Various regions of the world have developed in different ways, and that is in no small part due to the impact of ecological factors on the people and societies that settle around them. People are inevitably affected by their environment, and societies take advantage of or are forced to compensate for the distinct characteristics of the land around them. This is the theory posited by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1998, and while it remains widely read, some critiques have emerged in the decades since its publication. There may be a significant body of evidence to support its basic thesis, but the book has been widely criticized by historians for cherry-picking evidence, making unexamined assumptions, and taking biased primary sources at their word.
Throughout history, many have tried to justify colonization by relying on theories of white supremacy: such as the pseudoscientific study of skull shapes in phrenology, Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” and the cultural ideal of Manifest Destiny in 19th-century America. Jared Diamond set out to disprove inherent European superiority and discover other factors that spurred the West's development. However, Guns, Germs, and Steel has nevertheless been criticized for implying that European colonization was a natural consequence of their environment, thereby absolving the perpetrators of responsibility and portraying Indigenous people as hapless bystanders.
Its central theory—that characteristics of the environment can exert an effect on the rate and focus of development of society—is certainly true, but despite its ambitious, exhaustive scope, other books do a far better job of exploring that theory. The following is a selection of books that discuss the effects of environmental factors on the development of societies, without resorting to some of the fallacies of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Why the West Rules—for Now
Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules—for Now examines the differing developmental processes of various societies—and how Europe and America came out ahead—in light of two major historical turning points. The Industrial Revolution, occurring between the 18th and 19th centuries, gave the West an advantage in terms of technology and, with the more expedient manufacture of goods, economy. The development of computers and nuclear weapons in the 20th century brought the West to the forefront of informational and military dominance.
However, Why the West Rules—for Now doesn’t view this as an inevitable outcome or permanent state, and acknowledges that the tides of history may turn. With the advent of computers and the Internet, technological advancements are disseminated throughout the world more rapidly than ever before, and, though many European nations and the United States today fancy themselves global powerhouses, that is subject to change. While it also downplays the importance of cultural factors, Why the West Rules—for Now comes to a similar conclusion about varying rates of societal development, without some of the same tired Eurocentric implications in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy
The Great Divergence expounds on geographical factors in societal development in a similar way to Guns, Germs, and Steel, but focuses more on a single time period: the Industrial Revolution, and how it ushered in the modern world. Kenneth Pomeranz’s book discusses how proximity to natural reserves of coal defined and characterized the locations of developing European industrial centers. Meanwhile, it looks at concurrent developments in Asia, and how economies there suffered as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Domestic development in Europe meant less need for foreign trade, and the Americas provided a more accessible (and more exploitable) source of necessary goods, so trade with Asian states declined as a result. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Great Divergence connects the dots between environmental factors and European colonization, but doesn’t view colonization as an inevitability.
Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest
Where Guns, Germs, and Steel takes the biased, firsthand accounts of Spanish conquistadors as irrefutable fact, Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest dispels lies and misconceptions about Spain’s campaigns of colonization and conquest in the Americas. It disproves the idea that Spain conquered the Americas totally, indicating large regions that remained independent, along with frequent (and often successful) rebellions by Indigenous peoples that kept Spanish rule from becoming ubiquitous. It also dismisses claims that conquest was successful due to inherent Spanish superiority based on genetics, cultural differences, or any other factors. In fact, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest points out that the Indigenous people of the pueblos often didn’t see Spanish conquistadors as conquerors, but as allies in war against their rivals. Restall’s book directly confronts the biases and myths established by flawed historical records.
Alfred W. Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism may have a smaller scope than Guns, Germs, and Steel, but it covers the impact of material, environmental factors on society and vice versa using the example of European exploration and conquest of the Americas. Ecological Imperialism suggests that the cultivation of domesticated plants and animals that Europeans intentionally brought with them, along with the parasites, diseases, and weeds that naturally followed, sped their conquest of the Americas. This resulted in European colonizers taking over the Americas by reshaping their environment, turning it into something that more closely resembled their home. As a result, endemic flora and fauna were devastated by European species, while animal-borne diseases to which agrarian Europeans had developed natural immunities wiped out Native American hunter-gatherer populations.
The book also discusses how American land was especially receptive to this process because it has a similarly temperate climate to Europe. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, Ecological Imperialism thoroughly examines environmental effects on society, but also uniquely considers the reverse.
The Lever of Riches
Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, Joel Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches discusses environmental influence on the development of inventions and innovations. It also goes into the relationship between physical environment and technological advancement, but puts significant weight on the cultural climate as well. Its central idea is that a desire to alter one’s natural environment or overcome limitations imposed by it, along with cultural promotion of openness to new ideas, drives innovation and invention. It suggests that Europe eventually gained a developmental advantage over China not due to Europe’s environmental superiority, but China’s policies of isolationism, which prevented worldwide diffusion of ideas. Like Diamond’s, Mokyr’s book also discusses how nutrition afforded by endemic crops may have had an impact on how societies developed. Finally, it looks toward the future, suggesting ways in which technological advancement can be promoted and shared throughout the world to everyone’s benefit.