OMG, I finally finished this book! The subject matter was interesting and compelling, but Diamond's writing is TERRIBLE!
Diamond's thesis is that civil...moreOMG, I finally finished this book! The subject matter was interesting and compelling, but Diamond's writing is TERRIBLE!
Diamond's thesis is that civilizations become powerful and dominant primarily because of their ability to become food producers based on their origin's geography, rather than because of inherent racial, genetic, or even cultural factors (although culture eventually plays a part in established civilizations). Geography factors in several ways: the availability of original/native plants and animals suitable for domestication; the orientation of the continent (N-S vs E-W); the continuity of similar ecosystems through which to spread agriculture; the lack or presence of geographical barriers (mountains, deserts, jungles, open ocean) to exchange of ideas (language, writing, technology, innovation). Thus Eurasia benefited in all of these factors, whereas Africa and the Americas, and the large islands/small continents (New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand) did not.
Diamond takes you on a long, rambling explanation of these ideas, sometimes repeatedly depending on the focus of any given chapter. His writing style itself is a weird mixture of philosophical treatise and informal lecture. I rather imagine an eccentric, introverted professor-type giving a lecture, totally unaware of anything. If you hang in there you'll learn a lot, but it's sometimes hard to follow or it gets lost in asides.
I liked several things about this book: the thesis is compelling; the discussion of how linguistics and genetics and archaeology can tell us about the origins and movements of civilizations is amazing (again, I lament my missed calling to linguistics); and Diamond didn't focus only on the big civilizations of Europe, China, and Egypt -- he was able to draw examples from a wide variety of historical examples. Reading this book really has affected my perception of modern civilizations, in particular in regard to the domestication of plants and animals. It also made me think about recent trends back toward local agriculture, and whether that is sustainable for large, complex civilizations (which incidentally informed my thoughts about the post-apocalyptic survival story in Dies the Fire. I also enjoyed reading both the epilogue (addressing "why Europe and not China" in the geographically lucky Eurasian continent) and the Afterword (written for the 2003 edition).
There is a television (National Geographic) presentation of this material which I recently watched, to compare it to the book. The video is a 3 hour series which addresses 1) The rise of agriculture and the concept of East-West geography; 2) Guns and Germs, specifically focusing on the Inca conquest scenario; 3) Africa, which has had a very interesting mix of good and bad luck, and continues to struggle with germs.
Having seen the video, which was interesting, I decided to raise my rating of this book from 3 to 4 stars. The book, despite Diamond's sore lack of a competent editor, covers the thesis much more thoroughly, with a lot of useful details and examples. It continues to affect my world view. Interestingly it also colors my thinking on how one might set up a completely fictional world (think, fantasy/sci-fi), in terms of geography and the power of civilizations based on that geography.(less)
Science and history. Similar in tone to something written by Robert Krulwich. Being married to a former physical chemist made this material somehow mo...moreScience and history. Similar in tone to something written by Robert Krulwich. Being married to a former physical chemist made this material somehow more personal. It's hard to explain.(less)
A survey of neuroscience discoveries and theories backed up by simple experimentation. Similar to the stories of Oliver Sachs. I actually expected to...moreA survey of neuroscience discoveries and theories backed up by simple experimentation. Similar to the stories of Oliver Sachs. I actually expected to hear overlapping anecdotes but these were all new to me, with the exception of the phantom limb treatment involving mirrors, which I'd heard before.(less)