The Human Journey
Guns, Germs, and Steel

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society

Guns, Germs, and Steel:

The Fates of Human Societies

W. W. Norton & Co, 1997

Pages 1234

How does food production lead to germs, literacy, technology, and centralized government?

Cultivation increased the amount of calories available per acre. As the calories available increased, so the population increased and people began to keep fixed abodes. Settled life permitted the storage of food which supported non-food producing specialists such as political elites, priests, professional soldiers, craftsmen and scribes. Infectious diseases like smallpox and measles were mutations from domestic animal infections. Those who lived with the animals evolved some resistance to these diseases. Large domestic animals increased mobility, allowing people to move greater distances more quickly and to carry more with them.


The importance of lethal microbes is well illustrated by the European conquest and depopulation of the Americas. Perhaps as much as 95% of the indigenous population was killed by European diseases, often long before there was any actual physical contact.

Infectious diseases (smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera) are the major killers of people through most of history. The characteristics of epidemic diseases are:

  • They spread quickly
  • They cause an acute illness from which a person either dies or recovers in a relatively short period.
  • Those who recover develop antibodies that leave them immune for a long time, possibly for life.
Epidemic diseases require large dense populations of more than 500,000 in which to develop and continue. The disease shifts from one area to another, returning when there are enough non-immune children born for it to strike again. Agriculture was necessary to the build up of the large populations necessary for epidemic diseases. Also necessary were the domesticated social animals, such as cows and pigs, which carried the microbes that evolved into the human diseases. Eurasians had the necessary conditions long enough to both develop many lethal epidemic diseases and to develop partial genetic immunity to them. They then inadvertently took those diseases with them wherever they went.


The first stone tools were developed 2½ million years ago. But hundreds of thousands of years passed before additional changes happened. Now, change is reported almost daily. There were, however, two especially significant prehistoric leaps. The first occurred between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago and led to bone tools, single-purpose stone tools, and compound tools.

The second resulted from the adoption of settled lifestyles and the acquisition of food surpluses. This change allowed the accumulation of non-portable possessions such as pots and looms and later the development of economically specialized artisans. It also increased population density which led to increasing contact and competition between groups.

Technology of weapons and transportation are the direct means by which certain peoples have expanded their realms and conquered others. Writing was a particular type of technology which enabled conquerors to convey commands to distant fleets and to benefit from the experiences of previous expeditions. Written accounts motivated later expeditions by descriptions of wealth and fertile lands.

Why did technology evolve at such different rates on different continents and why were Eurasians the inventors of most significant technological advances?

Many assume that Eurasians were superior in inventiveness and intelligence. But no difference in neurobiology exists to support this. Another theory holds that solitary geniuses, who did the inventing, happened, by accident, to be born Eurasian. However, most technology evolved cumulatively in small steps each building on those that went before. Still another theory is that Eurasian societies were more receptive to invention and those on other continents were more resistant. Yet on every continent there are examples of some societies adopting a technology and others rejecting it.

Technological inventions diffused either because one society saw it and adopted it, or because the ones with the invention moved in and absorbed or displaced those without it. Diffusion happened in many contexts, for example:

  • peaceful trade (transistors from USA to Japan in 1954 AD)
  • espionage (silkworms smuggled from SE Asia to the Middle East in 552 AD)
  • emigration (French glass and clothing manufacturing throughout Europe with the expulsion of the Protestant Huguenots from France in 1685 AD)
  • war (papermaking by Arabs capturing Chinese papermakers in 75 AD).

Isolation allowed a society to abandon a technology, as Japan did with guns in the 17th Century. No central European country could afford to do the same or they would have been overrun by their neighbors. Once the Japanese were forced into contact with the rest of the world in 1853, they immediately resumed the manufacture of guns.


The factors determining the differences in the development of technology are when food production began, the presence or lack of geographical barriers to diffusion, and population size. Eurasia and North Africa were the largest landmass with the largest number of competing societies and the fewest geographical barriers. Food production began there earliest. So Eurasia was where technology started earliest and spread most widely. The advantage of Eurasia was huge by 1492 by reason of geography not intellect.


The spread of governments and religions was linked throughout history, whether peaceful or not. Government organized, religion justified. The trend over 13,000 years was for nomads and tribes to lose. By 1500 AD, less than 20% of the world’s land area was marked into states run by bureaucrats and by laws. Today, with the exception of Antarctica, all land belongs to some state or other.

How did small groups of people get amalgamated into larger ones?

Some societies, no matter the size, were more successful than others and grew larger. Those with richer territory and better leaders grew more. As the density of population within a region increased, competition for land and resources between groups increased taking the form of aggression. Two groups merged together only when populations were dense enough that the weaker group had nowhere to go to escape. Sometimes small groups joined to fight a common enemy, other times a stronger society defeated a weaker one and incorporated it.

Attempts by anthropologists to define the developmental stages for societies are imprecise. Each stage grew out of the one before with the most dominant characteristics of one remaining in the next. However, a simple classification has been devised dividing political units into four classes, band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.

A band was the smallest society numbering in the dozens. Today autonomous bands exist only in remote regions lacking the necessary resources to support larger groups. Bands were egalitarian. Leadership was acquired through personal qualities and not passed through heredity. A tribe numbered in the hundreds but everyone still had personal links to everyone else. Relatives or clan leaders were available to solve problems between individuals. A “big man” had some special decision making powers, but lived like his neighbors and the position was not hereditary. When a tribe grew into the thousands it either split up or evolved into a chiefdom. The position of chief was hereditary. He and his family dressed differently from others, were exempt from food production, and had additional privileges as well as additional powers and responsibilities. Fully independent chiefdoms disappeared by the 20th Century because they tended to occupy prime territory. Some chiefdoms grew into complex societies with multiple classes, large public works, and massive amounts of tribute. States now rule all the land area of the globe. Population of a state would number more than 50,000. Levels of administration within the government grew more complex and specialized as population grew. More than simply chiefdoms on a larger scale, states diverged in new directions. Organization was based on political and territorial lines, not kinship. They were often multiethnic and multilingual. Bureaucrats had to be selected at least partly on ability and training rather than solely on kinship. In many modern states, leadership is not necessarily hereditary and in some the entire system of formal hereditary classes has been abandoned.

Although they sometimes broke up into smaller units (recently USSR, Yugoslavia) or decayed and were overrun by smaller simpler ones (Rome), over the past 13,000 years the predominant trend has been toward larger and more complex units.

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