I've been curious about the world for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I used to question my parents about the inner workings of almost everything, from household appliances to world politics. At some point I remember talking to my dad about the origins of humans, I think after having read or heard somewhere that African apes are somehow our ancestors. That made me think: Isn't Africa really poor nowadays? How come, if the first humans lived there, and not here in Europe? And what about America? Don't they have "native" peoples there as well? How did they get there, if today that journey takes more than 10 hours on a plane? Unfortunately (but understandably), my dads knowledge in anthropology was exhausted quite quickly, and I was not much the wiser.
The other day I heard Sam Harris talk with Jared Diamond on the Making Sense podcast about the rise and fall of civilizations. Their conversation also turned to our prehistoric origins, and to the book Guns, Germs, and Steel that Jared had originally published in 1997. In this epic volume, Jared looks at the last 10.000 years of human history and deliberately takes a non-Eurocentric point of view. The question that sparked the entire book was posted to him by a native New Guinean, and is quite similar to the ones I had raised as a child: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" The term "cargo" broadly refers to material goods, hence the question can be rephrased as "Why did you white people develop such a material advantage over us black people?"
Jared quickly dismisses the obvious (and obviously wrong) racist answer of white superiority, and rather digs as deep as possible into the matter. His "first-level" conclusion is captured in the books title: Obviously, guns, germs, and steel where the advantages that enabled the conquistadores to quickly eradicate almost all indigenous peoples of the Americas, helped the English take over Australia from the native Aborigines, lead to the Dutch conquering South Africa, and many, many similar instances.
But Jared doesn't stop there: He next asks "How come that the Europeans, rather than native Americans or Aborigines, came to possess oceangoing ships, gunpowder-powered weapons, steel armor, and resistance to germs like measles and smallpox?" Again, one could argue racial superiority which would be a blatantly ignorant answer, given the complexity of the question.
Through countless examples and comparisons between human development in different regions of the world, we finally learn a few very plausible theories that allow us to explain the real reasons. First, Jared thankfully answers one of my childhood questions by laying out the migration patterns that allowed our ancestors about 10.000 years ago to move from Eurasia (where they had arrived from African much earlier) to the Americas and to Polynesia: Apparently, people who had settled in Siberia managed to cross what is today the Bearing Strait, but was a land bridge then, on foot, and slowly began settling Alaska, Canada, and the northern US. Then they expanded southward, and within about 1.000 years there were small, isolated human settlements all the way down to Patagonia. After that, it seems that there was little to no contact between Europeans and Americans, until the arrival of Columbus in 1492.
New Guinea (which was connected to Australia by land as well) seems to have been settled roughly at the same time, by peoples who must have had incredible knowledge about building oceangoing canoes, knowledge which seems to have been lost in part over the millennia. Anyhow, those peoples managed to move into New Guinea and Australia, then becoming isolated form the rest of the world as well for centuries to come.
Archeological evidence shows that about the same time people started settling the Americas and Australia, all big mammal species native to those continents got extinct. The best guess why this might have happened is that those animals had developed for millions of years prior to that without any contact with our human ancestors, thus the new arrivals had great advantages in hunting those animals, leading to a quick extinction of many of the species that could be turned into food or clothing. Another theory considers variations in climate to be the reason for that big extinction.
Regardless of why those big mammals got extinct though, the fact that it happened had incredibly significant consequences for the humans who lived in those areas: At the time, most peoples, regardless of where they lived, had very similar hunter-gatherer lifestyles. In some regions (the fertile crescent for example, a region that covers todays Israel, Syria, and Iraq) people started developing other ways of living though: They domesticated crops and animals, and settled down to become farmers, rather than staying nomads. That development would very likely not have happened without the domestication of animals though, as farming without animal power is a lot less sustainable than hunting.
The ideas of settling down in villages, and domesticating animals quickly spread throughout most of Eurasia, along its east-west axis: From the fertile crescent all the way through the Mediterranean in the west, and possible as far as China in the east (even though some argue that the Chinese had developed farming and animal and crop domestication in parallel, rather than learning those techniques from the inhabitants of the fertile crescent.)
What happened next? Well, those settled farmers across Eurasia began living in ever more integrated villages, leading to the development of cities. Living in close quarters with lots of domesticated animals has some short-term downsides though: Disease that are native to animals start affecting humans. Those disease (including smallpox, measles, and the black plague) undoubtedly killed many Eurasians, but also made them genetically resistant to them: Those with random genetic mutations that made them less easily affected survived and proliferated, while the others died.
The developing cities needed to be protected and governed, so new ways of organizing societies (like the idea of kingdoms, and later states) arose. Those states collected taxes and invested them in armies and new technological developments, including oceangoing ships and gunpowder.
The point is: Without animal and crop domestication, all this would probably not have happened throughout Eurasia. As we know today, very little of that has happened in the Americas and in Australia (where some native peoples still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle today). And this is the Jared's underlying theory: The lack of domesticable animals made it more attractive for the native peoples of the Americas and Australia to not become farmers, not live in cities, not develop social structures like states, and ultimately not develop guns, germs, and steel. All of those things happened in Eurasia though, and not because of some inherent, racial advantage, but because of environmental differences that originated tens of thousands of years ago.
Obviously, Jared's theory is just that: A theory. It could have happened like this, or some other way. I do like the beautify of his argument though, for a few reasons: First, it sounds very logical. There is a small hitch at the beginning, where we still can't be sure why all the domesticable animals of the Americas and Australia got extinct in the first place, but after that, the chain of events is logical and makes sense. Obviously there's tons of archeological evidence for many of the those claims that I didn't mention in this quick summary.
Next, I like how it puts the focus on environmental, rather than inherent differences between peoples. As we know from history, whenever you argue the other way (namely that some people(s) are inherently different (e.g., better) than others), you're going down a very slippery slope towards a destination that you don't want to end up at. Also, this line of reasoning should be humbling for us Europeans: In many countries today, people still celebrate their colonial history, and some former empires continue to strive for the "glory" they once held when they ruled large parts of the world. Maybe it would be beneficial to remind us from time to time that very little of that is really due to our (or our ancestors) merits, but rather has causes much bigger (and much more random) than we might like to believe.