- Series: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (April 1, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393317552
- ISBN-13: 978-0393317558
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2,351 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Explaining what William McNeill called The Rise of the West has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist's answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye--and his heart--belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Most of this work deals with non-Europeans, but Diamond's thesis sheds light on why Western civilization became hegemonic: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." Those who domesticated plants and animals early got a head start on developing writing, government, technology, weapons of war, and immunity to deadly germs. (LJ 2/15/97)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Why is economic development so uneven around the world?
Diamond posed questions fundamental to the experience of the human race. “Why did wealth and power [among nations] become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way?” “[W]hy did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?” “[W]hy were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?” In his award-winning book, Diamond posited a “unified synthesis”—a unified field theory of history. Drawing from his wide-ranging knowledge of medicine, evolutionary biology, physiology, linguistics, and anthropology as well as geography, he surveyed the history of the past 13,000 years and identified plausible answers to the questions he had posed. In the process, he wrote what I consider to be the single most illuminating book on the history of the human race.
Academic critics howled
However, academic critics howled shortly after the publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel:
They referred to supposed errors in geography and history, which I find largely pointless. For example, geographers complained that Diamond referred to Eurasia as a single continent rather than separately to Asia, North Africa, and Europe. That’s nitpicking, as far as I’m concerned. And many of these “errors” could simply be differences of opinion. Academics are unbearably dogmatic and dismissive of those who reject their pet theories.
Some accused him of racism, although he rejected racist explanations early, forcefully, and often. That criticism is not only unsupported by Diamond’s book, it’s insulting to the reader.
The most common and far-reaching complaint was that Diamond had succumbed to the heresy of “environmental determinism.” Understandably, Diamond grounded his argument in geographic and environmental factors—but he repeatedly cited numerous other influences as well. Ultimately, of course, everything we humans do, and everything we’ve done in the millions of years since our ancestors first climbed out of the trees, has been environmentally determined.
There were complaints that Diamond had overlooked the contrast between temperate and tropical zones (he didn’t) and that he had only explained what happened 500 years ago but not subsequently (untrue). It might appear that at least some of Diamond’s critics never read the book.
However, the most aggravating criticism was that he had ignored the motives that led the industrial nations to undertake colonialism and imperialism on a broad scale. Diamond addressed only the means that enabled the colonial powers to dominate, not the reasons why they chose to do so. To my mind, that’s no error. He didn’t pretend to explain colonialism and imperialism, merely to describe how it had become possible.
Is it possible that most of these academic critics were simply bitter that Diamond hadn’t cited their own specialized research?
The roots of academic criticism
Though the critics undoubtedly uncovered a misplaced fact or unwarranted conclusion here and there through the book, the errors were exceedingly minor in the context of Diamond’s expansive hypothesis. It should be clear to any dispassionate reader that the academic reaction stemmed, above all, from narrow-mindedness and jealousy. The world of academia today is atomized. Specialties, sub-specialties, and sub-sub-specialties abound. It’s not unusual for a scholar to build a career on the study of a single obscure question that, when answered, will be of interest to virtually nobody. Interdisciplinary studies are frowned upon in most academic circles. Generalists are regarded as “not serious.” And scholars who write popular books, must less bestsellers, can expect a chilly reception from their peers.
A wealth of meaning behind the title
To understand where the academic critics went wrong, it’s useful to look at what Diamond signified by his title, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Early in his book, he dwells on the confrontation between the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Inca god-king Atahuallpa. “The immediate reasons for Pizarro’s success included military technology based on guns, steel weapons [such as swords and daggers], and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing. The title of this book will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors.”
Diamond’s argument in a nutshell
In a Prologue, Diamond poses the question at the heart of this book. He quotes a friend in what is now Papua New Guinea from a conversation in 1972, when he was studying bird evolution there: “‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?'” To answer the question, Diamond begins his story around the year 11,000 BCE, when the last Ice Age was drawing to a close and human beings were beginning to form villages in a few places around the world. It’s unclear whether the formation of villages preceded the deliberate cultivation and production of food, or vice versa. However, regardless of the sequence, that shift from hunter-gatherer society to agriculturally based settlements set in motion the course of events that have led to the “civilization” in which we live.
Diamond argues, convincingly, that the much greater availability of domesticable plants and large animals in Eurasia than in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, he explains that the east-west orientation of Eurasia from the Bering Strait to the Atlantic Ocean made it possible for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry to spread quickly to distant lands. By contrast, the north-south orientation of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa—and the presence of barriers such as the Sahara Desert, the Panamanian Isthmus, and the deserts of northern Mexico and southwestern United States—impeded the spread of these (and, later, other) new technologies to the extremities of those continents. The advent of food production enabled the development of ever-larger settlements. This, in turn, spelled the emergence of labor specialization and eventually the growth of empires as well as the appearance and spread of communicable diseases contracted from domesticated animals. Those differences in historical development eventually led to the “guns, germs, and steel” that made Eurasian dominance possible—and dictated the huge differences in economic development between what today we call East and West.
Guns, Germs, and Steel is crammed with facts and densely written. It doesn’t make for light reading. But if you have any interest in understanding how the world came to be as it is, you’ll find this book highly rewarding.