Guns, Germs, and Steel Chapter 11 Summary

Instructor: Joe Ricker
'Lethal Gift of Livestock' or Chapter 11 of Guns, Germs & Steel gives us an understanding of how epidemic diseases developed and essentially functioned as a weapon for European conquest.

Lethal Gift of Livestock

Jared Diamond examines the perspective of germs, microbes that can harm us and make us sick if not kill us, that led to epidemic diseases that wiped out populations in astounding numbers. Hand sanitizer certainly was a marvelous invention and has helped, in some ways, for us to stay healthy and avoid disease. Sometimes, though, despite washing our hands after we use the bathroom, germs continue to spread, so if you're adamant about washing your hands after using the restroom, maybe think twice about shaking someone's hands or touching the doorknob.

Microbes develop, similar to plants and animals, through natural selection, the evolution or success of a living thing to survive in a particular environment. Germs can be passed by fluids, touch and through the air, and many of the diseases we're familiar with originated in animals. And from those animals, humans developed the ability to fight those diseases over time with exposure. Unfortunately, some cultures had no exposure to those diseases and were annihilated by them. Take, for example, the rapid and deadly spread of disease among Native American cultures when Europeans arrived with Columbus.

Fever All Through the Night

Diseases can often mutate or change in order to find a host that will provide a suitable environment for it to flourish. An example that Diamond provides is the link between measles and rinderpest. Measles affects humans while rinderpest is a disease that affects cattle and similar mammals. The measles virus is most similar to the virus that causes rinderpest, but humans don't get rinderpest and cattle don't contract measles. Because of human exposure to cattle (originating around 9,000 years ago) the virus that causes rinderpest mutated and transformed to make humans a suitable host. Other diseases, too, have very similar pathogens that affect animals. Tuberculosis, flu, small pox and pertussis are just a few that have closely related viruses found in ducks, chickens, cattle, pigs and dogs. These types of diseases have diminished as far as epidemic catastrophes because of human resilience, immunity or cures by modern medicine. But, it took years and years for humans to evolve a resistance to these types of illnesses, and the process will continue with new diseases, as is fairly evident in the news.

Cover Your Mouth

Diamond writes: 'The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans' conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.'

Some of the many examples that Diamond uses to prove these statements is how smallpox devastated the Aztecs during Cortes' conquest. Not only did it kill off millions of Aztecs, but those who could still fight were bewildered that the Spanish were unaffected by this strange disease. The Incas in Peru and the natives in modern-day Mississippi were also victims of European disease that paved the way for their destruction by conquering empires.

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