Critique: Guns Germs Steel

Jared Diamond’s 2001 work, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, while incredibly popular amongst the general public, has come under scrutiny by many in academia.  Diamond’s premise that environmental determinism is responsible for the fates of various societies has been deemed to be lacking in several areas. Gabriel Judkins, Marissa Smith, and Eric Keys, as well as social scientist, Andrew Sluyter attest that Diamond’s argument simply poses a “a simple overall explanation for a complex phenomenon”(1) . “Determinism within human-environment research and the rediscovery of environmental causation” addresses the idea that the relationships individuals and societies are believed to have with the environment evolves as the understanding of the human condition changes.  Diamond’s environmental determinist stance is regarded as a dated theory. From approximately 1890-1920, such a theory was used to explain the human condition under the assertion that “environmental factors were… the determinative cause of racial differences, cultural practices, moral values, ingenuity and the ultimate capabilities of any given population”(2) .  Such a theory has been criticized by modern ideals for studying and defining culture, which focus upon the agency of individual within a society and household. Behaviouralism replaces environmental determinism as the believed driving-force for particular evolution and development in the analysis of such agency. The article further references the “moment of structuralism”, which began in 1980/1990 and summarized both the criticism found in Diamond’s work and the alternative theories proposed by his critics. Environmental as well as social forces and the agency of humanity are all regarded as responsible in the development and domination of the different societies of the world

Both critiques find additional gaps in Diamond’s logic as well.  Sluyter suggests that Diamond largely ignores the importance that colonization had upon the world and its various cultures, especially in terms of domestication and agricultural efforts. Sluyter is troubled because he believes Diamond to have neglected almost five centuries of colonialism to help strengthen his premise(3) .  Likewise, the authors of the “Determinism within human–environment research and the rediscovery of environmental causation” article suggest that Diamond’s perception of culture and the idea that more traditional societies have been held back due to geography is reflective of the linear model of culture, which suggests that all cultures will progress in the same direction through the same stages of hunter/gather, pastoralism, sedentary and agriculture and finally emerge as complex, stratified societies if given the opportunity(4) .  The authors again stress individualism and human agency in addition to environment as a reason for global and historical cultural differences.

Critiques of Jared Diamond’s work focus upon his supposed premise that “rejects any complex notion of the influence of socio-cultural variations (and) asserts that random arrangements of environmental factors must have determined which societies have become the most successful”.  They use the modern definitions of culture and evolution, which focus upon individualism and acts of human agency as deterministic factors while not rejecting the importance of the environment in the development and outright “success” or “failure” of cultures. Additionally, they reference phenomena such as domestication and colonization which are addressed minimally in the excerpt of Diamond’s work regarding Easter Island.  It is argued that Diamond’s work has strikingly similar arguments to those that justified racism and colonialism.  According to Diamond’s critics, the main difference between these beliefs and his perspective is “that instead of genes determining wealth and power, environment determines genes plus wealth and power” and this to his critics is a flawed, underdeveloped, and overly simplistic argument.  

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