How did we all get to be where we are today? The story of guns, germs and steel – Part 3


This is my third post that has nothing to do with cyber security or antimalware.  I enjoy anthropology and want to write about it, and this is one of my only outlets.  I’ll be back to the normal stuff after I finish this series.

In my previous posts, I explained that the reason that Europeans conquered the rest of the world, and not vice versa, is because they were able to generate food surpluses and they had animals native to the area where they lived that could be domesticated.  With animals, they were able to generate food surpluses and also use them in military ventures. 

But better land and domestication of animals is not the whole story.  Europeans were also able to harness the power of germs.  From our human perspective, germs make us sick and sometimes kill us.  Notable examples of this include Black Death in Europe during the middle ages and the Great Influenza just after World War I.  If germs need our bodies to survive, why do they make us so much weaker?  It seems counterintuitive.

From the germs’ perspective, killing us is a side effect of survival.  When a germ infects us, it needs to also spread itself around in order to propagate the species.  Therefore, it causes us to cough, or are noses to run, or other sorts of things that we associate with sickness.  This is the germ’s way of spreading itself to other hosts so it can keep going.  It may kill its victim, but that’s what happens sometimes in the war of survival.  Of course, germs have evolved over time to incubate in its host so that symptoms do not appear at first and the host survives much longer.

Over time, humans develop a resistance to germs.  Like anything, when a great plague runs through a population and ravages it, there will be some people who are genetically resistant to the disease and survive to pass on their genes to the next generation.  This next generation inherits their parents’ resistance and the disease goes away.  Thus, history is filled with examples in Europe where disease ran through the population and killed many of them but gradually, Europeans developed immunity to the worst ones.

When the Europeans landed in the Americas, they brought over their diseases and those wiped out over 90% of the native population.  No diseases made it back the other way (with the possible exception of syphilis although this is disputed).  Why did the Europeans bring their diseases and wipe out the native population, and why were there no diseases waiting for them and send them back to the void from which they came?  The natives had not developed any resistances to the European diseases and this was the ultimate turning point in the European conquest of the rest of the world.

The answer has to do with animals.  When humans harnessed the power of animals, they generated food surpluses.  Food producing societies can support a larger population than hunters and gatherers, and therefore they have children more often.  The population is both larger and denser.  However, the side effect of supporting larger populations by harnessing the power of animals is that animals transmit their diseases to humans.  Humans and animals lived together in nearby compounds.  The humans would live in the house and the animals would live in the barn or the stable next to the house.  Humans would work with the animals every day.  Eventually, diseases jumped from animals to humans (for example, smallpox came to us from pigs).

Worse yet, epidemic diseases only spread when there are large, dense populations of humans living close to each other.  The disease jumps from person to person to person and spreads very quickly.  All of this led to a perfect storm:

  • Europeans were able to domesticate animals because the land mass where they lived were inhabited by animals that were suitable for domestication – pigs, horses, cows, etc.

  • By harnessing the power of the animal, they became food producers and settled in larger populations.
  • However, by living in close quarters with animals, disease eventually jumped to humans.
  • Because the population was large and dense, disease spread quickly among humans.
  • Those humans who were resistant to the disease survived to pass along their genetic resistance to descendants, thus making them more resistant than their ancestors.

Why weren’t there any diseases waiting for the Europeans in the Americas, or Australia, or New Guinea?  Because the people living there were not able to harness the power of animals because there were no animals suitable for domestication (the one exception is the llama in South America, but the native population never used them for food production – only carrying things; they also never lived with them in close quarters).  Because the native population had no animal diseases to acquire resistance, they were vulnerable to the ones that the Europeans brought with them. The disease that ravaged the Europeans’ ancestors now wiped out their native American contemporaries.

There is one exception to the European conquest using germs as an inadvertent weapon. In tropical areas, particularly in Africa, European settlers were beaten back by tropical diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.  Europeans had a much more difficult time penetrating into these areas because they did not have the resistance built up to fend off those germs.  The native Africans got around this problem by living in highland areas; even today, we still don’t have a great battle plan against malaria but modern states like Singapore and Malaysia have managed to eliminate it.

Had the Africans been able to domesticate rhinos, elephants, zebras and hippos, they could have easily used them to become food producers.  They also could have used them for military purposes.  Had they done that, I’d be writing this in Bantu instead of English.  There’s no doubt that elephants and rhinos could have defeated Roman horses.

But they didn’t.  The reason they didn’t is because rhinos, elephants, zebras and hippos are not suitable for domestication.  The ones that did become domesticated were located in Eurasia.  Thus, the answer to the question of why Europeans ended up with all the power is due to the powerful multiplier effect of being food producers and being able to support a class of people who could advance civilization, for better or for worse.

How did we get to where we are today?  It’s because of an “accident” in geography.

Comments (3)

  1. Alan says:

    It looks like part two is missing.  It was as good as parts 1 and 3.

  2. tzink says:

    @Alan: Not sure what happened, but Part 2 has returned.

  3. Peter P says:

    Guns Germs and Steal is a great book, however it was outdated the day it was released. The various fields are expanding and changing so fast that it is difficult for traditional media to keep up. That is not to say the information is wrong, it is just in need of an update. Not to mention Jarred Diamond isn't an anthropologist, he came to anthro's and asked for the info, and some of what he wrote is also skewed a bit. Again not a bad book, but the grain of salt should always be handy.

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