The premise of Diamond´s book is that inequality has emerged in human history primarily as a result of conquest, which enables some societies to expand their territory and take control over subjugated populations. So the question becomes, what enables some societies to conquer others?
Diamond maintains that the conquering societies in human history were large and politically centralized. Such societies were able to support specialists who are professional soldiers and who develop technologically advanced weapons, and they had a hierarchical political structure that is able to mobilize human resources in the cause of conquest. In addition, the conquering societies had evolved a partial immunity to contagious diseases. And they had horses, which Diamond describes as the Sherman tank of ancient warfare. Diamond uses the phrase “guns, germs, and steel” as shorthand for these characteristics.
Diamond applies this perspective to the conquest of the indigenous peoples of America by Spanish conquistadores. Spanish weaponry was more advanced, principally with respect to their steel swords and steel armor, whereas the indigenous had not discovered iron, and their weapons were made of stone, bronze, or wood. In addition, the indigenous were disadvantaged by the lack of horses, a situation that had occurred as a consequence of the fact that most large mammal species in America had become extinct thousands of years earlier, during the first human migrations to America. Diamond also explains the impact of disease on the conquest of the indigenous peoples of America, a consequence of the greater evolution of natural immunities to infectious diseases among the populations of Europe, Asia, and Africa as against those of America. In the case of the Inca, an epidemic of small pox had spread overland across South America as a result of contact with the Spanish in Panama and Columbia. The epidemic had killed the Inca emperor and his designated heir, instigating a battle for control of the throne between two factions. Thus the Spanish did not face a united Inca empire.
So the European settlers and conquerors were more advanced than the indigenous populations of America in terms of “guns, germs, and steel,” that is, in regard to those characteristics that are decisive in relation to conquest.
In the next post, we will address the question: Why are some societies more advanced than others with respect to “guns, germs, and steel”?
Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, Wallerstein, world-system, world-economy, conquest, development, underdevelopment, guns germs steel, Jared Diamond