GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL – Jared Diamond’s Theory of the Development of Civilizations

SUBJECTS — World History/Cultures; Health;

AGE;  14+; 2005; 2 hrs 45 minutes in three episodes of approximately 55 minutes each.

Note: The Public Broadcasting System offers maps, background, and lesson plans for Guns, Germs and Steel at This Learning Guide doesn’t reinvent that wheel but focuses on: (1) the Covid-19 Pandemic in light of the insights of Guns, Germs and Steel and (2) perspectives on Professor Diamond’s theories, including some critiques of his conclusions.

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This PBS documentary presents Jared Diamond’s insightful theory on why Western civilization with its Guns, Germs and Steel was able to dominate other societies from the 16th through the 20th centuries. The description of the role of germs from zoonotic diseases is especially relevant in a time of viral pandemic.

Professor Diamond contends that Western technological superiority was not due to any European intellectual or genetic superiority.  Instead, he demonstrates that a  crucial role was played by the availability of high-protein plants, animals that could be domesticated, geographic location, and diseases for which indigenous peoples had no immunity. The film is based on Diamond’s award-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

Fertile Crescent

Smallpox Victim


Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay, Tom Felton, Devon Terrell

Director: Claire McCarthy


Professor Diamond’s theories provide students with a lens through which to make sense of many of the forces that shape history. This series puts the challenges posed by the novel corona virus into historical perspective.   The film also introduces geography as a scientific discipline.




Watch the film with your children and discuss something from the movie that relates to their own experience or might interest them. You can start by talking about the meaning of different words:  zoonotic, herd immunity, and R-naught.  Check the discussion questions for topics that might interest your children.


The question asked by the New Guinean man was, “Why you white men have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?”  Professor Diamond expanded his attempt to answer into an inquiry about why European civilization was able to conquer so much of the world.  Diamond says that he came up with his theories by asking “big questions.”

It should be noted that the theories of Guns, Germs and Steel have their critics and that in the normal process of science they will be tested with new research, and then recalibrated or supplanted altogether with new insights.

Dr. Diamond’s theories have been the launching point for serious academic explorations of the development of Western Society.

For a fascinating book taking the analysis to the next steps, see The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Heinrich, 2020.


PBS provides a vocabulary list with definitions. Here are a few more.

cargo:  a New Guinean expression for manufactured goods and inventions. The origin of the word is from the cargo that Europeans brought to New Guinea in their ships.

cytokine:  a type of protein that has the effect of either stimulating or calming a person’s immune response.

cytokine storm: a severe immune reaction in which the body releases an excess of cytokines into the blood leading to organ failure, multiple organ failure, and in extreme cases, death. It is thought that cytokine storm is a cause of death from Covid-19.

geography: a branch of science that deals with the description, distribution, and interaction of the diverse physical, biological, and cultural features of the earth’s surface.

herd immunity: the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results when a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease as a result of having developed antibodies to a previous infection or through vaccination.

“novel” corona virus:  a corona virus that human beings have never before been exposed to and for which we have no immunity.

pandemic: a disease occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.

quarantine: a state or period of time in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or who have been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed. The derivation of this word is that during the plague pandemic called “the Black Death,” 1347 to 1351, the port city of Ragusa in Italy tried to prevent the plague from reaching the city by requiring sailors to remain on their ships for 40 days to demonstrate that they were not ill.

R0 or R-naught: the average number of people who will contract a contagious disease from one person with that disease.  The goal of public health officials  is to drive the R-naught to  less than 1, in which case new infections will decline and eventually stop.  An R-naught of 1 means that the illness is stable and not increasing or decreasing.  An R-naught of more than one means that the disease is increasing.

zoonotic: a disease caused when a pathogen (a virus or a bacteria that causes illness) that normally exists in non-human animal populations begins to infect human beings.


Additional discussion questions can be developed from the section on Assignments, Projects, and Activities.

Discussion Questions Relating to the Covid-19 Pandemic

1. Name a disease or public health challenge of pandemic proportions: one that causes death or serious injury on a world-wide basis.

[Note to teachers: Ask this question repeatedly and put the responses on the board to come up with a list of fifteen. Confirm student input with the statistics below if they name one of the 14 diseases or public health challenges mentioned in the Suggested Response.  TWM suggests making sure the list includes, through direct instruction if necessary, child sexual abuse, road traffic injuries, alcohol use disorder, drug use disorder, smoking, gun violence, suicide, and obesity (without shaming obese students). Including these in the list will expand students’ thinking about causes of death or grave injury that society must deal with. Several apply to risky conduct often engaged in by teenagers.]

Suggested Response:  Here are some examples, there are others:

  1. Seasonal Influenza (Depending on the year, in the U.S. alone: 9 million – 45 million illnesses, 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations, and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths; worldwide 294 000-518 000 deaths);
  2. Smoking Tobacco (Worldwide: more than 7 million deaths per year; 41,000 in the U.S.; smoking is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide);
  3. Cancer (9.6 million deaths worldwide in 2018);
  4. Air Pollution (Causes or contributes to 4.3 million deaths each year);
  5. Diarrhea (Caused by contaminated water; kills 4.3 million people each year);
  6. Obesity (Doesn’t kill directly, but increases the risk of all-causes of death including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, etc. and also contributes to mental illness and body pain with difficulty in physical functioning);
  7. Child sexual abuse (Like obesity, not a direct killer but has grave consequences for many of its victims; in the U.S. about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse (in each 30 student class evenly divided between boys and girls, that’s 4 girls and 1 boy); 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child or the child’s family knows; childhood sexual abuse is higher in some other countries than in the U.S.; some studies found that the prevalence is:  40% in China, 37.8% in Australia, 32.2% in Costa Rica, 31% in Tanzania, 30.7% in Israel, 28.1% in Sweden);
  8. Malaria (Worldwide in 2017 killed 435 000; 93% in Africa);
  9. Cardiovascular disease (Worldwide: 17.9 million people die each year);
  10. Road Traffic Injuries (Worldwide: 1.35 million people killed each year with 20 – 50 million non-fatal injuries; costs an estimated 3% of the gross national product of most nations);
  11. Drug Use Disorder (67,367 people died in the U.S. from drug overdose in 2018; 2% of adults living in US households suffered from drug use disorder (2009 study);
  12. Alcohol Use Disorder ( 88,000 people die in the U.S. each year; Worldwide alcohol use disorder causes 3 million deaths each year).
  13. Gun Violence (No matter where a person stands on the 11th Amendment, we all want gun violence to decrease; in 2017, 39,773 Americans died of gun violence; and in 2016 the mortality rate was more than 250,000 died worldwide; this is a preventable public health problem); and
  14. Suicide  (U.S.: 47,173 deaths in 2017; Worldwide, close to 800,000).

[As a follow-up, students can be asked to select one of the diseases or public health challenges discussed in class and to research and write an essay on how modern society is responding. Ensure a wide range of essays by requiring each student (or if working in groups, each group of students) to pick a different item on the list.  In a later class students can present their research in a mini-symposium.  The class can have a follow-up discussion on ideas about how to prevent the disease or public health challenge. If any of the suggestions seem particularly innovative, students can be encouraged to write to experts in the efforts to  prevent or ameliorate these diseases or public health challenges. You never know what will happen.]

2. Give an example of a pandemic that does not cause death or grave injury?  These could be easily treated with medicine or simply not that dangerous. [Remind students that a pandemic is a disease occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.]

Suggested Response:  These include: the common cold, ear infections, tooth decay, urinary tract infection, sore throat, sinus infection,  and skin fungus.


3. What are some of the differences between smallpox and Covid-19?

Suggested response:  The most important difference is that smallpox was much more lethal than Covid-19. Both spread primarily through droplets in the air when infected persons cough, sneeze or even speak. Both can also be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids. Both are caused by viruses.


4.   Smallpox has been eradicated throughout the world through an aggressive vaccination program. It was officially declared eradicated in 1980 and there have been no outbreaks since that time. Medical science still works on vaccines for smallpox but only as a defense against its possible use as a biological weapon.  In most of the 20th century, all Americans received smallpox inoculations. However, this practice has ceased.  Are people in the U.S. as vulnerable to smallpox as the indigenous Americans were when the Spaniards first came to the New World?  Explain your answer.

Suggested Response:  No.  Many modern-day Americans trace their ancestry to countries in which people had developed some genetic immunity to smallpox.  That would probably be carried over into the current U.S. population.

[An interesting follow-up question or research project would be to ask if the descendants of the indigenous Americans would have developed some genetic immunity to smallpox.  The answer is probably, yes.  The survivors of the great smallpox pandemic of the America brought on by the Spaniards would probably have had some natural immunity.]

5. What aspects of a society are tested by a pandemic?

Suggested Response:  There are many.  They include:  1) the medical care system; 2) the quality of the society’s leadership; 3) the society’s social cohesion (the extent to which people pull together to fight the pandemic); 4) the underlying health of the citizens (people with co-morbidities such as addiction to smoked tobacco, diabetes, obesity, etc. are more likely to die from Covid-19 than others); 5) the society’s social organization; 6) the society’s technological abilities (to develop and test drugs and vaccines to stop the pandemic).

6. What are the latest theories on the origin of Covid-19?

Suggested Response:  This will change over time, but the important point is that it came from some other species, probably bats or pigs, and probably from a wet market in Wuhan, China.  Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease.

7.  There are two critical elements in the evaluation of any vaccine or treatment for a disease.  What are they?

Suggested Response:  Safety and effectiveness.

Discussion Questions Relating to Perspectives on Guns, Germs and Steel, Including Critiques

8. Professor Diamond talks about the ease of the dissemination of agriculture and technology from east to west in Eurasia, the role of mountain ranges in blocking the spread of technology in the Americas, and the role of particular types of domesticated plants in the development of society. What changes in the modern world affect whether or not those factors still apply?

Suggested Response: [Note to teachers: There is no one correct response. The goal of asking the question is to get students to think about changes in society and technology and their effect on the world. Some suggestions follow:] (1) the availability of global travel, communications, and the Internet mean that technology can be instantaneously spread over the world; (2) global travel means that infectious diseases can spread very quickly all over the world; (3) the increased computing power of society increases society’s power to adapt to new challenges; (4) national and global organizations such as the CDC and the WHO also increase the ability of the world community to respond to new challenges; 5) plants and agriculture are still the basis for our food chain; this has not changed; 6) the meat and dairy industry will, within our lifetimes, probably be eliminated or much altered (because the meat and dairy industry are too costly in terms of water and land used, pollution, and increased risk of pandemic from factory farms or meat markets, to be kept up in a world with the current human population, especially with the advent of fake meats derived from soy, pea protein, mushrooms and other ingredients, and soon meat from a few muscle cells taken from live animals but gown in vats in a factory without the need for maintaining and killing billions of animals each year).


9. Jared Diamond’s theory evaluates societies from several specific vantage points including the development of technology and the power of one to dominate another. What are some other ways to evaluate societies?

Suggested Response: Here are a few examples. Students will, no-doubt, come up with their own. 1) happiness (note that one country, Bhutan measures not its gross national product, but its rating on a happiness index to determine the level of happiness among its people); 2) access to social services; 3) freedom – free expression, freedom to petition; freedom to assemble; 4) democracy and representative government; artistic freedom; 5) distribution of wealth.


10. What does Professor Diamond’s theory have to say about whether the people in a society are happy?

Suggested response:  The simple answer is, “not much.” His theory tries to explain only why 16th – 20th century European countries were able to conquer other peoples and establish colonial empires. Diamond is not attempting to evaluate which societies were the happiest, the most free, the least subject to the ravages of war, etc.


11. Does technological advancement and the wealth of a society necessarily increase happiness?

Suggested Response:  [Note to teachers: There is no one correct response. The goal of asking the question is to get students to think about the issue. Here are a few points that will help get the discussion going.] First, the distribution of the wealth in a society makes a big difference in the overall happiness of people living there. A society can be very rich but if those riches are concentrated among a few, and the mass of society is poor or stressed by the process of making a living, happiness of the overall society will be lower than if the wealth in the society is more evenly distributed. Second, the wealth and technological sophistication of a society doesn’t necessarily increase happiness. Certainly, improved medical care and the ability to provide good food with ample variety increases happiness, but technology can isolate people — cell phones and computers have done much to lessen direct, in-person communication. The technology of  weaponry, has hurt many people.

12. Professor Diamond’s theory assumes that all societies would, if they could, conquer other societies. Is that necessarily true?

Suggested Response:  [Note to teachers:  There is no one correct response. Asking the question and getting students to think about the topic is the goal.] There are many small countries in the world that are content to stay small.

13. Jared Diamond’s theory focuses on the following factors in allowing European nations to conquer and dominate other societies: development of agriculture based on protein-rich grains with surpluses that allowed the division of labor and the development of experts such as scribes and metal workers; sophistication of technology, particularly in weapons and transportation technology; the development of central political control; and the spread of zoonotic disease. Can you think of any important factors that allowed European societies to conquer much of the world that Professor Diamond left out?

Suggested Response:  Some economists point to the following institutions that assisted in the growth of acquisitive and powerful societies in Europe, and by extension the U.S.A.: (1) monetary exchange; (2) the institution of private property; (3) disrespect for other cultures and their religions; (4) racism; (5) lack of ethics (examples include the violation of treaties with native Americans by U.S. governments and the effort of the Europeans (chiefly the British) to addict people in China to opium during the 18th and 19th centuries for the purpose of being able to trade opium for tea, silk and other luxuries; this resulted in two wars in which the Chinese sought to stop the British opium trade; unfortunately, the Chinese lost both. – But is there any country that hasn’t, in some way, acted unethically at some point in its history?


14. Some people have criticized Professor Diamond’s theories as holding that the economic and technological development of societies is determined only by geography. Is this a valid criticism?

Suggested Response:  This is how the professor responds:

If you make a complex argument, there will be people out there who will simplify and misuse it. I recognize that there are people who will say geography deals out these immutable cards and there’s nothing we can do about it. But one can show the evidence and say there is something we can do about it. Look at Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan. They recognized that their biggest disadvantage was public health. They didn’t say, “We got these tropical diseases—it’s inevitable.” Instead they said, “We have these tropical diseases and they are curable and all it takes is money so let’s invest in curing the diseases.” Today they are rich, virtually First World countries. That shows that poverty is something you can do something about.

People have a misunderstanding that geography means environmental determinism, and that poor countries are doomed to be poor and they should just shut up and lie down and play dead. But in fact, knowledge is power. Once you know what it is that’s making you poor, you can use that knowledge to make you rich. National Geographic Interview with Jared Diamond by Stefan Lovgren, July 6, 2005


Covid-19 Pandemic Assignments, Projects, and Activities

Many of the discussion questions are excellent essay topics.

[The following questions can be posed as class discussion questions or research questions for one-page essays or lists. They can be given to individual students or to small groups of students to research together and report to the class. Students should be required to provide at least two reliable sources from the Internet for their responses.]

1. What are the similarities and differences between influenza  – one of the European introduced diseases that devastated the indigenous populations of the Americas — and Covid-19.  [The question can be expanded by substituting any of the following for the first disease mentioned: smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, malaria, measles, and scarlet fever.]

2. What are some peoples, other than the indigenous Americans and the Koi-Sahn, who were devastated by European-introduced disease. [For teachers: the aborigines of Australia, Polynesians]

3. What are the similarities and differences between the way the U.S. fought the 1917-1918 influenza pandemic and the way that the U.S. is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

4. What European induced diseases afflicted indigenous people in the Americas? [For teachers: smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases (other than syphilis), typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, and pertussis]

5. What zoonotic infections other than Covid-19 have emerged in the world in the last 100 years: What was their fatality rate, their R-Naught, and total death toll? [For teachers: these include various forms of influenza, SARS, and MERS.]

6. Why are bats thought to be a source of zoonotic infections? [One page]

7. List at least five zoonotic diseases that can be deadly to human beings. [One page] [For teachers: these include anthrax, rabies, smallpox, typhus, Lassa fever, Ebola, salmonella, West Nile fever, and influenza]


Assignments, Projects, and Activities Relating to Perspectives on Guns, Germs and Steel, Including Critiques

See Discussion Questions for essay topics.

8.   Dr. Diamond’s theory is that geography determines which societies can develop the strength to conquer other societies. And certainly, the technology and resistance to zoonotic diseases that he describes were keys in the ability of European societies to conquer other peoples. However, some scientists and economists have identified other factors of European civilization that fostered the technology and ability to establish colonial empires. Research some of those.

Ideas for responses:  The Wikipedia article on Diamond’s work contains the following paragraph:

John Brätland, an Austrian school economist of the U.S. Department of the Interior, complained in a Journal of Libertarian Studies article that Guns, Germs, and Steel entirely neglects individual action, concentrating solely on the centralized state; fails to understand how societies form (assessing that societies do not exist or form without a strong government); and ignores various economical institutions, such as monetary exchange that would allow societies to “rationally reckon scarcities and the value of actions required to replace what is depleted through human use”. Instead, [Mr. Brätland] concludes that because there was no sophisticated division of labor, private property rights, and monetary exchange, societies like that on Easter Island could never progress from the nomadic stage to a complex society. Those factors, according to Brätland, are crucial, and at the same time neglected by Diamond.,_Germs,_and_Steel#Success_and_failure Accessed on May 5, 2020, citing John Brätland. “An Austrian Reexamination of Recent Thoughts on the Rise and Collapse of Societies” (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on January 10, 2017.

9. Write a paper describing the severity and effects of three past pandemics: the 1918/1919 Influenza Pandemic, the “the Black Death” of 1347 to 1351; and the smallpox outbreak among Native Americans after the Europeans first crossed the Atlantic.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


For college-level readers, Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steele and Collapse are excellent reading.



Websites supporting statistics in Discussion Question #1:

  1. Disease Burden of Influenza, CDC, accessed May 12, 2020, and John Paget. et al, Journal of Global Health, Published online 2019 Oct 22. Seasonal Flu Death Estimates Increase Worldwide
  2. Smoking & Tobacco Use, CDC Fast Facts accessed 5/14/20
  3. Cancer, WHO accessed 5/12/20;
  4. Air Pollution, WHO, accessed 5/12/20
  5. Drinking-Water, WHO, accessed 5/12/20
  6. Adult Obesity, Causes, and Consequences, CDC, accessed May 12, 2020; Adult Obesity Facts, CDC, Accessed May 14, 2020
  7. Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse, CDC, accessed 5/12/20, and An Epidemiological Overview of Child Sexual Abuse, Singh et al, J Family Med Prim Care. 2014 Oct-Dec.
  8. Number of Malaria Deaths, WHO, accessed May 12, 2020;
  9. Cardiovascular Diseases, WHO, accessed 5/12/20 and Preventing Heart Disease, CDC accessed 5/12/20;
  10. Road Traffic Injury, WHO, Accessed 5/12/20;
  11. Opioid Overdose, CDC, accessed 5/13/20; Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2009 Oct; 11(5): 353–359; World Drug Report 2019: UN Office on Drugs and Crime; Substance Abuse in the United States – Findings from Recent Epidemiological Studies, 2009;
  12. Alcohol Facts and Statistics, NIH; Alcohol, WHO;
  13. CDC Fastats – All Injuries accessed 5/23/20; There’s a New Global Ranking of Gun Deaths, This is Where the U.S. Stands, PBS, accessed 5/23/20;
  14. CDC Fastats – Suicide and Self-Inflicted Injury; Suicide Data, WHO, accessed 5/23/20;


The web pages cited in the body of the Learning Guide, and

Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond,

Definitions are from a number of sources, including Merriam Webster online Dictionary and Oxford.

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden. It was published on May 24, 2020.

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