Department of Science Teaching
Weizmann Institute of Science
Rehovot 76100 Israel
According to Jared Diamond’s popular book Guns, Germs and Steel, human history was more or less predetermined by environmental factors. While Diamond’s argument is clearly argued and supported by a vast amount of scientific evidence, and while he does give some lip-service to the importance of cultural and personal factors (Diamond, 1998, pp. 417–420), I believe that these factors are more important than he allows. Let me start my argument with the description of an historical incident.
On 22 January 1879, 20,000 Zulu warriors, armed primarily with light throwing spears called assegais, stormed a camp of the British army near a hill called Isandhlwana. The British force consisted of 850 Europeans, including the 2nd Warwickshire, a battalion of veterans with twenty-one years’ service. The British infantry was supported by two field guns and a rocket battery, and additionally by about 950 native troops who, though poorly armed and trained, nevertheless provided some support. Within a couple of hours, the British force was annihilated; only a handful of survivors returned to British lines in Natal. The Zulu casualties were estimated at 2000.
How was this possible? Throughout the British colonial experience, small forces of well-armed and trained troops had achieved overwhelming victories over `primitive’ native troops. In fact, just a day after Isandhlwana, 4,000 Zulus attacked a mission station at Rorke’s Drift which was used as a supply dump and hospital. Rorke’s Drift was defended by only 100 British troops, many of them wounded and sick. Yet by morning, the Zulus retreated, and the British, though they suffered many casualties, were left in possession of Rorke’s Drift.
In both cases, the British troops fought bravely, so to what can we attribute the difference in the outcomes? Donald Morris’s detailed account makes it clear that the decisive factor was the quality of leadership. The British officers at Isandhlwana were complacent and conducted themselves and arranged their troops as if they were in a rear area; they did not distribute sufficient ammunition; they failed to send out enough patrols and they downplayed the reports of those that were sent out. In contrast, with only a few hours’ notice, the officers at Rorke’s Drift brilliantly improvised fortifications from bags of food; they placed their troops with care and supplied them with ammunition. During the battle itself, they exercised impeccable tactical judgment.
Jared Diamond describes the defeat of the Incas by Francisco Pizarro at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532, where an Inca army of 80,000 was defeated by a mere 62 mounted men and 106 foot soldiers of the Spanish force. According to Diamond’s thesis, the defeat was foreordained by massive advantages that the Spanish had over the Incas, such as superior weapons and horses, and that these advantages ultimately arose from a favourable ecology in Eurasia in terms of geography, climate, and plants and animals available for domestication. Yet as Morris claims, `A nimble man afoot with an assegai was almost a match for a mounted man with a single-shot carbine, …’ (Morris, 1965, pp. 530-531). One cannot help wondering that if the Incas had pressed home an attack with the courage and fortitude of the Zulus, or if Pizarro had been as negligent as Col. Anthony Durnford at Isandhlwana, the result would have been a massacre of the Spanish.
Of course, one battle does not a war make, and the Zulu state was eventually destroyed when the full might of the British empire was brought to bear upon them, as predicted by Diamond’s thesis. Here we come to the second part of my argument.
Diamond is adamant that the differences in the development of the different continents were not caused by any genetic inferiority or cultural inadequacy (though recognizing significant cultural diversity). This is proved by noting that once a new technology is introduced, it can be rapidly assimilated by indigenous peoples. Notable examples are the adoption of the horse by native peoples of North America and the re-invention of writing by Sequoyah. But why did the adoption stop there? Why do we not see musket factories springing up immediately after the first contacts with European imperialists? If Sequoyah could re-invent writing, why did no one re-invent field guns? Diamond describes how the Chimbu people of New Guinea took rapidly to Western technology, while their neighbours remained conservative. Surely, some cultures should have taken to manufacturing modern weapons, if not to repel the Europeans, then at least to gain ascendancy over their neighbours.
This would all be speculation if there were not an historical precedent, namely, the Japanese adoption of Western technology. The Japanese culture in the nineteenth century was feudal and conservative, and had even abandoned technologies (firearms, long-distance seafaring) that it had once had. Yet less than forty years passed from the Meiji restoration in 1867, which led to a decision to modernize the nation, to the Japanese victory over the European Russians in modern land and sea battles in 1904-5.
The eventual defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi was foreordained despite the setback at Isandlwana. By the mid to late nineteenth century, European technology—steamships, railroads, and breech-loading guns with rifled barrels—was so advanced that no pre-industrial society was likely to catch up (though the Japanese did). But before then, the Spanish hold on South America must have been tenuous in the sixteenth century, and the technological gap between them and the Incas was much less than that between Japan and Europe in the nineteenth century. If the Incas had massacred Pizarro’s troops at Cajamarca, they would certainly have won a respite in which they could have copied or re-invented the Spanish technology. All they really needed was a Shaka to mould their army into a formidable fighting force and an Ito Hirobumi to lead them to modernize.
Presumably, Diamond’s answer would be that the Japanese were already living within the Eurasian ecology with domesticated plants and animals, so they were able to form a society that could both produce the leaders and then follow them into modernization. But this cannot be the whole story, because European imperialism easily overcame other Eurasian societies in China, Indo-China, India, North Africa and the Middle East. I doubt that the Incas could have overcome the European head start and captured Spain, but I do not believe that the domination of the Americas by Europeans need necessarily have been as complete as it was. Diamond is able to explain why the Europeans had a massive head-start, but he does not explain a significant empirical fact of history: Why, when confronted with European technology, did the leaders of almost all cultures not realize that their political and cultural independence depended upon mobilizing their people to adopt European technology?
Diamond, J. 1998. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000
Years. London: Vintage.
Morris, D.R. 1965. The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under
Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879. New York: Simon & Schuster.