Guns, Germs and Steel
Life isn't fair--here's why: Since 1500, Europeans have, for better and worse, called the tune that the world has danced to. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explains the reasons why things worked out that way. It is an elemental question, and Diamond is certainly not the first to ask it. However, he performs a singular service by relying on scientific fact rather than specious theories of European genetic superiority. Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals and the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government and communication--and increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China did not. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns and subjugate the New World.) Diamond's book is complex and a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth--examining the "positive feedback loop" of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation, and on and on--makes sense. Written without bias, Guns, Germs, and Steel is good global history.
|von Jared Diamond|
A fascinating book, but the central thesis is not original.
In 1972 Professor Diamond, challenged by a Papuan friend, considered the question "Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way." He relates that he didn't have an answer then," but twenty-five years later concluded that "History followed different courses because of differences among peoples' environment, not because of differences among peoples themselves."
In 1962, at the end of his book "The Origin of Races," Carleton S. Coon wrote, "Caucasoids and Mongoloids who live in their homelands and in recently colonized regions, such as North America, did not rise to their present population levels and positions of cultural dominance by accident. They achieved this because their ancestors occupied the most favorable of the earths zoological regions, in which other kinds of animals also attained dominance during the Pleistocene. These regions had challenging climates and ample breeding grounds and were centrally located within continental land masses. There general adaptation was more important than special adaptation. Any other subspecies that had evolved in these regions would probably have been just as successful."
Valid ideas, well-presented
Diamond takes on an extremely complicated topic that spans essentially all of human history and boils it down to some very basic premises. For example, he argues that Eurasia (i.e. Europe and Asia) enjoyed the advantage of the lion's share of the most desirable and domesticatable grains and large mammals. This advantage led to earlier agriculture, which led to denser populations, which led to more specialization, which led to better technology and organization, which led to societies better equipped to wage war and conquer their neighbors. Other reviewers, however, take Diamond to task. But is this premise really so darn controversial? The idea that the Fertile Crescent had a nice variety of native large-seeded, protein rich, perennial grains is not new. Heck, I learned as much in my History of Agriculture class as an undergrad (10 years ago). If you believe that Europe was somehow destined to rule the world because of some innate cultural and/or genetic superiority, this book is not for you. If you want wonderful insight into the biogeography of different regions of the earth, and how these differences contributed to differences in development, check out this book. I simply could not put it down.
An Interesting Theory, but.....
In his book 'Guns, Germs and Steel' Jared Diamond offers a 'geographic determinist' view of world history with the specific intent of repudiating any notion that 'race' might be a factor in the development of advanced civilizations. He argues that the descendants of Europeans and Asians now dominate the earth economically, politically and technologically because of favorable geographic and environmental conditions that existed over 10,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, as opposed to Africa, Australia and the Americas. In his quest to discover the 'ultimate' causes of the current alignment of world power (e.g., why did Europeans settle the Americas and not vice-versa; why did Europeans and Asians advance technologically and not the Africans or Native Americans)Diamond posits that it can all be explained by the fact that Europe and Asia had the benefits of lands that could grow abundant crops and large animals that could be domesticated, whereas other areas of the earth did not have these benefits. Accordingly, these 'Eurasians' had a head start on producing crops that could feed large numbers of people, which then gave way to new technologies (guns and steel) which, along with germs that were deadly to Native Americans, allowed the 'Eurasians' to dominate the rest of the earth's inhabitants.
I found the following problems with this book:
Diamond presents an interesting and reasonable argument, but much of it seems to be theoretical. Despite the fact that he is making many educated guesses to substantiate his theories, he routinely seeks to give his statements the cover of authority by prefacing his views with words like 'undoubtedly', 'surely' or 'must have'. Watch out for those.
Diamond ruins his intriguing theory by his political correctness. He dismisses biological theories about why some civilizations are more advanced than others, but he doesn't tell us why they should be dismissed. It sometimes seems as though he had a conclusion and then went in search of 'facts' to support that conclusion.
Some of Diamond's agruments are too convenient. For example, he argues that China's geography and environment were just right for allowing its advanced civilization to develop, but later argues that China's failure to explore and settle other parts of the world was also due to its geography and environment. Is he forcing history into his theory?
He says there is no evidence that any race of people is smarter than another, and then tells us that the people of New Guinea are actually more intelligent than Westerners. Where did that come from?
Diamond fails to address the 'ultimate' cause of why, at the dawn of civilization, certain peoples were living in geographical areas favorable for the development of civilization, and others were not. Was it not a process of the smarter/stronger people forcing out/keeping out the less intelligent/weaker people? And, since this would have occurred before the development of agriculture, animal domestication or technology that would give the local inhabitants an advantage over others, to what do we attribute the ability of a people to inhabit and protect a fertile living area suitable for the development of a civilization, while others were forced to live in marginal areas?
Diamond shows his PC throughout his book by putting words like 'discovered', 'explorer' and 'civilization' in quotes whenever writing about Westerners. He also routinely refers to the process of whites settling the New World as involving 'killing' or 'murdering' the natives, but similar settling processes by third world peoples are simply a 'displacing' or 'engulfing' of the natives.
Diamond asserts that all religions developed as a means for the elite to gain power and control the people...no mention of the possibility of a sincere desire to insitute morality, or, heaven forbid, that anyone actually believed in their religion...
Most troubling is Diamond's almost total exclusion of the human element from his theory of history. Like a good scientist (Diamond's specialty is bird evolution) he seeks to reduce all history down to an equation without the human variable to distort the process. Diamond doesn't get around to mentioning the possible human variables until page 417 of his 425 page book. In Diamond's view, humans are slightly more than automatons; one individual or group is interchangeable with any other; if all groups of people had been switched around so that 10,000 years ago they all lived on different continents, the world would be exactly the same today, except that the people we know as Africans and Native Americans would dominate the world.
The general theory about the strong influence of geography and the environment on the development of civilizations has long been accepted. What is not accepted is the notion that geography and the environment are the primary determinants of human progress. As Will Durant wrote in 'The Lessons of History', after noting the importance of geography in history: 'The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth makes civilization.'
I give this book a partial recommendation; the theory about the impact of geography and the environment on the development of civilizations has validity, but not nearly to the degree asserted by Diamond. Diamond's eagerness to prove his thesis caused him to ignore some important questions and facts and also caused him to make too many unwarranted assumptions.