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2,236 of 2,594 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A strong theory convincingly argued, but marred by bias, January 24, 2001
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Paperback)
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.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 67 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 10, 2006 9:46:05 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 10, 2006 9:58:32 PM PDT
A. Beath says:
I think the reviewer missed the point, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. For instance, he writes, "According to Diamond, four factors are responsible for all historical developments". But this is not at all what GGS does or aims to do. The book specifically targets "striking differences between the long-term histories of people of different continents" (p. 405), a very different concept than "all historical developments". Any book that attempted to explain "all historical developments" would be predestined to spectacular failure. GGS, wisely, stays away from that.

In the next paragraph, the reviewer then says: "Diamond, therefore, argues that all differences between the world's societies can be described by geography." No, Diamond does not argue that. Again, the differences to be explained are long-term differences in economic outcomes between peoples inhabiting different continents (and, in fact, barely touches on actual European history, except by implication). Moreover, Diamond concedes that it is perfectly plausible that differences in culture, leadership, or other idiosyncracies may create economic differences between societies over the short- to medium-run, yet such 'inefficient' ideas or practices are often eliminated over longer time spans (through a process of natural selection, if you will). What happens over the short- and medium-run is not, however, what GGS is concerned with.

Most seriously, Smith accuses Diamond, a renowned professor of physiology and Pulitzer prize winner, of "classic circular reasoning". Conveniently for him, though, Smith doesn't tell us where this case of "classic circular reasong" occurs. It's hard to be disproved if no one knows what you are talking about.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2006 11:42:03 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Nov 29, 2006 11:45:18 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 11, 2006 2:17:14 PM PST
wizard says:
I would have to say that certain elements were lacking in Jared Diamonds book Guns, Germs, And Steel. One element that the origional reviewer noted was the Idea of a unique culture that fosters very different descisions with the same information. For example Steel, and Farming were both present in Europe and Asia in the 16th century. Why then did China destroy its navy, books about its voyages, and ship building manuals? The answer is that China choose an isolationist viewpoint, this viewpoint resulted in European supremecy in the water and the vast distribution of religious, economic, and political philosophy to conquored areas. These vastly different choices isolationism vs conquest represent just how different Chinese and European culture were at the time. These seemingly small choices by civilizations with the same technology can result radical changes in history and the influence of one culture over another. I feel Jared Diamond disregarded culture and its effects on world civilization and instead focused on the main factors that lead to the advancement of modern society.

Posted on Feb 10, 2007 11:31:27 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 10, 2007 11:33:44 AM PST
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Posted on Feb 12, 2007 6:54:39 PM PST
Deckard says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 4, 2007 5:36:07 PM PDT
E. Black says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 10, 2007 2:35:22 PM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2007 12:38:16 PM PDT
YI says:
German, anti-Semite, anti-whatever...the point is that this book is CLEARLY written with an anti-white bias and is far from taking into account ALL factors which contribute to one civilization dominating over another. And I AM Jewish, 100%, for your information.

Posted on Jul 25, 2007 7:57:21 AM PDT
Wow, I wrote this review over six years ago and imagine my surprise to return and see over sixteen hundred votes (most of them positive!) and a string of comments.

I read this book years ago so I'm not going to be able to respond with a level of detail that will address all of the issues that A. Beath brings up in his/her thoughtful rebuttal, but I'll touch on a couple of points.

Diamond's view of history: This book was ambitious, and it clearly was Diamond's intent to come up with a unified theory that explains the path that history has taken. Beath doesn't like the fact that I've stated that Diamond's objective was to cover "...all historical developments." I perhaps could have chosen different words, but my point accurately captures the spirit of Guns, Germs and Steel. This, actually, was one of the things I liked about the book.

Circular reasoning: Diamond, indeed, is very focused on geography - a point he makes repeatedly in the book. He stays away from discussing historical decisions and actions which may have been cultural in nature and which may have had long term historical implications- an omission which serves to reinforce his main point.

And, yes, even Pulitzer prize winning tenured professors are capable of writing books which are marred by bias. The willingness of lay readers to read critically and accept a work based on the strength of the argument (as opposed to the reverence with which society treats the author) helps defend our literary tradition of scholarship and objectivity.

Bias: Here's one area where my review gets it wrong - or at least where I was a bit sloppy with my wording. Diamond's bias isn't racial - it is cultural. Some of the comments in this thread aren't particularly thoughtful in this regard. There is no "white bashing" going on in this book; if anything Diamond is guilty of romanticizing indigenous cultures, and that calls into question his objectivity.

But overall, this is a book that I liked. I probably should have given it four stars. It's been six years since I read it and I still clearly remember the thrusts of his arguments and themes - that's a strong recommendation.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2007 8:47:45 AM PDT
Classic circular reasoning is where you make assumptions that should not be made to lead you to a pre determined conclusion. In other words, you assume to be true what you are supposed to be proving. I can think of one very good example of that in the book. Diamond argues that one of the major reasons that Europe was so ahead of the Americas is that they had available more species of easily domesticated animals that were large enough to do significant amounts of farm labor, giving them a huge advantage. The first poor assumption by Diamond is that wild horses and cattle 20,000 years ago had the same temperament as their docile and genetically selected descendants and were therefore "easily domesticated". This is the equivalent of assuming that modern dogs were not "wolves" 20,000 years ago. The second circular assumption is that the reason (the American Bison for example) was not domesticated by early Americans was because their temperament was and is unsuitable for domestication.
I personally have seen American Bison trained to perform in tandem while a rodeo performer rode with one foot on each bison's back as they performed complicated patterns and responded to his commands pretty much the same as a trick horses would. There goes the theory that no large animals in the America's were easily domesticated. Also, we know there were wild horses in the Americas when they were settled by the Asian immigrants many thousands of years ago but they became extinct. Why? Because the Native Americans found them so easy to catch and hunt, they ate them to extinction. This did not happen in Europe and Asia where someone or some group had the bright idea that domesticating cattle and horses would provide a steady food and labor supply.
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