The Lethal Gift of Livestock. Guns, Steel and Society by Jared Diamond


The chapter “The Lethal Gift of Livestock” by Jared Diamond discloses his version of the evolution of human society from a very original and interesting point of view. He attributes the greater role in the division of political and economical power to the smallest living organisms on the Earth, germs. The central idea of the analyzed chapter is that the size of the organisms is inversely proportional to the danger and possible harm that may be done by these organisms. What is more, he gives his account of those who are responsible for the extinction of the indigenous people of America and other changes that have proved to be of great importance for the creation of the current situation in the world, they are domestic animals and cattle.

The classification of G. Lenski

The core factor used by J. Diamond is the inequality of the inhabitants of different regions of the world caused by different factors. The classification of societies and the description of the variety of risks as presented by Gerhard Lenski are based on the same criterion of inequality. The author asserts that the main factors that determine the degree of inequality of societies are the surplus resources available in society and the technological development of society. He singles out several categories of societies. The first type is “hunting-and-gathering society”. This type of society is characterized by the lowest degree of inequality that is caused by a comparatively low surplus of food and a low quantity of people. Nowadays there exist societies that belong to this type; the health risk in them is caused mainly by a shortage of provision and inability to resist the negative influence of the environment. It is worth mentioning that, Laurie Wermuth also adopts a social perspective of the assessment of health.

The second type of society is called “horticultural society”, and it is superior to the first type of classification, for it is provided by a higher amount of surplus resources. However, the main dangers that may be faced by these societies are connected with the weather changes, which may affect the crops negatively. Thus, these societies may be damaged by a shortage of providers and illnesses that are caused by insects. This rule mainly concerns tropical countries. Here the overlap with Diamond’s theory may be observed, for the spread of the diseases caused by insects, such as, for instance, mosquitoes, belong to unfavorable climatic conditions.

Besides, G. Lenski singles out the societies with advanced horticultural production that are more successful because of the application of technology to the development of agriculture (the usage of plows for tilling). Better development of society causes the growth of population and greater inequality among the people. As a consequence of these factors, there appears greater risk for health in the form of infections and epidemics. Lenski explains the causes of the collapse of Mesopotamia, as the combination of the increased density of population and imperfection of sanitary status of society that caused epidemics. The same ideas may be found in Diamond’s theory that attributes the most dangerous infectious diseases to the development of the Agricultural Revolution and to the fact that people lived among their sewerage (Diamond 205).

The next type of Lenski’s classification is “agrarian society”, where the degree of social inequality is the highest. The main threats to human health in this type of society were infections that attacked mostly populous areas. Lenski stated that bubonic plague killed about 45 % of the European population in the 14th century; still, these human losses had a positive consequence, as it was stated by J. Diamond, as after the epidemics the population acquired and developed immunity to nasty germs. Both scientists, Diamond and Lensky, define the main cause of the extinction of the indigenous population of America as the inability to fight against and resist the germs brought by the colonizers. The consequence of this inability to resist germs’ attack was disastrous: “Hawaii’s population reduced from ½ million in 1779 to 84 000 in 1853 and then smallpox hit and killed 10 000 more” (Diamond 214).

Diamond says that

Tropical diseases did impact European invaders. Cholera in tropical S.E. Asia, malaria throughout the tropical old world, yellow fever in tropical Africa, and forestalled European domination of these parts of the world compared to the New World, by 400 years (215).

Differences of immunities of the Indigenous Americans and the European invaders

However, the harm done by the germs of the American indigenous population could not be compared with the devastating effect of European diseases brought by the colonizers. The reason for that difference between the seriousness of the germs’ effect was that European germs were stronger, for they had an opportunity to improve in the course of interaction of the Eurasian population in the course of trading relations. Besides, Diamond stated that the most dangerous human diseases evolved from the diseases of animals. They were smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, etc. (Diamond 196-197). The Eurasian peoples had tamed several animals that became domestic animals, and they were the carriers of those diseases. However, the indigenous people of America had tamed only five animals of any sort: the turkey, the lama, the guinea pig, the dog, and the Muscovy duck. This is why they did not have a strong “bacterial weapon” against the invaders, who were equipped with rather strong immunity.


In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the theory of Jared Diamond is multidimensional and thought-provoking. The point of view of the author is original, though the theory has provoked a great amount of criticism among the audience, even the admirers included. The theory was blamed for lack of reliability. However, the theory of Lenski justifies its main postulates.

Works Cited

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. NY: W.W. Norton &Co., 1999.

Wermuth, Laurie. Global Inequality and Human Needs: Health and Illness in an Increasingly Unequal World. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.

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