Study: Guns, Germs, and Steel was Wrong

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I’m going to continue my streak of posting absolute banger videos about the most viral topical debates by today discussing whether or not a book published nearly thirty years ago was right. Put on your flame resistant suit and get ready for the hottest of hot takes: Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997, was actually wrong and dumb. BOOM. I’ll pause here to give you a moment to pick your monocle up from the floor.

Jared Diamond, if you didn’t know, is a scientist, historian, and polymath who has written several popular science books, with Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies being his most celebrated. That book contains a lot of thought-provoking assertions, with the main thrust being that the reason Eurasian people conquered and displaced people on other continents is largely a result of a geographical advantage. Eurasia is oriented primarily on an East/West axis, which allowed a cultural exchange to happen along a line that was more homogenous in terms of climate and day/night cycle and wildlife that could be easily domesticated. Conversely, Africa and the Americas are primarily oriented on a North/South axis, which did not offer those advantages. QED.

This book BLEW OUR COLLECTIVE MINDS back then, and I’m including myself in that. I read it off a boyfriend’s bookshelf in my early 20s and was very impressed. That book was on every boyfriend’s bookshelf, selling millions of copies, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and even getting a television documentary series in 2005.

You don’t get that kind of popularity without some pushback, and boy was there a lot of it from a lot of different directions. First I’ll mention the racism angle: Diamond went way out of his way to point out that his hypothesis was explicitly ANTI racist. He argued that white societies didn’t end up dominating because they were genetically superior to other races and societies, but because of a bit of geographical luck.

But a lot of people pointed out that while explicitly racist people might not support this hypothesis, implicitly racist people would LOVE it. Because instead of grappling with the idea that white people became dominant due to brutality and the exploitation of others, we can just throw our hands in the air and say “Well, it can’t be helped, can it? This is just how things were always going to shake out. Blame the continents.”

For this reason, there was a lot of hemming and hawing over whether liking the book meant you were a racist or a nonracist. White supremacists hated the book, but so did many antiracist progressives. Moderates loved it though, so obviously it was extremely popular.

I’m not going to spend any more time on this argument because while it is worth interrogating how certain nefarious groups will use and abuse certain hypotheses, today I just want to talk about whether or not the hypothesis itself is, you know, based in reality. Because if it is, sure, then we can talk about what it all means. But if it isn’t, we can put it in the bin and move on to more interesting discussions, like ranking all of Alan Cumming’s outfits on the latest season of Traitors SPOILER ALERT they’re all S-tier.

Since Guns, Germs, and Steel was published, the other pushback it received was from anthropologists and other scientists, the kindest of whom pointed out that while Diamond has some interesting ideas, he ultimately fails to support his hypothesis with any hard data and he ignores social elements of history that surely had as much if not more influence on how cultures developed than simple geographic luck. Other scientists weren’t quite so even handed. As an example, here’s David Correia, who managed to publish an article in a peer reviewed journal titled simply “Fuck Jared Diamond,” which opened:

“Jared Diamond is back at it, once again trading in the familiar determinist tropes that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel. That dull book was chockfull of the bad and the worse, the random and the racist. At best it is just silly, as when he offers unsupported, and unsupportable, assertions such as his get-off-my-lawn grouse that children today are not as smart as in the recent past and television is to blame. At worst, it develops an argument about human inequality based on a determinist logic that reduces social relations such as poverty, state violence, and persistent social domination, to inexorable outcomes of geography and environment.

“Arguments such as these have made him a darling of bourgeois intellectuals, who have grown tired of looking meanspirited and self-serving when they make their transparently desperate efforts to displace histories of imperialism back on its victims. They need a pseudointellectual explanation for inequality in order to sustain the bourgeois social order that guarantees their privilege. This they found in Guns, Germs and Steel.

“His crime spree continues with 2012s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”

That’s right, that was just a drive by excoriation of Guns Germs and Steel as an introduction to an excoriation of his latest book. God damn.

Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes are the anthropologists who used to blog at Savage Minds, who published several thoughtful rebuttals to Diamond’s hypotheses. For instance, Kerim Friedman writes that the inequality between nations is less important than the inequality within them. For a good distillation on the arguments I recommend this article from Inside Higher Ed that links to a lot of great critiques.

I tell you all this to make it clear that almost immediately, there was a lot of valid criticism of Diamond’s book, and over the past 27 years there hasn’t been much to support his assertions. And the reason I’m talking about it all today is because a new study has just been published that directly tested that primary assertion. The title gives away what they found: “Geography is not destiny: A quantitative test of Diamond’s axis of orientation hypothesis,” published at the start of this year in Evolutionary Human Sciences.

An international team of ecologists and cultural anthropologists examined a metric shit ton of cultural, environmental, and linguistic data to trace the spread of cultural traits across 1,094 mainland traditional societies in different geographic regions to try to nail down how much the geography of the land influenced them. And they actually found that geography really DID impact the spread of certain traits, like domesticated animals and subsistence types,

agriculture intensity, and major crop type. Geography didn’t significantly matter when it came to many other cultural traits, like sexual segregation of labor, games and rituals.

And the biggest takeaway was that despite geography impacting the spread of some cultural traits, the researchers found that the geography of Eurasia did NOT give the inhabitants any overall advantage compared to that of other continents. They conclude that, “we have shown that although Diamond’s intuition that ecological similarity facilitates cultural transmission is probably correct, these ecological effects are unlikely to be as influential as Diamond intuited. Moreso, we found no support for his argument that key areas of Eurasia are more ecologically homogeneous than comparable sites in other regions of the world. Our findings point out that latitude, like genetics and ecology, is not destiny (Blaut, 1999). We echo earlier concerns about the perils of single factor explanations and suggest that chance, and perhaps factors that promoted colonial empires, need to be more seriously considered as potentially important drivers of human inequality.”

In other words, beware the extremely popular Popular Science bestseller. It’s frustrating that it seems like in order to publish a massive hit, scientists and science writers need to flush nuance down the toilet. No one wants to read about how geography has a minor role in how cultures evolve. We want to read a mindblowing fact to drop at a dinner party: did you know that the only reason why the average American is better off than the average Nicaraguan is because of the plants that grew at 53 degrees latitude ten thousand years ago? Wow! So nothing to do with Ronald Reagan secretly and illegally funding and arming the rightwing terrorist rebels that overthrew the socialist government there? That IS a fun fact, thank you. Excuse me, I need to find the restroom. To get away from you, and also to throw up.

Anyway, kudos to these researchers for performing a massive amount of data crunching to verify what the experts have been saying for three decades. Even though it’s not a shocking result, it’s good science, and you gotta love that.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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