Guns, Germs and Steel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 13 17:47:59 MST 2001

Concluding paragraphs from the chapter on Jared Diamond in Jim Blaut's "8
Eurocentric Historians":

Diamond’s argument proceeds inexorably, deterministically, to the
conclusion that Europe and China were fated to be the winners in the
world-wide historical competition because of their environmental
advantages. Europe was fated to be the ultimate winner, mainly because
Europe’s environment is superior to China’s (recall the subtitle of the
book: "The Fates of Human Societies"). History centers itself on temperate
Eurasia, and the two regions of Eurasia that have the best environmental
conditions for agriculture—for the origins of agriculture, and thereafter
for food production—ate Europe and China. Diamond sees Europe as the
natural extension of the Fertile Crescent; the latter region lost out
because of its lower ecological productivity and history shifted westward
to Europe. So we end up with just the two finalists: Europe and China.

China, says Diamond, dominated the eastern part of Eurasia as Europe did
the western part. China’s dominance began with the Neolithic era in north
China. Diamond states as fact some extremely uncertain, in part quite
dubious, archaeological hypotheses to argue that an agricultural revolution
in central China led to the spread of farming peoples southward, displacing
hunter-gatherer peoples in island Southeast Asia—thus, to show that there
was here a north—south axis that had to favor temperate China at the
expense of tropical Southeast Asia (and islands beyond). But it is by no
means certain that farming is older in China than in Southeast Asia. Recall
that the earliest known dates for agriculture in New Guinea are roughly as
old as those for China, and recall how hard it is to get evidence on
agricultural origins in humid-tropical regions like New Guinea. Moreover,
rice was probably domesticated in India or Southeast Asia, not China, and
may be as old as staple crops first domesticated in north China. Diamond
reinforces his argument with data from historical linguistics that provide
what he thinks is solid evidence that all Austronesian (roughly,
Malayo-Poiynesian languages derived originally from mainland China, via
Taiwan. Indeed there is not much doubt that Austronesian languages
originated somewhere in that region, but it could have been in any or all
portions of the coastal regions stretching from south China down to Vietnam
and Thailand perhaps even from adjoining areas that were inundated by
rising sea levels and are now shallow portions of the Sunda Shelf. (And
Taiwan, be it noted, is also tropical, as is the south coast of China.) In
sum, Diamond argues that China always had priority and centrality in all of
eastern Eurasia, and history elsewhere in that region mainly reflects
diffusions and migrations from a temperate China core. This is mostly
speculation, but Diamond’s theory requires that it be true.

Finally we come to Europe. Most of the argument of Guns, Germs, and Steel
is devoted to proving the primacy throughout history of midlatitude
Eurasia, and within this region of Europe (supposed heir to the Fertile
Crescent) and China. If the argument stopped there, we would have a sort of
Eurasia-centrism, not Eurocentrist. But Diamond’s purpose is to explain
"the broadest patterns of history," and so he must answer this final
question: why did Europe, not Eurasia as a whole, or Europe and China in
tandem, rise to become the dominant force in the world? Diamond’s answer
is, predictably, the natural environment.

The "ultimate" causes of Europe’s rise, relative to China, are a set of
qualities that Europe’s environment possesses and China’s environment
lacks, or that China possesses, but in lesser degree. The "ultimate"
environmental causes then produce the "proximate" causes—which are cultural:

"[The] proximate factors behind Europe’s rise [are] its development of a
merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its
failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its
Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry."

This is, of course, utterly conventional Eurocentric history. We have
discussed this model at length in earlier chapters of this book and in
Volume 1, and I do not need to repeat here the reasons that I consider it
to be invalid. I do need to point out, however, that there is now a huge
literature that systematically questions each of these economic, political,
and intellectual explanations for the rise of Europe, much of this
literature consisting of Eurocentric arguments of one sort attacking
Eurocentric arguments of some other sort—yet Diamond ignores all this
scholarship and simply announces that these (and a few other cultural
things) are the true "proximate" causes of the rise of Europe. Evidently
Diamond views the matter as settled. The problem, for him, is to find the
underlying environmental causes.

Topography is the key—or, more precisely, topographic relief and the shape
of the coastline.

"Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that
approach islands in their isolation. . . . China’s coastline is much
smoother. ...    Europe is carved up ... by high mountains (the Alps,
Pyrenees, Carpathians, and Norwegian border mountains), while China’s
mountains east of the Tibetan Plateau are much less formidable barriers."

These observations about physical geography—they are rather inaccurate, as
we will see—lead into one of the truly classical arguments of Eurocentric
world history: the theory of Oriental despotism. This is the belief that
the so-called "Oriental" civilizations—essentially China, India, and the
Islamic Middle East—have always been despotic; that Europeans alone
understand and enjoy true freedom; that Europe alone, therefore, has had
the historical basis for intellectual innovation and social progress. Back
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the seemingly obvious fact
that Europeans alone knew freedom was attributed (by Europeans) to the fact
that they alone believed in the True God. After the mid-nineteenth century,
European historians invoked secular causes, namely the three foundation
arguments that were mentioned at the beginning of this chapter: race,
essential culture, and environment. Most of the Eurocentric historians
discussed in this book invoke both culture and environment as complementary
causes, For instance, Michael Mann (Chapter 6) thinks that the ancient
Greeks invented rational thought and the ancient Germanic tribes invented
the love of freedom; thereafter, true European freedom, democracy,
individualism, and so on, were brought to fruition thanks mainly to
Europe’s uniquely favored environment. Jared Diamond looks to the
environment as the true cause and dredges up a pair of old
environmentalistic theories, adding nothing new to them, about how physical
geography is the main reason why Europe, not China, acquired the cultural
attributes that gave it ultimate hegemony: "a merchant class, capitalism .
. . patent protection for inventions.. . failure to develop absolute
despots and crushing taxation," and so on.

Here is how it works, according to Diamond. China is not broken up
topographically into isolated regions because it does not have high
mountains like the Alps and does not have a coastline sufficiently
articulated to isolate nearby coastal regions from one another. This
explains the fact that China became unified culturally and politically
2,000 years ago. Europe, on the other hand, could not be unified culturally
and politically because of its indented coastline (its "capes and bays," in
the traditional theory) and because of its sharply differentiated
topographic relief (its "many separate geographical cores," in the
traditional theory). Europe therefore developed into a mosaic of separate
cultures and states. China’s geographically determined unity led it to
became a single state, an empire; and an empire must, by nature, be
despotic. Why? Because a person cannot leave one state and emigrate to
another to avoid oppression, since there is only the one state, the Chinese
empire. Hence, there is continued oppression of the populace and
centralized manipulation of the economy. So: no freedom, little development
of individualism, little incentive to invent and innovate (taxation,
political control, and so on), no development of free markets, and no
development of a polity resembling the modern democratic nation-state.
These "harmful effects of unity" (p. 413) led China to begin to fall behind
Europe some five hundred years ago. Diamond concedes that China had indeed
been innovative in earlier times; it had even begun to move toward an
industrial revolution during the early Middle Ages; but China’s oppressive
imperial despotism led it to stagnate after the fourteenth or fifteenth
century. Europe, by comparison, continued to forge ahead. Therefore Europe

The geography is wrong and so is the history. Southern Europe has the
requisite "capes and bays" (or peninsulas) and separate "geographic cores."
But the historical processes that Diamond is discussing here pertain to the
last 500 years of history, and most of the major developments during this
period, those that are relevant to his argument, occurred mainly in
northern and western Europe, which is rather flat: the North European Plain
from France to Russia; the extension of that plain across France almost to
the Spanish border; southern England (which is barely separated from the
European mainland). Even central Europe is not really isolated from
northern and western Europe. There are few significant coastline
indentations between Bordeaux and Bremen. If we look at the distribution of
population throughout this region, there is no isolation and not very much
development of cores. The crystallization of northern Europe’s tiny feudal
polities into modern states occurred for reasons that had little to do with
topographic differentiation; the boundaries of most of these states do not
reflect topographic barriers, and most of their cultural cores are not
ecological cores. The idea that the pattern of multiple states somehow
favored democracy is a misconception: each of these states was as despotic
as—probably much more despotic than—China, and emigration from one polity
to another was not substantial enough to have had any effect on the
development of democracy. Further, what Diamond calls (euphemistically)
Europe’s "competing" states often were warring states; probably China was
more peaceful during most centuries than Europe was (perhaps even during
the Ming—Qing disruptions), and an environment of peace surely is more
conducive to economic development than one of war. And finally, Diamond’s
view of Chinese society is based on outdated European beliefs. China did
not stagnate in the late Middle Ages: Chinese development continued without
interruption, and Europe did not outdo China in technology, in the
development of market institutions, and indeed in the ordinary person’s
standard of living until the eighteenth century. In short, the idea that
China’s topography led to China’s achievement of a unified society and
polity, and that this unity somehow led to despotism and stagnation, is
simply not supported by the facts.

Diffusion is also supposed by Diamond to have played a large role in the
triumph of Europe over China. Throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond
argues that geographical barriers to diffusion are one of the main reasons
why some societies failed to progress. But China, he argues, had fewer
barriers to diffusion than Europe had. Should China, therefore, have
progressed more rapidly than barrier-ridden Europe? How does he get around
this contradiction? First, he introduces a tortuous theory to the effect
that, not only is too little diffusion a hindrance to development, but so,
too, is too much diffusion. Like the second of the Three Bears, Europe had
just the right balance between too little differentiation and too much, and
this, mysteriously, led to more intense diffusion of innovations in Europe
than in China. Second, Diamond claims—another traditional argument—that
Europe’s lack of political unity somehow favored the diffusion of
innovations, whereas surely it did the opposite. Political boundaries are
barriers to human movement; also, they frequently correlate with linguistic
boundaries and thus can be barriers to communication. The third argument is
largely an implicit one, though clearly evident nonetheless. Diamond claims
that social and technological development moved steadily westward from the
Fertile Crescent to Europe. He states (incorrectly) that writing, invented
in the Fertile Crescent, was merely a tool of the ancient despotic
bureaucracies until the alphabet diffused westward to Greece, where, he
says (again incorrectly), the Greeks added all the vowels (not just some of
them) and thereby transformed it into an instrument of creative writing, of
innovation, abstract thought, poetry, and the rest. In essence, this is an
argument that intellectual progress diffused westward and became
consequential when writing reached Europe. This must be the basis for his
argument that "the Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition of empirical inquiry"
is one of the reasons why Europe triumphed. Yet, throughout Guns, Germs,
and Steel Diamond insists (rightly) that all peoples are equally creative,
equally rational. This is a contradiction; but in fact it is a nonissue,
since "empirical inquiry" was not invented by Europeans and was as highly
developed in China, and other civilizations, as in Europe.

I described Diamond’s argument as "scientistic," not because he tries to
use scientific data and scientific reasoning to solve the problems of human
history. That is laudable. His argument is scientistic because he claims to
produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does
not have such answers, and because he discards wholesale the findings of
social science while inserting old and discredited theories of
environmental determinism. That is bad science.

Louis Proyect
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