Inequality is the subject of an ever-increasing amount of literature in the contemporary world, often focused on the disparity in wealth between nations. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS), has forwarded an explanation of how such inequality arose. This essay will assess his analysis. The contention here is that while he has produced a persuasive account of the disparities of the world, his evaluation is inadequate. The importance of bio-geography in shaping the contemporary world is
unquestionable, but Diamond has given it too much weight to a subject that has multiple causes, many of which cannot be accounted for by the physical environment. By comparing the work of other writers on the subject and engaging in a detailed examination of cultural factors, I highlight the flaws in Diamond’s work as a comprehensive account of world history and inequality. Three important issues need addressing before I begin this essay. First, the definition of inequality used here is that of the disparity between regions. It is duly noted that the term can be defined in a number of different ways, and that dimensions such as intra-national inequality can contribute to the economic performance of a nation, but it is perhaps more important to assess Diamond’s claims under his
own definition first and foremost . His explanation is of broad inequality between continents and so this is where our focus will also lie. Secondly, the subject of responses to inequality must be raised. There is an important link between poverty and inequality, connecting the subject closely with development research and policy, an area on which GGS is silent. Some feel his ‘geography as destiny’ approach leaves us with something close to nihilism; human inequality as preordained . This is an unfair criticism. Admittedly, his essay might have been more forthcoming about normative reflections on the situation, but its lack of attention to remedy does not make him a fatalist; it is in keeping with the positivist goal of explanation. I will assess this work against its proposed aims, not be sidetracked with speculative judgements about the author. This is connected to the fact that Diamond’s focus is on the broad course of history, not the complex picture of the globalised world. Again, the focus in this essay will be to reflect on his arguments in the light of his professed goals. I will therefore not engage in any depth with contemporary world dynamics: they deserve are a discussion of their own. Guns, Germs, and Steel 2
Diamond’s explanation of inequality is neatly summed up in his epilogue. He notes four key sets of variables. First, there were ‘continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication’ . Of the very few animals and plants that could be tamed, Eurasia was most well-endowed due to its size and diversity, and because it did not suffer a large mammal extinction phase when humans first came into contact with them in the late-Pleistocene era, as happened on the other continents . Food production, Diamond asserts, is the necessary basis for all non-foodproduction activity, such as political organisation, technological development, and military build-up, as it provides surplus food freeing others from former hunter-gathering duties . The second factor favouring Eurasia was ‘its east-west major axis and its relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers’, which greatly enhanced the possibility of ‘diffusion and migration’ . Both crops and livestock depend heavily on climate and therefore are much more easily transferred across latitude than longitude . Furthermore, Eurasia is home to much less dramatic environmental obstacles which could bar political and linguistic unification, or communication, and therefore complicate diffusion . Connected to this is a third factor: the possibility of inter-continental diffusion. The continents lacking...