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Showing 1-3 of 3 reviews(1 star, Verified Purchases). See all 367 reviews
on July 25, 2013
Diamond's Guns, Germs and Sreel was and remains a seminal work. Unfortunately, every subsequent book has been a pale imitation, and effectively a rehash of his time in PNG.
Overall, there is very little genuinely new material in this book, and as much as it pains me to say, it is boring. I stopped reading it half way through.
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on February 28, 2013
What is the basic idea of this book. It's quite simple. Diamond tries to make the case that primitive peoples in their primitive societies have something valuable to teach us. He tries to make a case for the wisdom of what he calls pre-state peoples.

Diamond has been visiting New Guinea for fifty years. It's what he does. Some people ski others play golf. Diamond likes to go bird watching in the mountains of New Guinea. People who have a strong interest in their hobby often express other ideas in terms of their hobby. That's why there are so many sports references in political speech. I personally tend to see all sorts of social and political issues in terms of Italian opera. For Diamond it's New Guinea natives.

This is a very interesting book and I recommend that everyone read it. But please read something else about New Guinea too. The US State Department issues warnings to travelers about New Guinea. The main city - Port Moresby - may be the most dangerous city on earth. Men are murdered. Women are raped. Everyone is robbed and assaulted. People are cautioned to only go into the bush with care and a trusted guide. There are web sites and Wikipedia articles showing the rampant gang violence. Diamond as a long time expert can go there but you can't. You'd be killed. New Guinea is a terrible place on the human plane of existence. It seems however to be very fine on the song bird plane.

In the first half of the book he tells personal accounts of typical activities in primitive groups and contrasts them with how these events would transpire in a modern nation state like the US. The first example he gives is the story of Gideon and Malo in Chapter Two. In this story Billy, a child, runs out from behind a mini-bus into oncoming traffic. He is killed when Malo's car hits him. Malo who is just an random driver who had no connection with Billy before, immediately vacates the accident scene and goes to the nearest police station.

Diamond explains, "That's because angry bystanders are likely to drag the offending driver from his car and beat him to death on the spot, even if the accident was the pedestrian's fault".

These are highland New Guineans. Billy was a low lander. Everyone involved in this traffic accident worries about a blood feud that erupts into a tribal war between the low-landers and the highlanders. Somehow Gideon the employer of Malo is extorted to pay compensation to some people who claim to be Billy's relatives.

One of the tribal customs that Diamond cites is the practice of killing someone in retribution for some offense or if that's not convenient to just kill a relative of theirs. It doesn't seem to matter just who you kill anymore than it matters if the person was guilty or innocent. At no point in this story does anyone dispute that Billy ran out into traffic and got himself killed. Yet it is only by the thinnest margin that a general war is averted. No one says to Billy's parents - "You should teach your kids to look both ways before they cross the street". No one thinks they should put up some traffic lights or stop signs. They just engage in another round of murderous tribal feuding.

These are the people from whom we are to learn life lessons?

Diamond is obviously deep into the romance of the primitive. A more objective person would see these people as nasty pests. They remind us of the brutal primitive past from which we have emerged.

At one point Diamond mentions that there are more than a thousand separate languages in New Guinea. He mentions wistfully that 95% of these languages will die out in this century. That's supposed to be a bad thing? None of these languages are written. They contain no novels or epics. These people have no literature or science. The uttering in these languages are just crude accounts of daily events in the jungle. There are hundreds of words for the same species of tree or monkey.

It would have been bad if the world had lost Greek before the Renaissance. That would have meant that we would have lost Aristotle and Plato. There was lots of valuable content written in Greek. But what possible loss is their if we lose these obscure proto-languages used by jungle savages?

For that matter, what does it matter if we lose the Yamomano or the !Kung? None of the bands he describes is likely to last longer than this century either. Or if they survive it will only be in something like a zoo. We should prepare for their extinction by studying them. We should have books like this one and movies. They have virtually nothing to teach us but we should garner what there is because they will soon be gone.

Diamond is a very silly man. He likes to watch birds. Fine. Me too. He likes to watch forrest natives cavorting in the jungle. Whatever. Jane Goodall liked to observe chimps. Diane Fossey preferred gorillas. But those women didn't lecture us with the lessons we could learn from the apes.

Around the year 2000 there were two big best sellers that addressed differences in human accomplishment. One was Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel". The other was Lynn and Vanhanen's "The Wealth of Nations". Diamond's argument in G,G&S is recounted in this book on page 19. Lynn's argument is even simpler. He says nation's with smart people are rich.

Currently Diamond is immensely popular with the general public while Lynn is controversial with academics. But Lynn's ideas are likely to endure while Diamond's are already fading. Basically Diamond feels bad about being a member of the dominant culture on earth. He wants everyone to understand that he isn't in any way superior to the savages with whom he congregates. He's eager to demonstrate he's rich and prosperous only because of a series of accidents of history. He's got white guilt bad.

And of course he's dead wrong. He is a superior person. He's a fine writer and has produced a number of excellent books. He claimed in G,G&S that some native was more intelligent than he was. We admire humility but no one really takes him seriously. If we believed him we wouldn't buy his books.

Lynn's book on the other hand says that Koreans are smart. I have a Samsung tablet. I do not own a single electronic device created in New Guinea. Lynn is factual. Diamond is sentimental. He now wants to explain how his beloved primitives have something just as valuable as electronics. They have jungle justice.

That's the first half of the book. The second half is different. He has big chapters on health. These read like they come from a different book. He rails again salt and then against sugar. Much the same information is well known now to the literate public. There are many books that say much the same thing. Everything Diamond writes about in these chapters is more or less correct. Salt does give you high blood pressure and sugar does gives you high blood sugar. You should watch them carefully in your diet. Diamond connects these health concerns to the main theme of the book only awkwardly. He essentially writes a sermon on proper nutrition for Westerners and says New Guinea natives don't have these particular health concerns. But of course he's completely wrong. Western whites get diabetes largely because of their diet but forest people who meet up with civilization soon eat the same way and get even worse diabetes. There is a lesson to be learned here but it is not to do as the natives do. We can learn from these people in the same way we can learn from a jungle mushroom that has some useful chemical properties. The natives can be used as objects of study but that does not mean that they can actually teach us anything. They have no schools, no classrooms, no books.

Danny Kaye was wrong. In his great novelty song "Civilization"(Bongo, bongo, bongo I don't want to leave the Congo) he expressed the viewpoint that was popular in the forties that forest natives are happy. About the same time there was a song "Skokeegan" with the lyrics "Down in Africa, happy, happy Africa". Diamond is part of this older mindset. He warns against romanticizing the natives and their way of life and then does so with a vengeance. The reality is that these pre-state people want to get into the modern world but they are ill equipped to make the transition. They want the peace, order, and prosperity of the modern state. They do not want to stay in the bush and starve and be murdered. All of these tropical peoples make lousy citizens in the modern world. If they stay in their native country they join gangs a who murder and rob. If they go to a developed nation they form gangs who murder and rob.
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on July 23, 2016
Reading "The Third Chimpanzee", "1491" and "New England Bound" at this time but I will get to "Collapse" and "The World Until Yesterday" soon.
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