Mike's Reviews > Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
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's review
May 18, 2007

really liked it
Recommended for: Folks with some interest in ancient history

Author Jared Diamond's two-part thesis is: 1) the most important theme in human history is that of civilizations beating the crap out of each other, 2) the reason the beat-ors were Europeans and the beat-ees the Aboriginees, Mayans, et. al. is because of the geographical features of where each civilization happened to develop. Whether societies developed gunpowder, written language, and other technological niceties, argues Diamond, is completely a function of whether they emerged amidst travel-and-trade condusive geography and easily-domesticable plants and animals.

I'm not sure I agree that why the Spanish obliterated the Mayans instead of visa versa is the most interesting question of human history. (How about the evolution of ideas, or the impact of great leaders and inventors?) But it is an interesting question, and worth exploring. Diamond is a philosophical monist, neatly ascribing just about every juncture in human history to a single cause or related group of causes. Given his extensive background in botany and geology, it makes sense that he would look for the impact of those factors in the human story. Unfortunately, those factors are all he regards as important; he relegates to insignificance the contribution of ideas, innovations, and the decision-making of individuals or cultures. His view is fatalistic, seemingly motivated by a P.C.-era desire to pronounce all cultures equal, and their fates the product of random circumstance.

A contradiction here is that fatalistic viewpoints are incompatible with moral pronouncements. (If nobody can control their actions, who's to blame for anything?) Diamond is condemnatory of the Spanish incursion into Mayan lands, but the logical consequence of his theory is that the Mayans would have done the same to the Spanish if they had been first to develop the musket and frigate. Taking Diamond's theory seriously means we'd have to view imperialism as natural and unavoidable, like the predation of animals, and be unable to criticize any culture's actions whatever.

All that said... this is a fascinating and worthwhile read.
There's no doubt that the factors Diamond identified had some role in human progress, however, and if you can put aside the author's predisposition towards his own field and somewhat sketchy philosophical foundation, the book is a compelling and vivid account of what life was like for the earliest civilizations. Diamond describes the evolution of agriculture, written language, and other indispensable facets of human history, giving us a crash tour through the earliest days of human history. The specialized expertise that ultimately derails Diamond's overview at the same time offers a compelling and detailed view of the rise of mankind.

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Started Reading
March 1, 2006 – Finished Reading
May 18, 2007 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Angela (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Angela Great review, but I'm wondering if you read the epilogue, where he talks about determinism? There he goes into the impact of individuals on specific, significant events in human history. I'd be curious about your response to his comments, as yours is (I think) close to what I would have written prior to reading the epilogue...

David Ginnie: Thanks for the NT Times links - interesting stuff. I have to think that it was the Diamond detractors who came off looking petty, even by academic standards.

I enjoyed both 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' and 'Crash', though I found that the lack of judicious editing had reached crisis proportions in the second book. I've also heard him interviewed on the radio, but was so completely distracted by his impossibly patrician diction (it's like a parody of a parody) that I didn't benefit much.

Yeah, I'm shallow like that.

message 3: by Angela (last edited Jan 17, 2008 05:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Angela I have to agree with David on the analysis of the reviews; it's unfortunate, because I think the detractors might have a half-way decent point, but they certainly don't support it convincingly.

I do think it's a tad ironic that Diamond's primary "faults" are oversimplifying human history and doing the opposite with his own language and approach!

Mike Who *are* all you people?

message 5: by Loretta (new)

Loretta Rietsema As strong an argument as Diamond made regarding the migratory paths of humans, I was nevertheless disappointed that he never really considered or addressed the motivation that gold, usually camouflaged under the more acceptable cover of God (and the spreading of his word), has had on tribes/civilizations/empires justifying and pursuing their conquests. And, of course, cheap energy - at first, the human variety (typically in the form of slaves), then oil, and next . . . ?

message 6: by Alexi (new)

Alexi My comment is short I agree with your review 100% you somehow articulated my thought. I am friends with a Mayan and he abhors this book I can see why and you clearly demonstrated why. Thanks for putting the book in perspective so that some people won't take it as the absolute truth!

Kirk Carver Alexi: I confused on your statement that you are "friends with a Mayan" can you elaborate ?

Matt We are who we are

Charles Ames I'm wondering if we read the same book. For example, your assertion that the Author "...is a philosophical monist, neatly ascribing just about every juncture in human history to a single cause" is just plain wrong. He explores how factors that tend to be overlooked -- geography, animals that can be put to work, food crops that can be grown efficiently, etc -- have a cumulative effect over long periods of time, and help to explain why, by the age of exploration, Europeans were so much more technologically advanced than the cultures they encountered.

There is a little bit of truth to your statement that Diamond's thesis is a "...P.C.-era desire to pronounce all cultures equal, and their fates the product of random circumstance", in the sense that I think Diamond WAS saying that all humans originally came from equal stock. But nowhere in the book is there any effort to say that all cultures are equal; rather, the fact that different cultures have progressed at radically different rates can be partly attributed to the conditions in which those cultures were founded, and not just to the inherent superiority of one race over another. In other words, looking back, we shouldn't be surprised that aboriginal Australians progressed more slowly than Europeans, since they had to work much harder to feed themselves and didn't have clever enemies nearby to spark an arms race.

message 10: by Mari (new)

Mari Rost this book is one of my favourites,I enjoyed it very much :)

message 11: by Hugh (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hugh Henry It is an excellent review: there are many factors involved, but physical environment dictated everything - even China's decision to abandon the most advanced shipping technology in the world. Diamond is EXTREMELY well-read and knows a great deal about many facets of cultures. I would have considered the rise of the scientific method in the West, but it gets little to no mention, other than the affirmation that Eurasians benefitted from sharing knowledge.

Matthew I thought the book' s theory very compelling. Since history tends to support imperialism as a strongly recurring phenomenon I would say that viewing human societies in terms of the inevitability of these patterns is probably true (hence the oft acknowledged and lamented history "repeating itself"). While the history of ideas, leadership and innovation have undoubtedly impacted the trajectory of human history they are no doubt inextricably tied to the environments in which humans have survived and developed. Diamond's thesis is akin to a human biofeedback mechanism, yet on a scale that incorporates all of humanity. I disagree that it leaves us unable to criticize any culture's actions, but it does put human culture in the context of our own biology and adaptation to both our physical surroundings, and technological creations, both of which we are inextricably linked to our evolution and recurring patterns of societal behaviour and history. It could equally be argued that we are not always manifestly masters of our own destiny. As his book argues, many technological 'breakthroughs' are often evolutionary ideas built upon the ideas of others. Like your review!

Sharon I must admit I had a hard time reading the book, I started but didn,t finish it. Over the years I have wondered the same thing myself as I'm sure many others have. Why the difference in the cultures around the world? I did see the documentary
Netflix produced by National Geographic on guns germs and steel and I thought it covered the topic very well. This is one man's opinion albeit a very wet well-educated man. Makes more sense than anything that I have come up with.

message 14: by Arvind (new) - added it

Arvind Balasubramaniam I've just read the foreward and he clearly mentions that finding the reason for something does not in any way condone it's morality. For eg., finding out the nature of psychopathy in now way condones the acts of psycophaths, aka "he did it because he was wired that way and there's nothing wrong with that".

message 15: by Brin (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brin Murray Diamond addresses the evolution of ideas lucidly and in full as part of his overall argument - see the sections on diffusion of ideas being contingent upon population density, which depends upon ultimate factors of food production, which depends upon a range of factors such as climate, geography, native species available... ideas diffusion is in fact huge throughout the book: it's how come so many innovations only arose in a few locations, such as the fertile crescent. People don't reinvent, they go with what has already worked and absorb existing knowledge and technologies.
The impact of great leaders and inventors is also addressed eg what would the impact on history have been if Hitler had been killed in a car accident in 1930? I actually felt less convinced by this aspect of the book: for one thing it's too speculative, and for another - if the general thrust of his argument is true, then the actions of individuals are never unique, they are replicable, and in the long term the important stuff - fire, the wheel ,agriculture - will happen even if genius A falls by the wayside. Sooner or later genius B will come along. That being said - what about the Cherokee silversmith who independently invented a writing system by ideas diffusion alone? Kudos.
PS Diamond explicitly states that explanations are too often confused with excuses. Nowhere does he justify colonialism or empire-building as morally okay by modern standards of self-determination and respect for human rights: but that doesn't mean that they are not inevitable when competing societies vie for resources and power. The difference is, that in prehistorical and in fact up to mid-20th century terms conquest was not viewed as problematic, and was likely to be lauded as successful and justified. Plus, for all the pretence of current PC beliefs, the reality is much more complex: western powers trade with China, a contemporary colonial power, and overlook innumerable modern instances of conquest and oppression. These issues are not simply historic, they are live.

Harry Hennah I haven't read this book yet but this was a helpful review for when I do get round to it!

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