on July 13, 1999
I think some of the reviewers here didn't read the book closely enough to understand the context of some of Diamond's arguments. He never says that biogeographical effects are the ONLY causes history. His main purpose is the search for the ultimate, extremely general causes for the broadest of trends in human history and prehistory.
By the time the Mongols roared across Asia, or the Moguls invaded India, many cultures around the world already changed so much that bioregional factors, though seminal in the creation of these broadest trends, weren't nearly as important as the political, religious and economic ones. He is not ignoring religion and so on but, he states plainly several times that isn't his focus. He is looking for ultimate causes--before humans had extremely advanced mental concepts like religion.
He also wanted to point out the devastating influence of disease on history. It was surely the European germs that did most of the conquering of Native Americans. The guns and horses were almost incidental. Later on, once Europeans had established themselves, then we can focus on economic and political systems. But we can't ignore the effects of the diseases unleashed on the Americas. These plagues gave the Europeans a very lucky boost that catapulted them beyond the wealth and power of China, India or the Middle East--long before the Industrial Revolution made this gap obvious.
Another thing that some people seem to be having trouble with is his assertions about the native intelligence of tribal peoples around the world. (If you read the book, you notice that he is not just saying this about the New Guineans.)
He takes pains to point out what he means by this. He not talking about some mysterious genetic superiority of tribal peoples. It's all straight up culture. Tribal culture forces people to be better generalists than they'd have to be in literate civilizations. They can't rely on embedded support structures like books for memory or experts for obscure fields. They have to be pretty good at a lot things. Otherwise they die. They have to be better at memorizing things because they can't count on computers or books to remember things for them. Living in a dangerous, wild environment makes them cautious and aware of all that is going on around them. That was all he meant. The circumstance of tribal peoples force them, only in very broad ways and only on an individual basis, to be smarter and more curious than civilized people.
And in the end it does them no good. Because civilized societies are SMARTER than tribal societies. That is why tribal society has been steadily disappearing over the millenia. They just can't compete.
Finally, of course the book is repetitive. In fact he sums up his argument in the preface of the book. You needn't even read the rest if you don't want to. The rest of the book consists of him reiterating his points from different angles to point out the objections he has managed to answer and the many questions that still remain. He is just following scholarly practice and exposition--just to make things clear that he has thought about this.
He knows that his theory can't explain everything. In the epilog he points out that China, India and the Middle East are good counter examples to his idea. They each had an expansionist rise to great power--a time when they were unafraid to try new ideas and explore new ways of doing things. If the highly complex forces of economics, politics, religion had arrayed themselves differently. We might all be speaking Arabic now. Or Cantonese. Europe was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time for things to come together as they did.
on October 4, 2000
In one compelling volume, the famous biologist Jared Diamond tackles the most important question of global history: Why did Europeans come to dominate the New World?
This question has been answered by others before; Diamond's idea that Europe's geography is the cause ("geographical determinism") has also been proposed before. Any student of history can drag up a case or two of this thesis. Baron Montaigne, for example, proposed that Europe's primacy stemmed from its superior government, which could be derived directly from the coolness of its climate.
The deep significance of this book is that Diamond's thesis is not simply idle speculation. He proves that the Eurasian land mass had by far the best biological resources with which to develop agricultural societies, and was thus more able to form large, coherent, and powerful social entities.
To support this idea, Diamond introduces thorough set of well-researched data on what kinds of plants and animals are necessary to support a farming society. He investigates the biological resources available to potential farmers in all parts of the world. The people of Eurasia had access to a suite of plants and animals that provided for their needs. Potential farmers in other parts of the world didn't-- and so their fertile soil went untilled.
After establishing this strong foundation, Diamond falls into repeating ideas about the formation of large-scale societies. These ideas, while unoriginal, are still compelling, and Diamond presents them in a very clear and well-written way.
His other major original contribution comes when he discusses the diseases that helped the Old World conquer the New. Building on his earlier chapters dealing with Old-World domesticated animals, he shows that these very animals were the sources of the major plagues (such as smallpox) which virtually annihilated New World populations. The fact that Old Worlders had immunities to these diseases was a direct result of their agricultural head-start.
Along with these monumental contributions to History, this book has its drawbacks. If you're looking for a narrative explaining Great People, Great Events, or Modern Ideas, you will be sadly disappointed. Diamond's thesis offhandedly assumes that it is difficult to believe Shakespeare's plays or Newton's laws could have been written by hunter-gatherers.
If you are looking for reasons why Europe came to dominate the world, rather than, say, China, Diamond presents mixed results. He mentions the 14th century self-isolation of China, but does not analyze it. He also brings up the odd theory about the relationship between the coastline lengths of Europe and China and trade potential; this idea is provably wrong.
If you are looking for a book that explains the world's history of the past 500 years, look elsewhere. Guns, Germs and Steel exhausts itself by effectively, coherently, fundamentally, definitively, and entertainingly explaining the preceeding 15,000.
I do not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with an interest in world history. The scholarship is first-rate, and the thesis is incredibly significant. The technical details, while complete, are presented in a very easy to understand way, and Diamond's writing style is fun and engaging. It fully deserved the Pulitzer prize.
on January 24, 2001
According to Diamond, four factors are responsible for all historical developments: 1) availability of potential crops and domestic animals, 2) the orientation of continental axis to facilitate the spread of agriculture, 3) transfer of knowledge between continents, and 4) population size.
Diamond states that "those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute." Fair enough, but what *is* subject to dispute is that there might be some other factors at work. Thomas Sowell in Race and Culture does a good job of developing the thesis that the exchange of information among European cultures, facilitated by Europe's plentiful navigable rivers, was the key to Europe's technological and economic rise. David Landes in the Wealth and Poverty of Nations attributes China's conscious decision in the 1400's to isolate itself form other nations as the key event (decision) that caused it to lose it's technological advantage and fall behind Europe. (Diamond briefly touches on 15th Century China in the final chapter, but manages to boil this as well down to an accident of geography.)
This is unfortunate, because the book contains a wealth of excellent material which is excellently explained. Many of the core causes which Diamond explores ring very true, and his points are persuasively argued. The connection between the development of agriculture and the subsequent unequal rise of military capability worldwide is very convincing. But convincing though they may be, reading these theories one can't shake the sneaking suspicion that Diamond is selectively presenting evidence which he's has found to support his previously drawn conclusion, and neglecting evidence which runs counter.
Diamond plants these doubts through his sometimes-careless prose. Consider the following statement, which he includes in the introduction to his chapter on the rise of food production:
"My fellow farmhands were, for the most part, tough whites whose normal speech featured strings of curses, and who spent their weekdays working so that they could devote their weekends to squandering their weeks' wages in the local saloon. Among the farmhands, though, was a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe named Levi, who behaved very differently from the coarse miners - being polite, gentle, responsible, sober, and well spoken"
I thought for a moment that I'd wandered into the script for "Dances With Wolves." Note that had this statement been turned on its head - had he, for example, recounted an unflattering anecdote about Native Americans or Hispanics -my instincts would immediately warn me that the author's biases might be influencing how he chooses to present the evidence. I myself am a Black American, I'm all too painfully aware that we've had to wade through some pretty grim stuff penned by authors clutching at straws to support their racist white supremacist views of the world. In this case Diamond does the reverse by aiming his negative bias towards Caucasians, but if I'm truly interested in unbiased science then my skepticism should remain the same.
That I lead with these criticisms is evidence of my disappointment in what could have been an excellent book, and indeed much of it *is* indeed excellent. This is a book that taught me much and has indeed changed my view of world history in many ways. I do recommend this book - the details are good and many of the theories ring true, but in the same breath I would warn against accepting Diamond's conclusions in their entirety without a bit of skepticism.
In summary, Guns, Germs, and Steel contains an important feature which David Landes's Wealth and Poverty of Nations so conspicuously lacks: a grand unifying theory which links the disparate growth rates of diverse societies worldwide. But Diamond's tidy conclusion that world history is simply a deterministic result of geography and nothing else is not entirely satisfying, especially in that it might cause us to be complacent about the future. I accept that accidents of geography have had a huge effect on mankind, and Diamond convincingly argues this. But culture and human decisions do matter. Diamond argues that human ingenuity is simply the result of the accident of having a larger population from which to draw innovations - but societies that internalize this philosophy do so at their considerable peril.
on February 12, 2000
Many years ago a New Guinea native asked Jared Diamond a simple question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Only slightly rephrased, Diamond devotes this book to answering the question why, from the depths of the primeval forests of Africa, mankind emerged at different rates, some achieving the heights of civilization and technology while others remained virtually in the Stone Age? And why did people on some continental landmasses prosper while people on others lagged behind, especially because some locations, like the California Coast, are mild and desirable while others, like Northern Europe are harsh and forbidding?
Diamond's thesis is that some populations got a head start over others in the development of civilization. But the head start resulted from favorable geography and natural resources, not from any innate superiority. Given the same location and advantages, any group of people over time would have reached the same result. The first beneficiary of geography happened to be the Fertile Crescent. The "cradle of civilization" not only had all five major large mammals (sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses) available for domestication, but they also possessed the major wild seed groups that would become domesticated grain and cereals. Not all areas are so favorably endowed.
Once hunting and gathering gave way to food production, population density took hold, which in turn made possible civic development and technology. The head start then spread roughly along the same parallel east to Asia and west to Europe. Diamond contrasts Eurasia's wide girth and similar climates with America's and Africa's narrow waist and elongated longitude. Technology and culture can shuttle back and forth vast distances between east and west, but climatic zone differences as well as mountain ranges and deserts inhibit flows north and south.
I have two criticisms of the book. One, it has no footnotes so that one can source out the author's materials. For example, on page 108 Diamond asserts that early man, because of his ego, would rather hunt giraffes than gather nuts. Is that theory his, or someone else's? The very nature of a book such as "Guns, Germs, and Steel" requires that it pile theory upon theory to make a picture puzzle of a distant and hidden past. If key pieces don't fit, the picture may take a decidedly Cubist theme. A few footnotes would help the reader who wants to delve deeper into a topic.
The second criticism is the author's failure to address the role of human intelligence in the development of civilization. Considering the grief Charles Murray took into for writing "The Bell Curve," which held that certain populations have actually raised their intelligence level through centuries of using their brains to solve problems, one understands why Diamond steers clear of the topic - no academic can afford to be tinged with even a hint of racism or euro centrism. Plenty of professors on the leftist fringe stand ready to point the accusing finger any anybody who deviates from the acceptable norm. But surely scholars can deal with the role human intelligence in a non-racist way; after all, the physiology of the human brain is the same in all Homo sapiens. Diamond owes it to his readers to complete the mosaic he has created.
on February 28, 2002
In July 1972, Author Jared Diamond, was walking along
a beach on a tropic island of New Guinea, where as a
biologist he studied bird evolution. By chance, he
ran into a local politician, named Yali, who was
working to liberate what was then Papa New Guinea from
the Australia government. After hours of
conversation, Yali posed the question, "Why is it that
you white people developed so much cargo (technology)
and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had
little cargo of our own?" Why did wealth and power
become distributed as they are now, rather than in
some other way? Diamond was troubled that he did not
have an adequate response to Yali's Question. Fast
forward 25 years -- Diamond writes a 425 page answer.
The most common explanation to this question involves
implicit or explicit assumptions based on biological
inequalities. Usually these racial explanations are
cast in some sort of Darwinian argument where
causality is often left in question. Diamond thesis
attempts to refute these theories with an alternate
theory. Relying on a combination of history,
archeology, and microbiology, and genetics, Diamond
suggests that the most striking differences between
the long-term histories of different cultures have
been due not to innate differences in peoples
themselves but to differences in their environments.
These environmental factors include: continental
differences in the wild plant and animal species
available as starting materials for domestication;
environmental factors affecting rates of diffusion and
migration; and continental differences in area or
total population sizes. Diamond believes that these
geographical inequalities set different civilizations
on pre-determined trajectories to develop political
organization, technological advancements, and immunity
to disease that allowed them to encounter and conquer
A cultural historian in a past life, I get all excited
about this sort of thing.
As one can imagine, trying to explain the history of
civilization in one volume is an arduous task.
Diamond chooses to explain his theory in broad strokes
then uses natural experiments at distinct points in
history to demonstrate how his ideas play out. This
is a general problem with all meta-histories.
Historical methods teach us that it is virtually
impossible to forge a bulletproof argument without
delving into the minutia. But when focusing on the
"big picture" issues, there is just too much
information to cover. Diamond does a very good job
managing this balance. He begins by outlining his
methods and follows through on his explanation with
dedication and accomplishment. He goes into just
about the right amount of detail on every subject and
infuses the traditional historical approach with a
healthy dose of scientific discovery. The chapters
concerning the domestication of plants and large
animals are a joy to read. While speaking on the
familiar new world conquest, Diamond is balanced in
the application of his detailed examples to forward
his theories. Notably, Diamond uses Australia and the
south pacific to demonstrate the dissemination of
technology and China to discuss the application of
unified language and political entities. In fact,
with my American History background, I was more
partial to the Euro centric examples.
So what's bad about the book? One of my pet peeves
involves arguing by anecdotal evidence and I cringed
every time Diamond brought up some story about a
bushman to illustrate his point. But this was a minor
annoyance. Another problem is Diamond's paucity of
footnotes. There were several portions of prose that
I felt should have been annotated with further
discussion and evidence. I should also warn you that
this book is a little dense. Be prepared for a 20
page discussion about the cross pollination of
language. It's a good idea to remember that I've got
a degree in this stuff. Back when I was younger,
smarter, and more exciting, I used to pour through
thousands of pages of this garbage every week. Beaten
into submission by a desk job and dearth of ...
pitchers of beer, I found the last 100 pages of Guns,
Germs, and Steel difficult to get through
So if you are up for the challenge, "Guns, Germs, and
Steel" is a insightful and rewarding book. For me, it
was probably a good substitute for chasing women and
the cultural/political theories almost kept me warm at
night. All joking aside, I guarantee that this book
will change the way you think about European conquest.
GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL is a persuasive discourse of competitive plausibility regarding the challenging question why population groups on different continents experienced widely divergent paths of development. Contrary to the voluminous objections cited in the many of the reviews below, Professor Jared Diamond, clearly an enthusiastic proponent of environmental determinism, presents a set of premises consistent with evidence provided from a wide range of disciplines, but he does not attempt to answer the question of genetic diversity, including differentiated intelligence, among racial groups as many reviewers have inferred. If anything, implicitly, the author appears to support promulgations of differentiated intelligences; he sets out to demonstrate intelligence was not the root cause to Eurasian dominance.
On at least two occasions Diamond, without equivocation, stated he found on average the New Guinean to be more intelligent than the average European or American. He was prompted to undertake this investigation as a result of a question posed by a New Guinean friend - Why white people developed so much cargo (material goods) and brought it to New Guinea while the indigenous had so little. Diamond summarized his findings as follows: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves."
Beginning 13,000 years ago, the author illuminated the conditions or circumstances that may have facilitated growth for some groups and inhibited the same for others. Diamond accepts the out of Africa theory for the dispersion of Homo sapiens to the other continents (for purposes of his treatise Europe and Asia are indivisible), and like the old axiom of real estate, the importance of location, location, location becomes readily apparent. For Diamond, food production is the ultimate cause of variable rates of development for different peoples. He illustrates how the abundance of wild plants subject to domestication and availability of large mammals served as immediate factors to transition from hunter/gatherer bands and tribes to sedentary agriculturally based chiefdoms and states.
Diamond lists what he proposes as proximate causes to European dominance:
1) Germs - based on close proximity to domesticated animals, immunities were developed infectious strains Europeans would carry to other areas, resulting in the decimation of non-immunized populations. In turn, those groups had few autochthonous diseases that would affect the invaders.
2) Invention of writing- relatively sedentary lifestyles facilitated devotion of more time and effort to the creation of methodologies to control and coordinate commerce. These systems eased transfer of information among society members, and had further implications to the establishment of hierarchical political organization.
3) Axial orientation of the different continents - east/ west orientation was conducive to transmigration of people, products, and technologies. Plants best suited to specific climatic conditions were readily transferable; geographic encumbrances were less severe and population isolation was not as significant.
4) Establishment of hierarchical organizations - food production instigated the growth of artisan classes focused on technological improvement, leisure classes devoted to functions unrelated to subsistence, organization of massive armies comprised of professional soldiers, and religion, which allowed individual groupings to live together under codification without killing one another.
5) Continental Isolation - Landmasses that were separated by geographic or ecological boundaries were under less pressure to develop or adopt new ideas, products or technologies from competing civilizations.
Some of the author's theories were not defended as successfully as others. His explanation why Sub-Saharan Africans were unable to identify species (the water buffalo and Zebra are two prime examples) that may have been used in farming and commerce seemed rather weak. Capture, taming and subsequent selective breeding for temperament seems as viable here as he indicates was the case on the Eurasian plains for other species. Similarly, he does not offer a convincing argument regarding the American Indian's failure to domesticate the Bison, although the inference seems to be the lack of cultivatable plant life was certainly a factor.
Overall, Diamond provides a compelling theory of the differences in development rates among different peoples, linking a wide set of factors that are not generally considered in parallel in the historical record. For anyone with even peripheral interest in the evolution of different societies, this is an enthralling book.
As an avid reader with absolutely no previous contact with the field of anthropology, I found this book to be mesmerizing. Jared Diamond has achieved great success with "Guns, Germs and Steel" (national best-seller, Pulitzer Prize), but it has also made him the target of strident, often venomous criticism...
Diamond's general thesis is that the West conquered the world rather than vice versa because of a fluke of nature. In short, Eurasia was home to an important number of crops and animals that readily lent themselves to successful domestication. This domestication resulted in mass food production, which the author claims is the "ultimate" cause of Western dominance. Food production, in turn, led to a number of "proximate" causes related to the rise of the West: farms and animal herds led to stationary populations and excess food to support a specialized class of bureaucrats and soldiers; it also increased population density, which, along with close contact with animals, led to germs and the subsequent genetic resistance of Westerners to those diseases. Finally, Diamond concludes, the unique East-West axis of Eurasia and the absence of any impenetrable geographic barriers fostered the spread of new crops, technologies, etc., which gave rise to many competing communities, whose competition further increased the western lead over the rest of the world.
Diamond's arguments are persuasive on the surface, and even the biggest skeptic will have reason for pause after reading his book. However, the final chapter reveals that he can't really resolve a fundamental question: why did Europe, rather than the Middle East, India or China come to conquer the world? Almost the entire book is dedicated to explaining why the Eurasian landmass was blessed with the prerequisites for large civilizations rather than the Americas, Africa and Australia. His terse explanation for why Europe in particular dominated leaves much to be desired and explained.
In this reviewer's opinion, the recent book by classicist Victor Davis Hanson ("Carnage and Culture") provides a plausible epilogue for Diamond's piece. Hanson completely and explicitly rejects Diamond's geographic determinism, but I don't think the two theses are incompatible or in any way mutually exclusive. In fact, it seems to me that Diamond and Hanson support one another, as the latter's assertion that the war-making efficiency of liberal democracies beginning in the Hellenistic period explains Europe's ultimate triumph.
In closing, as an introduction to anthropology and a cogent depiction of one school of thought on the rise of the West this book is marvelous. Approach it with an open-mind, reflect on the thesis and the supporting evidence, and then draw your own conclusions. Love it or hate it, you owe it to yourself to read this book.
on February 9, 2010
Food. Plants. Animals. Geography. Climate. Politics. Technology. These are the seven key areas that the author attempts to tie together in his quest to explain the unequal development of civilizations in different areas of the world from the beginning of mankind to the present.
Diamond starts at the epicenter of human origins, and then proceeds to show how human populations spread over the globe, and then how one civilization advanced, spread, and subsequently conquered or extinguished a lesser civilization in another geographical area in order to absorb it. There are a vast number of interesting facts of human history interspersed in this chronology. Near the end, it will become evident why the author presented his sequence of hypothesized events in such a manner.
When the book was written, Jared Diamond was a professor of physiology at UCLA School of Medicine. He was trained as a geographer and has spent much of his research time studying the most primitive, present day humans, the natives of New Guinea. In this book, he wears many hats, among them being that of a botanist, animal husbandrist, military strategist, epidemiologist, and cultural and physical anthropologist.
There are a lot of fascinating questions about early human civilizations that are answered in this treatise. Here are several: When did human history begin? Which country has the most languages? Which geographical axis is most conducive to the advancement of a civilization? How did climate changes affect civilizations? What is the relationship of food, population stability, and political leadership in the advancement of a civilization? Why was 95% of the Native American population of 20,000,000 decimated in 1492? Why did 80% of the big, wild mammals in North America become extinct 13,000 years ago? How did Africa become black, and why is Africa the most diverse human continent?
Any reader of this book will come away with a plethora of knowledge about human history and an appreciation of which forces drove its destiny. In order to gain this understanding, the reader will have to plod through a very long treatise by the author, which at times the reader will undoubtedly feel is laden with unnecessary technical knowledge. Some of these topics would include plant and animal species, nutrition, and language development.
This is an excellent and well elucidated account of the history of human development. In the epilogue and 2003 update of the original book, the author attempts to correlate his conclusion of which forces are responsible for the inequalities of human development with the present inequalities in the global, business climate. Diamond also reveals at the end his conclusion whether environmental or human biological differences make one group of people superior to another. In that conclusion, he is bound to encounter a lot of resistance.
on July 12, 2000
Prof. Diamond has produced a fluently-written account of a popular theory -- that contemporary differences in human cultures and societies are the result solely of starting conditions with respect to geography and environment. However, the book holds numerous flaws.
There can be no doubt that Prof. Diamond is the master of a vast amount of data, biological and historical, and he marshals those data to good effect in support of his theories. However, there are many troubling omissions and contradictions contained in the book, which indicate that either there are important holes in Prof. Diamond's knowledge, or that he has been somewhat too selective in his use of data. For example, in discussing the native cereals available to various local groups for purposes of cultivation, he consistently speaks as if corn were the only grain available in Mesoamerica for domestication, and, indeed, that it was the only grain so domesticated. In fact, amaranth was also available, and domesticated. It further lacks many of the deficiencies which Diamond asserts made corn an imperfect domesticate. His failure to deal with this contradictory fact calls his more general arguments into question.
Diamond also ignores facts which are uncomfortable or unexplainable under the terms of his theory. For example, he points out that certain grasses native to the Eastern U.S. produce "dream" grains -- the example he offers is sumpweed. Yet the reason he offers that it was not domesticated is weak; it causes hay-fever, and has an objectionable smell. As Diamond should be aware, the question of whether a smell is objectionable is often culturally determined, as are many aesthetic notions. So the fact that we may find it objectionable now does not mean that contemporary consumers of it did, and does not explain why they failed fully to domesticate it. He also offers that other grains had seeds that were too small; but at the same time offers the example of corn being engineered over many years from teosinte, which had even more drawbacks. Why could these plants not have been bred for larger seeds, over time? Why did mesoamericans engineer corn in this way, while north-eastern inhabitants failed to do the same with the plants available to them? He argues that the fact that eastern US farmers abandoned their own crops when offered mesoamerican replacements indicates they were less worthwhile; but all that proves is that the mesoamericans had done a better job of engineering their crops for human consumption, not that those crops were better. Diamond also fails to provide an answer to the question of why mesoamericans failed to adopt the wheel. While arguing that the lack of large draft animals made their use unlikely, he acknowledges that the wheel was, in fact, first used as an adjunct to human labor, in the form of wheelbarrows. The reader is left to wonder why mesoamericans failed to adopt this practical use for the wheel, while leaving them on toys.
The book is irksome in its continual reliance on loose arguments, consistently indicated by the use of such terms as "surely", "clearly" or "it must therefore follow," etc. Those words indicate a weakness of proof, not clarity of proof, and encourage the reader to disagree with his conclusions. The book needs a good edit.
Finally, Prof. Diamond proves too little. It is unsurprising, and probably not subject to serious debate, that the earlier occupation of the old world by humans means those societies would have a head start over societies arising on a continent populated only tens of thousands of years later. Furthermore, it is intuitively acceptable that isolated societies (such as his precious New Guinea) are less likely to innovate, based on a lack of intellectual cross-currents and the inability to take advantage of new discoveries. But his book cannot explain the peculiar phenomenon of the rise of the West. His geographical and environmental advantages are spread over the whole Eurasian continent, from Spain to China, and are centered in the Fertile Crescent, and these areas have indubitably been linked by trade and war for millenia. Why, then, was America not colonized by Chinese explorers? Why was China invaded by Europeans during the eighteenth centuries and forward, and not the reverse. The fertile crescent was indeed the center of civilization for many years, while Europe was a back-water suffering invasion until the mid-seventeenth century. Why was that trend reversed so suddenly and dramatically, so that by the nineteenth century Britain, France and Russia could vie for protectorates from Palestine east to Indochina? The answer, I would argue, is that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe -- indeed it began at the very time that China, the giant in terms of industrial production at the time, was turning in on itself. Why, then, did the IR, which is what made possible the enormous European expansion of the 18-19 centuries, occur in Europe and not China, Safavid Persia or the Ottoman Empire? That is the key question which Diamond's book leaves unanswered, and which, I believe, cannot be answered based on geography and climate alone. Better technological innovation is said to be a product of larger population sizes and densities; thus Eurasia's population is compared with Australia's to in support of that theory. But why did densely populated China fall behind in technological innovation versus the less crowded, less populated countries of Europe from about 1500 on?
So, while this is an interesting book, full of valuable tid-bits of information, it fails because the facts offered to support the theories are inconsistent and incomplete and because it ultmately fails to do what its author set out to do -- explain the rise to predominance of one set of cultures or civilizations over all others. Ultimately, it appears more as an opportunity for Prof. Diamond to show off his extensive knowledge than the marshalling of that knowledge in service of a larger argument
on January 3, 2003
As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like nails. I found Diamond's basic hypothesis that the march to civilization is accelerated (if not determined) by availability of useful, domesticable plants and animals and a geography suited for the transmission of the plants and animals (and later ideas) over a large distance very compelling.
The two places he fails in what would otherwise be one of the best books I've read is he seems to be working toward a personal agenda, and he applies his theories to inappropriate situations. His personal agenda is not hidden, with his discussion of New Guinea's tribesmen fairly glowing. I guess it's better to have it out in the open than hidden, but it makes the work seem like a justification for his preconceptions rather than an unbiased research into the broad strokes of history.
His very compelling basic point is that when numerous small groups (tribes, etc) compete, the rate of adoption, modification, and usage of available resources will be fairly constant across any group of people. The rate is only modified by the quality of those resources and the number of people with access to them, because if one society fails to use its resources at the best rate of human invention, a competing society will force the adoption either through competition or conquest.
The problem is, and he acknowledges it in one sentence and ignores it in another, is that when societies (especially dictatorial ones) no longer feel competitive pressure, they can behave in largely unpredictable ways governed only by happenstance and psychology. He tries to explain the failures of the Aztecs and (especially) the Incas to use the wheel by describing them as "Island Cultures" since they did not have competing societies nearby. He later uses the same argument about China.
The problem is that there is a range between small tribes and enormous islands where his theory only partially applies, and where much of written history has occurred. His arguments to explain why Europe was not one big island (meaning politically unified) were not very compelling, but given the fact that Europe wasn't unified his theory does explain why the West outpaced China in the past 600 years. His troubling assertion that the fertile crescent couldn't compete with Europe in modern times merely due to resource depletion (since it had been civilized for so long) was only in passing and lacked much backing in statistics or research.
Unlike some other reviewers, I don't feel he was too hard on the West's modern conquest of the native peoples of the Pacific, the Americas, and Africa. He points out that disease made the lands empty, and that much of the pushing out of the natives was inadvertent due to the actions of people behaving just as our prehistoric ancestors did (and every other continent's ancestors did) for thousands of years. And when he chooses the words "exterminated" (in modern colonization) over "displaced" (in prehistoric colonization) he does it because he has the historical facts to back him up in one case, and only conjecture in the other, and he acknowledges the difference at least a few times.
I definitely recommend this book if you are unfamiliar with the geographical element of the prehistoric move to civilization. Just keep in mind this is a theory that by nature no longer applies, and stopped applying somewhere between 100-600 years ago as modern communication destroyed geographic separation.