog and saw this book. Some negative review prevented me from buying it but evoked my interests to read it. Now with my rediscovery of the great public library and inspiration from Gong Rui, I’m back into this page turning thing.

The book starts with a question from a Papua New Guinean: “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”, then sets out to answer it. In fact many chapters are organized as Q&A, which creates a fluid flow, but may ignore/gloss over stuff. Some negative reviews say the book is not original, but to me it’s all new information anyway.

Part I. From Eden to Cajamarca

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About 7m years ago, a population of African apes broke up and evolved into gorillas, chimps, and humans. About 1.7m years ago we have Homo erectus with only half the brain size. It spreads into Asia and Europe, and evolved into Homo sapiens about 500k years ago. One further dead-end branch is the Neanderthals. Between 100k-50k years ago there’s a Great Leap Forward when human, termed Cro-Magnons, developed fine stone tools and arts. The people spreaded into Americas is called Clovis.

One significant thing, common to the Americas and Pacific islands, is that people spreaded there much later than Eurasia, so they already had advanced tools and superior hunting skills when they arrived, and they exterminated most native large animal species so there’s nothing left to domesticate.

On Nov 16, 1532, 168 Spanish soldiers defeated 80k Inca army led by their emperor Atahuallpa at Cajamarca, Peru. Atahuallpa was captured (the book cover is a painting of the event) and killed after a huge ransom was paid. The Inca Empire soon fell.

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Part II. The Rise and Spread of Food Production

In several locations where food source is abundunt, nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down to become sedentary. Plant domestication occured through involuntary human-aided natural selection on the wild ancesters of wheat, barley, rice, etc.

The Fertile Crescent (from Israel through Syria to nortern Iraq and Iran) is the earliest (8500 BC, China 2nd by 7000 BC) and largest area of farming. The Mediterranean climate causes the plants to grow large seeds during the hot dry summer, and sprout when the rain comes. Compared with other places (other parts of Mediterranean, California, Chile, South Africa, and southewest Australia) with similar climate, the Fertile Crescent had the largest area, largest seasonal change, and a wide range of altitudes and topographies, yielding a large diversity of species and a high percentage of annuals, and many large domesticatable animals (goat, sheep, pig, cow).

The Anna Karenina principle is at work for animal domistication: in order to be domisticated, the animal needs to have several straits, without anyone it would be nearly impossible. Factors and species that fail them:

  • Diet: herbivore or omnivore, and not too picky. Kaola, panda are too picky.
  • Growth rate: fast enough. Gorilla and elephant grow too slowly.
  • Captive breeding: can mate in captivity. Cheetah needs large area and long time for courtship.
  • Disposition: can’t be too nasty. Bear, African buffalo, hippo, Asiatic ass (onager), zebra are all too dangerous.
  • Tendency to panic: can’t be too nervous and run away when in danger/captivity. Gazelle would bash itself to death on wall and fence.
  • Social structure: need live in herds that occupy overlapping home ranges and maintain a dominance hierarchy. It’s natural for human to become herd leader. Deer and antelope are territorial so multiple herds can’t be confined to the same small area.

    This is also a crucial factor for developing germs that cause deadly epidemics. Most germs that kill human in mass were developed from animal herds, where the germs themselves evolved to be most effective in crowds.

Modern farm crops in America have multiple ancestors that were independently domisticated in several places, because they spread rather slow, whereas crops originated from Fertile Crescent and China spread very fast across Eurasia, causing preemptive domistication: there’s no need to dosmisticate alternative wild plant once a good crop is readily available.

One Response to “Guns, Germs, and Steel”


  1. I have been very curious about the question of domestication fo animals and plants – most especially the inexplicable absence of suitable species in southern South America.

    I have stated to others who have read the book that if I could I would encourage Diamond to write a whole book to explain the absence of domesticable plants in southern South America, especially the mediterranean zone of Chile, which on paper is perhaps the best candidate even in his terms in the world for the rise of civilisation with its fertile soil, suitable climate for domesticate evolution, and extremely rich fisheries.

    One curious point asked by a review of the book but not actually answered is “Why were Eurasian pigs domesticated but not African wild pigs or American peccaries?” If you read carefully, you will see no mention is made of African wild pigs or peccaries – and all the information I have suggests that in fact the reason for lack of domestication is in fact different for the three species of African wild pig.

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