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Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
United Kingdom

Writing - Commentary

Guns, Germs, and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies




                        In the past two thousand years, various human societies have developed quite diversely and faced different consequences. Whereas some have flourished, others have been assimilated, exterminated, or declined. Some have created or adopted incredible innovations or underwent great social changes. Others never did, retaining previous routines until recent centuries. Even today, different societies obviously have different degrees of influence and affluence. How is it that human societies developed in such varied ways and rates? Why did some create advanced technologies, written languages, deadly diseases, and other things? What are the influencing factors that have set that led our societies to their current states?

                        In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond shows the factors that affect human societies’ development. Starting with environmental factors, these influence agriculture, population, technology, disease, and social infrastructure. Together they ultimately determined the fates of today’s various societies.

Factors that Influence Human Societies' Development

                        The most fundamental factor in Diamond’s list was food production. Human societies with sufficient, stable food production can support more people. This in turn can lead to various other developments for these societies, as explained later. Yet agriculture itself was developed or adopted in different ways and at different rates among human societies. Why is that so? Diamond explains that such discrepancies in agricultural development stems from the different natural resources available to societies. Particular places on Earth had differing collections of plants and animals for domestication. Some were easily domesticated and modified to suit our needs, while others proved impossible to farm. These largely determined which societies initially developed agriculture.

                        Once farming took hold in certain places, like the Fertile Crescent and China, it began to spread to other societies. However, there were various environmental factors that impeded its diffusion. Geographical factors prevent physical distribution of domesticated species, while climatic ones affect their viability in foreign lands. In general, horizontal distribution (along Earth’s equator) of agriculture is easier than vertical distribution (between Earth’s poles). Horizontal distributions place livestock in relatively similar climates and other conditions. Conversely, vertical distribution exposes livestock to highly variable conditions, inhibiting agricultural diffusion. Furthermore, societies may reject outright farming if other strategies (hunting) prove more profitable. These factors determined the rates at which societies developed or adopted agriculture, or at all.

                        Diamond then argues that the farming and larger populations spurred other developments that further contributed to differences among societies. Among them are diseases, which greatly affected the fates of human societies. Many of mankind’s diseases, it turns out, originated from microbes of domesticated animals; a side effect of agriculture. Hence societies with agriculture – hence more domesticated animals – also had more diseases. In addition, these societies tend to have so-called “crowd diseases”. Such acute, epidemic diseases thrive in large, dense populations that constantly provided new generations for infection. So societies with agriculture – hence large populations – had more deadly crowd diseases. That is why so-called ‘advanced societies (densely populated farmers) had more deadly diseases than ‘primitive’ ones (sparsely populated hunters).

                        Other developments triggered by food production include centralized political organization. As populations grow, centralized power maintains sufficient order for a coherent, single society. Some of these societies then developed writing for their accounting needs (to track food stores, for example). Other societies with the same needs either modify these writings or are inspired to make their own. Furthermore, sedentary lifestyles permitted by agriculture allowed people to specialize in inventing, and to create elaborate (hence non-portable) products. Larger populations, both within home and accessible nearby societies, also meant more opportunities for creating or adopting neighboring technologies. However, whether societies actually accept technologies depend on a whole list of factors, making the outcome more or less random.

                        These explain why certain societies developed agriculture and all other subsequent developments differently, or at all. Ultimately, all of the various developments aforementioned depended on the distribution of existing natural resources. Wildlife available for domestication led to food production, hence larger populations. These in turn can lead to diseases, writing, technology, and centralized political organizations of modern states. These developments can spread to from one society to another, but only if natural conditions permit. Hence developmental differences are in a large part determined by external, environmental factors. Diamond then applied his ideas to explain outcomes in various societies’ history, explaining what led them to their eventual outcomes.

Reasonable Explanations

                        I agree that environmental factors, which allowed agriculture and other developments, are fundamental determinants of current societies’ fates. It is quite plausible that the Diamond’s chain of causations led to differences in today’s societies. However, proving them with certainty may not be possible. Human history has many aspects that have yet to be discovered and deciphered. Some may be lost forever. So it may be impossible to get a complete picture of our history to verify Diamond’s theories. Still, as they stand by themselves, Diamond’s general principles seem to reasonably explain history fairly well.

                        Also, by showing what potential factors may influence human societies’ development, Diamond’s ideas also indirectly challenges racial superiority. Differences between societies’ various developments are due to environmental factors. As such, external factors are what largely determined who developed agriculture, technology, and other things, not racial superiority. While Diamond’s ideas may not be wholly proven, it is reasonable to doubt that certain races are superior. The different human races have only diverged relatively recently in evolutionary terms. So it is quite improbable that major evolutionary changes in human intelligence or other traits have occurred. Diamond’s ideas show that societies’ developmental differences can be explained without inferring racial superiority.

Human History as a Science

                        In addition, Diamond advocated that study of human history to be seriously taken as a science. Often the subject is treated as more or less as belonging to humanities. Experiments, which are central to science, are difficult to perform on human societies. Yet various scientific fields look back into history, like paleontology, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, among others. Their investigative methods are scientific, yet direct experiments are often impossible as well. They mainly use so-called natural experiments, where natural events are studied. So the study of human history should also be taken as a science, a study of various events of human societies.

                        Personally I see no reason why human history should not be taken as science. Looking into our history allows us to understand how societies are influenced by natural and social factors. That may allow societies to make better decisions to yield desired outcomes in the future. Using scientific methods shall only increase our ability to do so. Apart from that, studying the history of our societies can reveal more about us as humans. After all, science includes studies of various histories, from that of other species’ like dinosaurs to the cosmos’. It would be peculiar to ignore our own history, which is probably the most relevant to us.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 1,139 words )


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