Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

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Guns, Germ and Steel is a ‘must read’ for entrepreneurs – one of the best reads in the last few decades. It is all about innovation; not just in technology but in other major areas that impacted the development of societies: farming, writing, and politics.  The book explains why it is that the Spaniards conquered the Incas instead of vice versa.  Sure, the Spaniards had the ships and the guns but how is it that they got them first? The question is historic but still relevant; what is it that determines which society wins when they come into conflict? In answering that, the author helps us understand the current distribution of wealth, power and influence among states. It also sheds light on the connection between the pace of innovation and the scale and level of interactions between societies. Not bad for 400 pages!

Jared Diamond is worth listening to. His background is unique: he has training in evolutionary biology, and biogeography, and is a linguist.  He has studied hundreds of societies in South America, Africa, Indonesia, Australia and New Guinea and has developed a model for how those societies evolved as well as the geographic forces that supported them.  He makes his historical detective work interesting: not unlike a CSI episode, explaining why the conclusions are the only logical answer.   The book won a Pulitizer Prize and is recommended widely:  McKinsey Global Research, for example, bought copies for all their partners (smart guys!) because of its valuable insights.

Here are the author’s big ideas:
In the evolutionary quest of societies, the peoples of all continents started in relatively equal positions 13,000 years ago.   The determination of which societies ended up with wealth and power was largely driven by the accident of geography and the availability of indigenous plants and animals suitable for domestication.   Here’s how:

  1. An Equal Start. After 7m years of evolution as humans, about 100,000 years ago, there was a mass migration, and all the continents were populated. Each had a seemingly equal opportunity to succeed economically and politically. Africa had the highest population and was the source of all emigrations. Europe, China and the Americas had significant resources and Oceania was well ahead in water navigation.  All were hunter-gatherers.
  2. Farming Kicked Off The Race. Those who discovered farming first got a head start on the innovations that would begin the path to world leadership.  The Americas started to farm 5,000 years ago, but  the Fertile Crescent had a 4,000 year head start, which led to big differences in the evolution of societies.
  3. Geography, Not Ability, was the Determining Factor. The availability of plant species and native animals that could be domesticated was a key factor & a function of geography.  The size of the landmass  was another key consideration – specifically the amount of land on a horizontal axis so that, humans, plants and animals could travel within the same climactic environment.
  4. Innovation & Farming. Innovation led one society to do better than another.  Farming, as opposed to the hunter-gather nomadic existence was a major innovation.  Farmers could support larger population densities, because of the calories available per acre/labor input.  Societies fed by farmers, developed specialists such as soldiers, inventors, artists and politicians. Soldiers helped societies grow in population size by making it easy to annex tribes (brutally or peacefully).  Innovations in politics made it possible to manage larger communities: bands transitioned to tribes, tribes to chiefdoms and chiefdoms to states.  The increase in population in turn led to more inventors and inventions. The influences flowed both ways, innovations in technology made it easier to conquer and improved farm productivity.  Larger populations had larger armies and required better political organization to survive.
  5. Geography Has Many Implications. Other geographic  factors also determined success in maintaining the pace of innovation.  China has an optimal land mass and resource base.  They innovated before the West in many areas including: ship building, gunpowder, paper writing.  By 1400AD, they were clearly ahead.  However China has a highly unified society: they virtually wiped out competing languages thousands of years ago, and this contributed heavily to an exposure to the risk of bad decision-making by a single leader. China destroyed its ship industry in 1400s and, more recently, endured a cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s.   Europe by contrast was decentralized with multiple competing states – an advantage in innovation.  As an example, Columbus sought funding 5 different times from different states and leaders to support his explorations. Born Italian, he switched allegiance to three different countries in order to secure funding.  Once one European country saw success in the New World, the others felt compelled to follow.  It seems the ideal model is a society that can share innovations and coordinate efforts but is also decentralized to enable innovation to flourish: much like the capitalism in the United States or the entrepreneurial model of Silicon Valley.

This is a fraction of the insights the author offers – the mere scaffolding for the model.  Why do we ignore the effect of great men? What is the role of religion and its important role in societal evolution?  Why did peoples in adjoining and shared geographies fare differently?   The author creates hundreds of “knowledge gaps” for the reader and then goes on to entertain you by filling them with answers.

How to apply this:
A book about our evolution over 13,000 years may not provide pointers for daily management but there are a number of valuable lessons in it.

It is astonishing to step back and look at what we have accomplished as a race in the last 13,000 years after 7 million years of evolution.  What a great tribute to the role of innovation in the improvement of the quality of life.  Even more impressive is how the pace of innovation is accelerating, especially in the last 100 years.  As someone dedicated to businesses at the forefront of innovation, I found the book very motivating.

  • Innovation is made possible by native resources (such as plants, animals and metals) and the ability to exchange and assimilate innovations based on proximity to other innovators.   Historically the pace of innovation exchange was based on geography – either the size of a continent’s east-west axis or its proximity to other continents.  Today’s equivalent of that knowledge transfer mechanism is the internet.  Eighty percent of the world’s population now has access to some form of the internet through cell phone access or better.  The pace and diffusion of innovation will accelerate as the internet and broadband adoption connects people on the planet providing education, communication and wealth creation/exchange opportunities.  As an an example, the government of Paraguay recently committed to buy laptops for every student in the country – amazing.  Appreciation for how innovation diffusion led to where we are today, coupled with technology interconnections we have and are developing, suggest the pace of innovation will continue to accelerate.
  • The book has implications for how we should look at different races.  The fact that all people have comparable innate abilities is not a new concept.  However, Jared Diamond’s explanation for how the fate of races/societies has been determined by essentially a historical accident eliminates any question of ability as a cause.  This represents an opportunity and a challenge.  An opportunity because it means that with the proliferation of knowledge and training, we have a large untapped pool of talent that can join the global economy in a meaningful way.  It represents a challenge to take action since there is no justification (based on ability) for the current location of wealth creation beyond historical accident.
  • The two major variables in the pace of innovation are population density and population size.  Greater density means more people can be fed by a given amount of human and geographic resources, which in turn frees up more human and natural resources for art and technological innovation. The larger the population, the more applicability innovations have.  As an example, the first printing press was built by the Greeks years before the Guttenberg press. However, the size of the population that was able to read and embrace the technology was limited, so it never took off.  Increases in population density and size bring powerful economic benefit from globalization and innovation gains we can expect to see as a larger portion of the world population is fully engaged in the global economy.   Want a large growing market? – target emerging demands in developing countries.

Perhaps the most useful insight lies in understanding where we came from.  Knowing this is incredibly helpful to understand why things are as they are and where we are going.  The primary constant in the last 13,000 years is that innovation is accelerating and we either embrace innovation or to get absorbed by those that do.

Author: Jared Diamond

Who should read it: CEOs, Founders, Managers and Entrepreneurs

Javier Rojas
Javier Rojas is a managing director at Kennet Partners, a private equity firm that invests in growth companies in Europe and North America. He has been reviewing the best business books for awhile, posting summaries of the authors’ big ideas on his blog and also monthly on Entrepreneur Corner at VentureBeat.
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