Monday, October 25, 2010


A review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, original) (2003, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning work dares to tackle one of the oldest, most difficult, and at times uncomfortable questions about development of human civilization. Why was it that the civilizations of the continent of Eurasia* achieve the most technological advancement, written language, productive farming techniques, and military power? Why were the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia technologically 'backward' by comparison?

For centuries the answers to these questions was racial and cultural supremacy, such as that the west was simply better than the other 'lesser' peoples. We now quickly and correctly identify such thoughts as hateful, racist, and counter-productive, but questions still remain and often we do not know how to begin to ask them. In recent times the trend for historical revisionists is to try to focus on the strengths of the conquered cultures and explaining that their down fall was due to disease or dishonorable trickery. Nevertheless, more questions remain, if disease was such a factor why was it only one way, and why were the Europeans able to fool their opponents at times easily? Diamond dares to try to tackle these questions head on.

“The time is now ripe for a fresh look at these questions, because of new information from scientific disciplines seemingly remote from human history. Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing and political organization.”p.26

Diamond rejects all of the racist and revisionist arguments pointing out that no race or group of people is stronger, smarter, more capable, creative, or more cruel and ruthless. All humans are the same—that is not to say that all individuals are the same and equally as capable, but any large group of humans is just as good as any other. There is no 'master race,' no group of human beings proven superior to every other group of human beings. Diamond successful argues that since people adapt to their environment, often environmental factors determine how a civilization will develop. A good example would be a person from Florida who would find Maine winters intolerable and while someone from Maine would like wise find Floridian summers unbearable. Humans are creatures of their environment and the societies they build are products of the environment as well.

Various environmental factors such as how fertile the land is, what types of crops grow, the abundance of large animals that can domesticated, and geographic features. Australia, with rare exception, has terrible land for farming which is why its native population was still in the Stone Age in the 1800s, the Americas have no great animals capable of domestication that put them in at a great military and physical disadvantage. Without great beasts to domesticate they would miss out on a good source of food and would have no Calvary. Animals were also the source of diseases that the Europeans were able to build immunities that peoples native to the Americas were not.

Diamond's narrative is a bit difficult and technical even for an advanced reader. Although when he discusses his personnel adventures his narrative becomes more clear, the center chapters that focus and agriculture and farm animals are very tough to plow through. I highly recommend this book, but it is something to be tackled more at the graduate level.

*One thing that I strongly agree with Diamond on, is that Europe and Asia are not two continents but one big continent.

{Video is part of the National Geographic series on Diamond's book}

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