College Of Arts and Sciences | Guns, Germs, and Steel
S104 | 0121 | Conrad, G.

Why did prehistory and history unfold differently on different
continents? Why has the Western Eurasian tradition of civilization
become the dominant one? I propose to explore these global questions—
the central themes of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns,
Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies—in a freshman seminar.

Diamond’s book is an ambitious attempt to provide “a short history of
everybody for the last 13,000 years,” to search for broad patterns in
history and their explanation. His organizational “hook” is a
dramatic example of Western dominance, the Spanish capture of the
Inca emperor Atahuallpa in 1532. From this point of departure, he
goes on to explore a series of factors, examining how they differed
on different continents and asking how they contributed to the
dominance of Western civilization. The key factors in question are
the domestication of plants and animals, the evolution of epidemic
diseases, the development of writing, the growth of technology, and
the rise of formal institutions of government and religion.

Like previous attempts to find overarching patterns in prehistory and
history, Diamond’s is incomplete, controversial, and subject to
criticism. It does an excellent job of dispelling racist explanations
but replaces them with something perilously close to simple
environmental determinism. Nonetheless, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a
fascinating attempt and an excellent way of introducing students to
some global themes in social and historical inquiry.

I will use Diamond’s book and will generally follow his
organizational framework. Instead of using the Spanish Conquest of
Peru as the central episode, however, I will emphasize an earlier
example of the clash of Western and non-Western worlds: the
encounters between Spanish explorers and the native Taíno people of
the Caribbean, beginning with Columbus’s first voyage in 1492-93.
Particularly on the island of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and the
Dominican Republic), the Spanish-Taíno encounters were the first
sustained, significant interaction between the Old and New Worlds. In
the standard interpretation, which is open to doubt, this contact led
to the extinction of the Taínos by 1525. Taíno culture is the focus
of my current research, and Spanish-Taíno interaction raises
questions about some of Diamond’s principal arguments.

Each student will write a research paper examining how one of
Diamond’s factors (e.g., domesticated animals or diseases) affected
the course of Spanish-Taíno interaction. Papers will be written in
installments throughout the course of the seminar, with multiple
opportunities for discussion, feedback, and revision before the final
versions are submitted.