By Jared Diamond
In Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond describes the conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, in which Pizarro’s small band of soldiers defeated the Incas, capturing the Incan emperor Atahuallpa and routing his much, much larger army. As Diamond puts it, “Why did Pizarro capture Atahuallpa and kill so many of his followers, instead of Atahuallpa’s vastly more numerous forces capturing and killing Pizarro? After all, Pizarro had only 62 soldiers mounted on horses, along with 106 foot soldiers, while Atahuallpa commanded an army of about 80,000. . . . How did Pizarro come to be there to capture him, instead of Atahuallpa coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?’
More broadly, Diamond asks in the Introduction, “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?”
Diamond proposes credible answers to these questions without having to resort to arguments of racial or cultural superiority of one group of people over another. His arguments are based on an analysis of geography and climate, natural resource availability, and the effects, both intended and unintended, of population density in urban civilization on non-urbanized societies. His analysis completely eliminates the need for racial arguments to explain power differentials between human societies.
In Collapse, Diamond attempts to answer the opposite question–why societies fail. He surveys a variety of extinct civilizations, including Easter Island, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in Colorado, the Mayans of Central America, and the Greenland Norse. He considers and examines societies that faced serious challenges but did not become extinct, such as the New Guinea Highlands, Tokugawa Japan, and the Inuit of the Arctic. He explores currents nations or areas that are at significant risk of failure, such as Rwanda, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, China, and Australia.
While his analysis is extensive and complex, he manages to extract some straightforward conclusions. For example, one common factor that all of the failed societies he considered share is that they cut down all their trees, or otherwise decimated critical natural resources. Part 4, titled “Practical Lessons”, explores the question of why some societies make these and other disastrous decisions, and suggests a roadmap for success.
Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse address the social and economic aspects of human society on an extremely broad scope and provide an unique understand how human society got to this point, and how we might avoid some of the most destructive the mistakes of the past.