The Rise of Centralized Government in Eurasia

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What did Eurasia’s government system look like? What factors contributed to the structure of their government?

Eurasia’s society developed faster than most at the time thanks to their understanding of food production and their population density. These factors, along with a few more, led Eurasia to create a centralized government.

Here’s why Eurasia developed a centralized government and how it was advantageous.

Factors That Contributed to the Rise of Centralized Government

Why did Eurasian societies develop centralized government more than other societies? The two main reasons are related, writes Diamond: food production and population size.

Eurasia’s population could grow due to its head start in food production. Diamond believes the size and density of the regional population was the biggest factor in determining how complex and organized societies became. He says there are several reasons for this.

Population Size and Density May Not Have Led to Political Organization

Some scholars take a different view of what led to the development of organized government. Whereas Diamond argues that environmental constraints compelled growing societies to become more complex, some archaeological evidence suggests that large and dense populations endured for thousands of years without signs of complex centralized organization.

For example, in The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow insist that the archaeological record tells a different story than Diamond’s: Ancient hunter-gatherer societies adopted food production and lived in cities but maintained egalitarian societies by choice. Many of these societies left evidence of densely populated cities that were occupied for generations and had no palaces or other evidence of centralized authority. They even find that some civilizations adopted a centralized government for a period of time and then went back to decentralized organization. 

Graeber and Wengrow argue that Diamond’s narrative misrepresents the facts: Many of our ancestors chose to live as equals because they evidently preferred it over hierarchy. This is important, they believe, because it means we, too, can choose to organize our societies in a more egalitarian manner. 

First, larger and denser populations experienced more conflicts between strangers. These conflicts required more sophisticated mediation than family feuds or conflicts between people who knew each other. Sophisticated mediation, though, required more organized governance. 

(Shortform note: Research supports this claim: Loose-knit societies with fewer kinship ties were more likely to have institutions and religions that emphasized universal morals than tight-knit communities that had more kinship ties. These institutions and religions served as organizational systems that justified cooperation between unrelated strangers.)  

Next, larger societies needed more efficient and productive means of food production. Often this included large-scale projects such as irrigation systems or public buildings suitable for crop storage. These projects required a great deal of coordination, which created the need for management, planning, and even record keeping. 

(Shortform note: An opposite explanation can also account for the organization of societies: Just as large societies grow more organized, more organized societies grow larger. Experts argue that well-organized societies—those that managed to increase their efficiency and coordinate complex tasks—outcompeted more poorly-organized societies. Over time, in a process mimicking natural selection, these societies became larger and more centralized.)

In addition, accomplishing large-scale projects also required a great deal of labor—this created a need for slaves. Because of this, victors in battle enslaved the losers and thereby grew their societies. Larger societies led to larger, more complex governments as the need to control and organize vast groups of people became more demanding. 

Finally, if victors didn’t absorb societies around them, they often left them in place to extract tribute. Extracting tribute further increased societal complexity because facilitating the collection of tribute and the stratification of different classes of people (for example, slaves and citizens) created a need for complex organizational systems and specialized bureaucratic roles. 

(Shortform note: These last two points suggest that warfare tended to increase societal complexity—victors in battle tended to become increasingly stratified and organized as they absorbed or controlled societies around them. Researchers tested this basic idea by designing a computer simulation to see how hypothetical societies would organize on the Eurasian continent in response to warfare and geographic features. The computer simulation produced a model of the distribution of complex societies on the Eurasian continent that resembled the historical distribution of these societies: The Fertile Crescent emerged as a center of states and empires. This simulation suggests that war may play a key role in the way societies develop.) 

According to Diamond, of all the continents, Eurasia had the largest head start and the most favorable conditions for developing highly populated and complex societies with centrally organized governments.

The Advantage of Centralized Government

In addition to having more advanced knowledge, Eurasia benefitted from having more centralized governments, contends Diamond. Societies that had centralized governments, organized with hierarchies of authority and specialized roles, came to dominate societies that didn’t organize themselves this way. 

Centralized societies were better able to initiate and coordinate complex activities such as construction projects and wars of conquest. Rulers could give unilateral commands and mobilize armies through numerous subordinate leaders. They could justify wars and individual sacrifice by appealing to religious authority and the spirit of social unity. By contrast, egalitarian societies that viewed everyone as basically equal couldn’t easily unite around a single authority, so they were less able to coordinate large-scale cooperation and encourage self-sacrifice for a common good. 

(Shortform note: While centralized societies may have been more successful in conquest, not all scholars believe they’re better forms of social organization. They point out that one reason centralized societies engaged in conquest in the first place was that they were more unstable than egalitarian societies. Whereas egalitarian societies valued group cooperation and altruism, centralized societies—built on inequality—valued hierarchy, competition, and dominance. These conditions created internal instability for centralized societies and led them to periodically split or expand and dominate those around them. The stability of cooperative, egalitarian societies, on the other hand, made them less prone to expand and dominate.) 

The Rise of Centralized Government in Eurasia

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Here's what you'll find in our full Guns, Germs, and Steel summary :

  • An in-depth look into why societies historically took different paths
  • The environmental factors that affected the historical development of those societies
  • Why Eurasians had strategic advantages over non-Eurasians

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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