REVIEW: “Guns, Germs, & Steel”

“Taking Sides”

Geography as a Precursor to Economy, Capitalism, & Colonialism

Studied work builds upon studied work; and in this case as well, when questioning the European subjugation of Africa, two professors well versed in the history of human geography debate the issue of “cause”.  As a professor of physiology and biogeography, Jared Diamond argues that colonial powers were able to subjugate the African people because of technological factors, “widespread literacy, and political organization.”  At the core of his argument is the idea that these advantages were the result of “differences in real estate”[1]—that over time, the Europeans were better positioned, geographically, to acquire these advantages; and that the continent of Africa’s’ great landmass and isolating areas (either by desert, rainforest, or disease), had many natural barriers that prevented expansion and the growth of capital necessary to it.[2]   Lucy Jarosz, associate professor of geography at the University of Washington, finds flaw in Diamond’s evaluation, stressing that cultural and economic factors (including the spread of capitalism) were the main causes of colonialism in an imperial European quest for resources.  Jarosz questions Diamond’s assertions that geography played any role in keeping in keeping Africa “backwards” enough to subjugate.  She believes that by promoting this point of view, Diamond lends credence to the popular myth that Africa was indeed, backwards; in making her counterargument she uses the pre-colonial history of Madagascar as a discussion example.[3]

Diamond begins his evaluation by first acknowledging that “Africa was the sole cradle of human evolution for millions of years” adressing the paradox that the “birthplace of humanity” would eventually become subject to Europe following an “enormous head start”[4] by the African continent.  He pinpoints Vasco da Gama’s arrival to the African coast in 1498, and his subsequent return (with a fleet armed with cannons) to secure East Africa’s most important port, as the starting point of a “collision” that would ultimately favor Europe and their availability of “technology, widespread literacy, and political organization.”[5] He supports this theory by contending that these three advantages “arose historically from the development of food production” and summarizes the delay in food production, stating that it was a result of “Africa’s paucity of domesticable native animal and plant species, its much smaller area suitable for indigenous food production, and its north-south axis, which retarded the spread of food production and inventions.”[6] He argues that many native African animals, much unlike their European equivalents, were never domesticated—and, not for lack of trying; He concludes that if only some of Africa’s larger species were able to be domesticated, they could have posed a formidable threat to Europe’s imperialistic intentions. Native plant species faced a domestication issue of their own, and although Africa “did yield indigenous crops,” there was “fewer varieties than grew in Asia.”  He attributes this to the axis of travel; Africa’s being north-south with “…zones differing greatly in climate, habitat, rainfall, day length,” whereas in Asia, “crops and animals moved easily between Eurasian societies thousands of miles apart at the same latitude and sharing similar climates and day lengths.”[7]

In Lucy Jarosz’ counterargument, she shows appreciation for “Diamond’s emphasis upon the role of geography” but concern over what she perceives as a “narrow definition” of the term.  She believes that “geography encompasses the realms of the humanities and the social sciences in its examination and explanation of society-environment relations.”[8] Jarosz cites waves of colonial and cultural influence in Madagascar by Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa that had much different consequences than that of European conquests.  She contends that the country had a foundation of livestock, agriculture, and political structure with the Merina monarchy “when Diego Diaz ‘discovered’ Madagascar in 1500.”[9]  The Merina held political and economic “relationships with Britain and France (that) were used by competing political units on the island…to advance their political and economic agendas.” The Merina held on to their sovereignty for many years with treaties and trade, even conducting diplomatic negotiations with the United States in 1863.  Only when the monarchy aligned itself with Britain for defense from French conquest, did it lose its independence. The British would “trade” for Zanzibar while “relinquishing” Madagascar to the French, defeating the purpose of the pact.  “In 1896, the French claimed the island as one of its colonies, abolished the Merina monarchy, and ended trade with Britain and the United States, while a system of French monopolies and oligopolies dominated trade and credit.”[10] She asserts that the pre-French wave of “colonization established settled forms of agriculture and developed international trade in agricultural products to build and maintain the wealth and power of local, regionally based elites,” and that the French “goal was to reshape the economy and commerce so as to reorient and extract wealth and profit for French companies and creditors, rather than for the further enrichment” of the indigenous population.  She challenges that racism and the cut-throat nature of capitalism was the death knell for Madagascar’s independence.[11]

Ultimately, the conclusions of both professors have merit, although from my personal position, I find fault with Jarosz’ accusation of oversight Diamond’s behalf, of racism and imperialism, charging that “the emphasis upon environmental difference in Guns, Germs, and Steel lets us off the hook in terms of thinking deeply about geopolitical and economic relationships and the contributions of human ingenuity, imagination, and even cruelty to agricultural development and change.”[12]  I find her tone and lesson she provides in defining “geography,” pedantic, considering his credentials and position[13] relative to hers.  There was no “oversight” in my interpretation of the reading:  Diamond acknowledges racism[14], but it isn’t the topic he is focusing on; his evaluation seems “pre-racism” (or at least how we would commonly define it). His focus is not on guns, literacy, or politics, but on the geographical factors necessary to advance those things–and that Europe had those factors in its favor.  Jarosz’ points throughout her essay cannot and should not be ignored, as her and Diamond’s positions are easily and naturally reconcilable.  She puts it very straightforward in stating “environmental history and differences alone do not explain why today Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world.  The importance of geopolitical relationships, the development of capitalism, and the dynamics of regional, national and global food networks within specific environments are critical components of an accurate understanding of inequality and poverty.”[15] Diamond’s position DOES lay the groundwork for hers.  Jarosz’ work can stand equally alongside his, as a reminder in critical study and evaluation of context.  She puts it eloquently with her closing words,

We must not neglect the complex linkages and relationships among European and African societies and environments, as well as the realities of imperialism, power, and racism, when explaining the harsh realities of inequality and poverty that surrounds us.[16]

ALL sources from the reading:  TAKING SIDES : Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #3

[1] TAKING SIDES : Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #3: 40.

[2] I had never considered the scope of the geographical challenges faced by Africa’s “travel axis”

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7] Ibid., 43-44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Ibid., 46.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Jared Diamond, professor of physiology and biogeography at UCLA Lucy Jarosz, associate professor of geography at the University of Washington, Ibid., 40.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] Ibid., 48.

[16] Ibid., 49.


2 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Guns, Germs, & Steel”

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