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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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