Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, Hardback Feature

What is History 12: References from Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel

In The rest by tony2 Comments

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  14 August 2023

My what is history series somewhat naively perhaps looks at history from the broad perspective of what processes an intelligent naked ape might go through to develop civilisation.

From that perspective the study of human history should also consider the external forces, including geography, environment, disease and natural disasters that have shaped the development of humanity. At the present time climate change makes this approach both pertinent and urgent.

The approach is not meant to replace mainstream histories, merely in the new era of big data, storage and retrieval to add to them. And, to perhaps provide a different flavour to the study of humanity.

The articles in the What is History? series are: Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion, 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress, 9 Guns, Germs and Steel: Overview, 10 Polynesia A Natural Experiment of History, 11 World Economic History, 12 References from Guns, Germs and Steel and 13 World History and Big History with other articles to come.

Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel, Further Readings

(I could have also headed this article some random old books and papers that I think you should know about.)

Main Points

  • Introduction
  • What is History? Series
  • Aspects of Guns Germs and Steel
  • Further Readings by Jared Diamond
  • Prominent Books from Further Readings
  • World History Introduced
  • Conclusions

1 Introduction

This is the third article on Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel.

When I first read Guns, Germs and Steel in 1998, I was impressed that Jared Diamond rather than providing a bibliography wrote a very readable Further Readings section, broken into chapter headings. I used his further readings as an entrée into a world about which I had very little prior knowledge.

My Paperback Copy

My Paperback Copy


I now find that I was only interested in the books he referred in his introduction (see Overview), those regarding Polynesia as a Natural experiment of history, and those related to the beginnings of agriculture and food production in general, both crops and domestication of animals.

In his Further Readings section Jared Diamond broke all these relevant chapters into three sections: 1 Prologue, 2 Chapter 2, and 3 Chapters 4-10 combined.

The prologue section provided overview books. Chapter 2 was on Polynesia (natural experiment) and Chapters 4-10 on food production were, respectively: about the power conferred by farming, history’s haves and have nots, why farm, why did some regions fail to domesticate plants, and the domestication of animals.

The next chapter 11 on germs, I already knew about. Chapter 1 was on the evolution of humans, which I also knew about. The following chapters, while interesting, just didn’t stimulate enough interest to engage in systematic further reading. Although, I did read some books.

Nonetheless, I was impressed enough by Guns, Germs and Steel to spend the next decade reading books mentioned by Diamond, which led to wider reading, photocopying and making notes.

I recently discovered an old database of books (in Filemaker Pro) that I read during this period, so I don’t need to rely only on memory. It is surprising how much pleasure I experienced in the reading and research involved. All this was down to Jared Diamond’s Further Readings.

2 What is History?

Jared Diamond and other influences prompted me to begin my What Is History? Series. In the Introduction (article #1), I said:

My leanings are towards understanding the basics of history as Jared Diamond attempts to in Guns, Germs and Steel 1997. Diamond looks at

Jared Diamond Collapse, 2005

Jared Diamond Collapse, 2005

human history through biology, the distribution of plants that became seed crops, the geographical layout of continents and other environmental influences.

I continued:

Similarly, I am interested in human disease and its impact on history (examples of epidemics once populations rose sufficiently are the Athenian plague, the Justinian plague, the Black Death, the impact on indigenous peoples from 1492 onwards of Western expansion, and the world-wide influenza outbreak of 1919). Environmental degradation (e.g. in the fertile crescent and Greece) and climate change have also had profound effects on history.

I also cited Alfred Crosby, Brian Fagan, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, John McNeil, Daniel Yergin, Mark Kurlansky and Niall Ferguson in the next few paragraphs. Only the first three were Diamond related.

3 Overview of Guns Germs and Steel

When I wrote an Overview of Guns Germs and Steel (article #9) twenty years later, I was still a fan but was perhaps more critical. Not unusual, I suspect.

In the above overview, I gave a fair assessment of the positive and some negative aspects of Guns Germs and Steel twenty years later, providing a summary of the views of others both fair and unfair.

3.1 Polynesia, a Natural Experiment of History

In the introduction to Polynesia, a Natural Experiment of History (article # 10) in the series on What is History? I summarised Diamond’s view on history (and my own) as:

Diamond’s frustration with history was because mainstream history did not cover the issues of the biological origin of human beings, the development from a hunter gathering background and the influence of such things that can loosely be called environment on human history.

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind Vol 1

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind Vol 1

I said in this article that I thought that the natural experiment of history of Polynesia, was the one very original idea in Guns Germs and Steel and unusual in a generalist work. However, Patrick Kirch disabused me of that idea. I said:

Unfortunately, the apparent novelty of the idea is not Diamond’s. Patrick Vinton Kirch, Diamond’s main source of information on Polynesia, said in a personnel communication that he and others had raised the idea in the scholarly literature several times and that it was well-known amongst researchers in the Pacific.

Kirch also provided published references, which leads to my main theme of Jared Diamond’s Further Readings section.

4 Further Readings by Jared Diamond

Further Readings has a positive and a negative aspect.

When I first read Guns Germs and Steel, I was most interested in learning more about some of the broad range of topics covered. Many of these areas I was unfamiliar with. I therefore found Jared Diamond’s Further Readings section refreshing and easy to follow. It led me into a wonderland of literature that excited and stimulated me.

The normal academic notes, references and bibliography force the writer to acknowledge his sources on every item. With a generalist overview this can become tedious and seem unnecessary. Nevertheless, it forces the writer to acknowledge his sources properly.

Diamond falls between two stools and is probably unrepentant.

Let’s move on and look at the wonderland I found. (I’m sure there are others, who would have read and cited different books).

5 The References

Luca and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza Great Human Diasporas

Luca and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza Great Human Diasporas

Some books and research I found in Guns Germs and Steel.

5.1 Prologue

Book List

1 Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza The History and Geogra­phy of Human Genes 1994.

2 Luigi Luca and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza The Great Human Diasporas: the history of diversity and evolution 1995.

The first book is the tome, whereas the second (which I read) is for the general reader.


Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922-2018) was an Italian population geneticist and pioneer in the field of human population genetics. Born in Genoa, Cavalli-Sforza made significant contributions to our understanding of human genetic variation and the evolutionary history of populations.

He utilised genetic markers such as blood groups and protein polymorphisms to investigate patterns of genetic variation across different populations worldwide. His research contributed to the formulation of the Out of Africa theory.


Cavalli-Sforza’s work pre-dates the human genome project and the modern ability to quickly determine genetic make-up from DNA. He really created the field of using genetics to research the history of human populations. One must expect major and astounding scientific developments on Cavalli-Sforza’s pioneering works in the next few years.

Book List

3 Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History of Humankind 1993-94. The five individual volumes in this series are enti­tled, respectively, The First Humans, People of the Stone Age, Old World Civilizations, New World and Pacific Civilizations, and Traditional Peoples Today.

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind Vol 4

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind Vol 4

The Illustrated History of Humankind is a five-volume book series edited by Göran Burenhult, an archaeologist and anthropologist. Published between 1993 and 1994, the series offers a comprehensive exploration of human history, covering such topics as prehistory and pre-civilisation, as well as early civilisations, empires, cultural achievements, and technological advancements. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations, maps, and photographs.


It is hard to do this series justice. In a time when much of the research available was inaccessible to the general reader, Burenhult provided a summary and overview of humanity as we know it. In the late 1990s I found these books to be a treasury of up to date research and theories on the history of humanity from a world history perspective. They are wonderful books and still full of relevant information.

The books received critical acclaim for their meticulous research, engaging writing, and ability to present complex information in an accessible manner. The Illustrated History of Humankind remains a valuable resource for anyone interested in gaining a holistic view of our shared past.

Book List

4 Alfred Crosby The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492 1972.

5 Alfred Crosby Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 1986.

6 Alfred Crosby Germs, Seeds and Animals: studies in ecological history 1994. (Not cited by Diamond but inspired by the other two books.)


Alfred Crosby (1931-2018) was an esteemed American historian and professor. He was notable for his work on environmental history and global connectedness. His most renowned work is The Columbian Exchange, which examines the profound impact of Christopher Columbus’s voyages on the global exchange of plants, animals, and diseases. Crosby explores how the encounter between the Old World and the New World transformed ecosystems, agriculture, and human societies.

Patrick Vinton Kirch

Patrick Vinton Kirch


Crosby virtually invented a new field of history, a scholarly analysis of the consequence of Columbus and later voyages when the old world met the new world. An area hitherto virtually ignored by mainstream history.

Book List

7 Mar­vin Harris, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures 1978.


Marvin Harris (1927-2001) was an American professor of anthropology and a prolific writer. His theories of cultural materialism and environmental determinism were influential and his contributions to anthropology controversial.

Richard MacNeish

Richard MacNeish


I think I’ve made my views on Marvin Harris and Cannibals and Kings previously.

I was aware of Harris and his pros and cons previously, initially from Fred Emery Systems Thinking Vol 2 1981. (See article #9). Harris is entertaining and the book still worth reading, but needs to be taken with-a-grain-of-salt.

Book List

8 Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service eds. Evolution and Culture 1960.

Sahlins is an important early anthropologist cited by many of the anthropologists mentioned below.


Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021) was a prominent American anthropologist known for his influential contributions to the field of cultural anthropology. He inspired a generation or more of brilliant successors.


William McNeill and V Gordon Childe mentioned.

William Hardy McNeill (1917-2016) was an influential American historian known for his works on global history, particularly emphasizing the interconnectedness and interactions between different civilizations and cultures throughout time.

Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a prominent British archaeologist who made significant contributions to the study of prehistoric European civilizations and the understanding of human cultural evolution. He also propounded the Oasis theory for the beginnings of agriculture: that humans were forced to because of climate change.

Patrick Kirch, The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms

Patrick Vinton Kirch, The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms

5.2 Chapter 1 Up to the Starting Line

Not of particular interest to me because it is about the evolution and spreading out of humanity. I was well aware of this research.

Cavalli-Sforza cited above. Brian Fagan, but not a book I was interested in. Also books on radiocarbon dating, but nothing outstanding.


Brian Fagan (1936-present) is a well-known British-American archaeologist, historian, and author. Not as influential perhaps as Alfred Crosby but publishing books on environmental history and on similar lines of enquiry, among other things.

I’ve read at least two of his other books on the impact of the environment on history. One was on the little ice age (1300-1850) and its effect on history after the medieval warm period (when Greenland was settled).

5.3 Chapter 2 A Natural Experiment of History

Book List

9 Patrick Vinton Kirch The Evolution of the Polyne­sian Chiefdoms 1984.

10 Patrick Vinton Kirch The Wet and the Dry: irrigation and agricultural intensification in Polynesia 1994.


Patrick Vinton Kirch (1942-present) is an influential American anthropologist and archaeologist known for his extensive research on the Pacific Islands, particularly in reconstructing the history and cultural development of the Polynesians.

Patrick Kirch, The Wet and the Dry

Patrick Vinton Kirch, The Wet and the Dry


Diamond says: Two outstanding books explicitly concerned with cultural differences among Polynesian islands, but he doesn’t specifically mention the Polynesian natural experiment of history, which was outlined in the first book and in the second, as well as by other Pacific researchers.

Kirch also notes, as does John McNeill, that they and virtually all other field biologists of this generation (including me) were well-aware of Robert MacArthur and Edward O Wilson The Theory of Island Biogeography 1967, which is also a pivotal starting point to the idea of the Polynesian natural experiment of history. Surprisingly, Diamond doesn’t mention this book.

I read The Wet and the Dry avidly, but didn’t get around to more than skimming the first book, which I regret.

The Wet and the Dry explores the ancient agricultural practices and innovative irrigation systems developed by the Polynesians, shedding light on their ability to adapt to diverse environmental conditions and to sustain complex societies across the Pacific Islands.

Diamond also mentions a joint-authored book by Kirch and Marshal Sahlins.

5.4 Chapters 4-10 combined by Diamond on food production

5.4.1 The Beginnings of Agriculture

Book List

11 Kent V. Flannery The origins of agriculture Annual Reviews of Anthro­pology 2:271-310, 1973

12 Kent V. Flannery The origins of the village as a settlement type in Mesoamerica and the Near East: A comparative study. In Ucko P, Tringham R and Dimbleby GW Man, Settlement, Urbanism 1972, pp 23-53.

Kent Flannery and Frank Hole, Cueva Blanca

Kent Flannery and Frank Hole, Cueva Blanca


Kent Vaughn Flannery (1934-present) a younger colleague of Richard MacNeish is a highly influential American anthropologist known for his extensive research in the field of archaeology, specifically in the areas of Mesoamerican and Near Eastern prehistoric cultures. He is renowned for his innovative approaches to understanding ancient societies, including the development of behavioural ecology as a framework for studying human behaviour.

Kent Flannery and Joy Marcus, Excavations 2

Kent Flannery and Joy Marcus, Excavations 2


Both these two long papers and the works of Richard MacNeish were my starting point for understanding the complexities of the origins of agriculture.

They with Burenhult ended my simplistic view of agriculture as an innovation that would have been leapt at. I grew up, of course, with the British Imperial view of history as progress, which remained virtually unquestioned through the first half of the twentieth-century.

Book List

13 Jack Rodney Harlan, Crops and Man, 2nd ed. 1992

Jack Harlan, Crops and Man

Jack Harlan, Crops and Man

Other Writing

14 Jack Rodney Harlan The Living Fields: Our Agricultural Heritage 1995 

I was impressed by both books and his other writings.


Jack Rodney Harlan (1917-1998) was an esteemed American agriculturalist and ethnobotanist known for his significant contributions to the study of crop domestication and agricultural history. Harlan conducted extensive research on the origins and spread of cultivated plants, particularly focusing on the Near East and the Americas. His work played a pivotal role in understanding the processes of plant domestication and the ways in which early agricultural practices shaped human societies.

Harlan’s father, Harry Vaughn Harlan (1877-1953), was also an agriculturalist and plant breeder. He worked at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and made notable contributions to plant genetics and crop improvement. He specialized in the study of forage crops and grasses, introducing various plant varieties that enhanced agricultural productivity.

Both father and son went on international seed collecting trips.

Theodore Hymowitz says of Jack Harlan:

Harlan was best known for his contributions to knowledge of the evolution of crop plants, his plant explorations and archeological excavations, and for his clear elucidation of the interdependence of plants and civilization. Jack Harlan was a botanist, an agronomist, an anthropologist, a historian, and a scholar. He spent most of his academic career as a faculty member in departments of agronomy. However, he never took a formal course in agronomy.

Jack Harlan, The Living Fields

Jack Harlan, The Living Fields


I can’t remember, if I was introduced to Jack Harlan by Diamond, or someone else. I certainly became an admirer quickly. Unlike many academics, Jack Harlan was interested in proving his contentions. He did two interesting things that impressed me.

He harvested wild einkorn wheat by hand and with a flint blade he had made to prove he could harvest enough wild wheat in a short time to feed a neolithic family. He could harvest 2-2.5 kg of grain in an hour by both methods.

This destroyed the prevailing paradigm that hunter-gatherers were driven to cultivate plants.

I think he also rode bareback without stirrups (though not a horseman) to test whether one could shoot accurately backwards with a bow and arrow, but I may be mistaken, because Parthian shots were possibly not in his area of interest.

In The Living Fields: Our Agricultural Heritage Jack Harlan cautions about our over-dependence on a few grain crops to feed the world. He provides a cautionary example of wheat in the USA, Mexico and Canada and describes it as a vast petrie dish waiting for the next destructive rust fungus. Although a new wheat variety of wheat has been introduced every time this has happened over the past one hundred years. We no longer have a sufficient diversity of genetic stock to perhaps combat the next rust fungus.

Such thinking, should be front of mind as the world struggles with climate change.

Book List

15 Richard S. MacNeish, The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life 1992

16 Richard S. MacNeish The evolution of community patterns in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico and speculation about the cultural processes. In Ucko, Peter, G. W. Dimbleby and R. Tringham (eds.)

As with, Jack Harlan, I was impressed by both and his other writings.

Richard MacNeish, Prehistory of the Ayacucho Basin Vols 2-3

Richard MacNeish, Prehistory of the Ayacucho Basin Vols 2-3


Richard Stockton MacNeish (1918-2001) was a prominent American archaeologist and anthropologist who conducted extensive research and excavations across North and Central America.

MacNeish’s work primarily focused on the study of early agriculture and the origins of civilization in the Americas. He was particularly interested in the development of maize (corn) agriculture and its role in the rise of complex societies.

Richard MacNeish, Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley Vol 1

Richard MacNeish, Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley Vol 1


I became quite a fan of Richard MacNeish and read more of his work than the two entries above. In his 1992 book the The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life MacNeish tried to pull together and give an overview of all the research on the topic as well as his own views.

Theories, methods and evidence on the origins of agriculture are too complex to summarise. In the 19th century British and European imperialism tended to skate over such questions and look at all history as a linear example of progress. Hence agriculture once discovered was leapt upon by hunter gatherers as a better system. In the nineteenth and certainly in the twentieth centuries, science began to question these assumptions.

The chart below summarises individual contributions to ideas on the origins of agriculture from the 1920s and 1930s, extending to the 1980s. V Gordon Childe, the British archaeologist and Ivan Vavilov the Russian botanist were both avowed Marxists, perhaps a necessary starting point to challenge dogma.

Richard MacNeish divides the field up into Cultural Ecologist and Cultural Materialist streams.

He always fits into the former whereas Kent Flannery straddles both. MacNeish felt that Flannery’s concepts closely paralleled his, but were also new and different. MacNeish is very honest in his assessments, gives credit where it is due and dismisses some theories, but only on the basis of evidence. He is also a respecter of Jack Harlan whom he says is his own person.

I think that his analysis of a complex field is unusual and probably stands the test of time. The 50s to the 90s were a very fertile period in the new ideas on the origins of agriculture and haven’t probably progressed much further. Although with the gradual improvements in data and the AI era beginning one may expect much more in the future.

I think this chart shows the seriousness with which MacNeish approaches the topic, but perhaps a sense of humour as well. My admiration relates to the apparent lack of ego in his own theories and a preparedness to accept others interpretations. He genuinely wants to find out the truth.

From Richard MacNeish, The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life

From Richard MacNeish, The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life

Kent Flannery although younger than MacNeish also made major contributions in this area in the 1970s.

Flannery says:

The Near East is one of those parts of the world where sedentary life — in “hut compounds” or actual villages — seems to have begun before agriculture.

He also adds Peru to this. Whereas:

In Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia, cultivation probably began during a phase of nomadic hunting and gathering; and in Mesoamerica, at least, nomadism continued for thousands of years after farming began.

I was gobsmacked when I first read this. It led to a plethora of unanswered questions. Transhumance is a form of seasonal nomadism today, where people move out of their permanent villages and move their animals to summer pastures. I’ve seen this in Pakistan and Nepal.

In parts of Mesoamerica, such as Mexico, nomadic farmers planted their crops and then moved vertically up the mountains, returning only when the crops were ready to harvest. They remained nomadic and moved vertically in a seasonal pattern.

In Australia, though controversial for some reason, aborigines in parts of the country may have had reasonably settled hamlets (stone dwellings in some areas). Yet, despite fish traps and perhaps preparing the soil to encourage yams, they were still hunter-gatherers.

Book List
Books related to MacNeish

16 Peter Ucko, G. W. Dimbleby and R. Tringham (eds.) Man, Settlement and Urbanism 1972 (922 p)

This book is the proceedings of a meeting of researchers at London University on archaeology and related subjects and a very good collection or survey of the field of interest. Papers include, Flannery, Harlan, MacNeish and many others. The paper by Smith below, cited by Diamond is a good example.

17 Philip E. Smith Land use, settlement patterns and subsistence agriculture: a demographic perspective In Peter Ucko, G. W. Dimbleby and R. Tringham eds., pp 409-425, 1972

Erudite, particularly on archaeology. Philip E Smith was a Canadian professor who excavated Ganj Dareh in Iran between 1965 and 1974.

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Horse Power

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Horse Power

5.4.2 The Domestication of Animals

Book List

18 Juliett Clutton-Brock Domesticated Animals from Early Times 1981

19 Juliett Clutton-Brock Horse Power: a history of the horse and donkey in human societies 1992

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Obituary Photograph, Peter Macdiarmid, the Independent

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Obituary Photograph, Peter Macdiarmid, the Independent

Slightly more superficial than Azzaroli but many interesting points.

20 Augusto Azzaroli An Early History of Horsemanship 1985

Not from Diamond directly, but a really good history of the domestication of the horse.


Juliet Clutton-Brock (1933-2015) was a distinguished British zoologist and curator renowned for her ground breaking work in zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains from archaeological sites. She was interested in animal domestication and worked at the Natural History Museum in London for most of her career.

Augusto Azzaroli (1921-2015) was an Italian Professor of Paleontology at the University of Florence with an interest in riding and horses.


I didn’t delve into this area as much as I did with farming, Juliett Clutton-Brock provides a general readable account of animal domestication and a history of the horse. The horse is in a special category as both a domesticated animal and an instrument or technology in the pursuit of warfare for much of human history. I obviously liked Azzaroli’s book on horses more.

Thomas Cucchi and Benjamin Arbuckle in 2021 provide an updated reference list on animal domestication.

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Domesticated Animals from Early Times

Juliett Clutton-Brock, Domesticated Animals from Early Times

5.4.3 Joseph Needham

Book List

21 Joseph Needham Science and Civilization in China (1954 – present).

 The series was initiated and edited by British Historian Joseph Needham (1900-1995).


Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a distinguished British biochemist, historian, and sinologist. His fascination with Chinese culture and history began in 1934, while working as an embryologist at Cambridge University and writing a history of embryology. In 1937, he had transformative encounters with three visiting Chinese students, one of whom Lu Gwei-djen he fell in love with. She and another of the students worked with him later on constructing the volumes of Science and Civilisation in China.

Needham’s passion for bridging the gap between East and West led him to make his first trip to China in 1942 on behalf of the British Government. This journey marked the beginning of his lifelong dedication to studying and documenting China’s remarkable contributions to science. His magnum opus, Science and Civilisation in China, became an unmatched resource, inspiring scholars worldwide and leaving an enduring legacy in the fields of history, science, and sinology.

For those who want to know more about this amazing English eccentric, Simon Winchester The Man Who Loved China 2008 is a glorious must read. In my opinion, it ranks as one of Winchester’s best books.


I’m not sure whether I came across Science and Civilisation in China when browsing the bookshelves of the Menzies Library at The Australian National University in Canberra or through Jared Diamond, probably a combination of both. The multi-volumes of Science and Civilisation in China on a university library shelf are awe-inspiring.

I can’t say I’ve read them (I doubt anyone has) but I did spend quite a number of happy hours on several occasions delving into the volumes for no particular reason. In my article on EH Carr History as Progress (see below), I said:

Stumbling upon a row of twenty-seven encyclopaedia style books which encompass the seven volumes of Science and Civilisation in China was an amazing experience. I can’t say that I’ve read that much. Although I did make it a practice over a period of months to come in and browse the index and read some of the chapters within various books.

I heartily encourage you to try it yourself someday.

Jared Diamond in Further Readings says:

Preeminent among regional accounts of technology is the series Science and Civilization in China, by Joseph Needham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), of which 5 volumes in 16 parts have appeared since 1954, with a dozen more parts on the way.

I’m not particularly against the history department at Cambridge University, but they do seem to have an equivocal attitude to EH Carr even today. In my third article on EH Carr, I said:

Carr also criticises his own university Cambridge for a narrowness of focus in its curriculum over the past 40 years.

He particularly says with regard to its ignoring of China:

What may well be regarded in future as the greatest historical work produced in Cambridge during the past decade has been written entirely outside the history department and without any assistance from it: I refer to Dr Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China.

(Thousands of university students each year read my three articles on EH Carr particularly one and two but I never hear a word from them. I hope they acknowledge me in the essays they write but I am cynical enough to doubt it.)

6 Conclusions

6.1 The relationship of these references to Diamond’s thesis

The areas covered in the literature above are:

  • Human genetic variation and the evolutionary history of populations through an analysis of genetics. (1994-95)
  • A multi-volume research summary of the state of the art in understanding the history of human kind, particularly the early history. (1992-94)
  • Alfred Crosby on the biological consequences of the old world and new world meeting post-1492. (1972, 1986, 1994)
  • The history of the settlement of Polynesia and its implications for the impact of physical and environmental conditions as a natural experiment of history. (1967-1994)
  • Research into the beginnings of agriculture. Ideas on what caused hunter-gathers to become farmers (they didn’t appear to willingly leap at the prospect). Why farming, grazing and population expansion changed the nature of humankind? (1973-1995).
  • The development of food crops and where they came from.
  • Research into the history of the domestication of animals. (1981-1992)
  • The development of science and technology in China compared to the West.

The literature surveyed doesn’t answer or cover all of Jared Diamond’s topics in Guns, Germs and Steel. We haven’t covered conflict, weapons technology and the germs taken mainly from the old world to the new worlds in any great detail (though Crosby provides a good introduction to the subject). And, we haven’t covered technology in any detail. Although comparisons between the science and technology of China and the West covers much of recorded history in detail.

I think, however, that the literature cited does give some indication regarding:

1 Why Diamond’s east-west axis of Eurasia versus the north south axis of the Americas (a more complex question than Diamond outlines) and the history of human expansion is important. (Sub-Saharan Africa also comes into this as both the cradle of humanity and the difficulty of the Saharan desert as a land route.)

2 The settlement of Polynesia gives a real experimental history of what happens when the same human group settles different spaces and environments with differing potentials for inter-group communication.

3 An insight that the beginnings of agriculture is a far more complex topic than was once thought.

4 An insight into the domestication of animals and the implications for herder and farmer conflict.

5 A profound insight particularly regarding the initial locations of plants and animals and why certain areas were more productive than others, creating a history of haves and have nots from the very earliest of times.

6.2 World History

I was unaware until very recently that some historians had been analysing and teaching what is now known as World History or Big History for around fifty years.

My ignorance is not unusual, mainstream historians do not yet promote the world history approach.

Indeed, the reason that I have written twelve articles on the subject of What is History? is because of my ignorance of the new discipline of World History. Because my approach is distinct, I don’t regret it.

Nevertheless, my next article What is History? #13 will address the issue of World History and why in my view it will become the guiding overview to all human history.

World History and historical research and analysis in general will gain a significant boost in the near future with big data and the analytical capabilities of AI.

Key Words: Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel, further readings, references, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geogra­phy of Human Genes, The Great human Diasporas, Göran Burenhult, The Illustrated History of Humankind, Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, Ecological Imperialism, Germs Seeds and Animals, Mar­vin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, Marshall Sahlins, William McNeill, Vere Gordon Childe, Brian Fagan, Patrick Vinton Kirch, The Evolution of the Polyne­sian Chiefdoms, The Wet and the Dry, John McNeill, Robert MacArthur and Edward O Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography, Kent Flannery, The origins of agriculture, The origins of the village as a settlement type in Mesoamerica and the Near East, Jack Rodney Harlan, Crops and Man, The Living Fields, Harry Vaughn Harlan, Theodore Hymowitz, Richard MacNeish, The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life, The evolution of community patterns in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico and speculation about the cultural processes, Peter Ucko, G. W. Dimbleby, R. Tringham, Man, Settlement and Urbanism, Philip E. Smith, Land use, settlement patterns and subsistence agriculture, Juliett Clutton-Brock, Domesticated Animals from Early Times, Horse Power, Augusto Azzaroli, An Early History of Horsemanship, Thomas Cucchi, Benjamin Arbuckle, Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, EH Carr, What is History, 

Further Information


Theodore Hymowitz Jack Rodney Harlan: A biographical Memoir National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 82: 157-169, 2003. (Google for Internet copy)





  1. You can bet I’m sharing this with John so he can check out the random old books and papers that you think we should know about.

    1. Author

      I’m hoping you’ll enjoy the commentary on them, but if you need more, I’m sure I can point you in the right direction. I’ve also got some old photocopies from Richard MacNeish and Kent Flannery’s papers, which I enjoyed re-reading!

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