Guns, Germs, and Steel

September 17, 2010

Europe's conquest of much of the world was due not to any innate superiority, but rather the region's disproportionate share of the world's grain and domesticable animal species, which supported a larger non-farming class of soldiers and engineers and turned the people themselves into biological weapons.

Why wasn’t it a fleet of Incan warships to show up on the shores of Portugal, unleashing a epidemiological tsunami of exotic diseases and inaugurating a conquest that would eventually lead to, among other things, my writing this blog post in Incan? Why was it that the empires of Western Europe “discovered” and eventually dominated the rest of the world’s nations? The short answer is one that won’t surprise any player of Sid Meier’s Civilization: food.

(By way of introduction, it’s worth noting that most of Guns, Germs, and Steel focuses on the dominance of Eurasia’s empires over the Americas, Africa and the Pacific islands. It isn’t until the epilogue that the author addresses why Europe came to dominate the rest of Eurasia.)

Food Gives Rise to Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns (political power)
Among hunter-gatherer societies, everyone needed to hunt and gather in order to eat. Once groups settled down and started farming (and getting better at it) societies were able to feed people who didn’t themselves work to produce food. People like professional soldiers and rulers, who were able to wage wars of conquest, annex neighbors, and turn small bands into powerful civilizations.
Germs (infectious diseases):
Lots of food means larger societies and cities, which means diseases are more likely to spread. While this means death in the short term, Europe’s larger cities meant that Europeans were walking biological weapons when they came into contact with non-immune Native American populations. Indeed, smallpox killed roughly ten times as many indigenous Americans as Spanish swords.
Steel (technology)
Again, surplus food means not everyone has to farm, which frees up more citizens to become artisans and engineers.

Why Eurasia?

Better plants and agriculture
Eurasia happens to contain the largest percentage of highly productive edible grains and nearly all of the domesticable animal species like horses and cows. Better food, which they were able to produce in remarkable quantities with the aid of livestock, because…
A greater variety of domesticable animals
Horses, cows and pigs are all native to Eurasia and gave that continent a huge advantage in food production. Not only have horses proven to be excellent tools of war, but Eurasian livestock living in close proximity to humans lead to a whole lot of nasty germs like smallpox (originally cowpox). Of course it’s something of an accident that the only large domesticable mammal outside of Eurasia is the alpaca or northern Peru, which due to mountainous terrain never made it far outside that region. One of my favorite lines in the book is something like, if only the rhinoceros had proven less ornery, African rhino-cavalry might have sacked the Roman empire and changed world history. Fortunately for Rome, rhinos don’t much like to be ridden.
Don’t underestimate the horizontal axis
Perhaps surprisingly, one of Eurasia’s greatest advantages is that it’s mostly horizontal when compared with the Americas and Africa. A horizontal axis means that large swaths of its land lie along the same latitude, which means the same climate, which means developments in plants and tools will remain relevant and spread for thousands of miles. A better variety of wheat that develops in northern China can spread all the way to central Europe, whereas a new variety of corn developed in Central America stands little chance of surviving, much less thriving, in the climatically and thus agriculturally very different North and South American continents.

Why Europe?

So Eurasia has the best crops and the most domesticable animals for both agriculture and war, but why did European powers emerge dominant over China and Japan in the 18th century? Let’s keep in mind that one thousand years ago, China was the most advanced civilization on earth, having developed paper, gunpowder, the compass, and pretty much everything else. But since then, China has enjoyed a largely unified political organization. Peaceful times are great for citizens of an empire, but a lack of warfare and competition provides little incentive for innovation in war. Compare this situation with that of Europe, a crucible of dozens of feudal empires bickering endlessly and striving constantly for political, military and technological advantage. Like China, Japan was mostly peaceful and isolationist after Tokugawa unified the islands in the 17th century. Indeed, primitive guns called arquebuses were used in battle before Japanese unification, but an edict from the Shogun outlawed these foreign creations, causing technological development virtually to halt until America forcibly opened up trade with Japan in 1854.