Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

'Diamond has written a book of remarkable scope . . . one of the most important and readable works on the human past published in recent years.'Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a national bestseller: the global account of the rise of civilization that is also a stunning refutation of ideas of human development based on race.In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (Wi...

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Title:Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Author:Jared Diamond
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Edition Language:English

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Reviews

  • Jim

    The Purist

    I give you now Professor Twist,

    A conscientious scientist,

    Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"

    And sent him off to distant jungles.

    Camped on a tropic riverside,

    One day he missed his loving bride.

    She had, the guide informed him later,

    Been eaten by an alligator.

    Professor Twist could not but smile.

    "You mean," he said, "a crocodile."

    That bit of

    whimsy came into my head as I thought about

    's

    , a reflection on human history through the lens of e

    The Purist

    I give you now Professor Twist,

    A conscientious scientist,

    Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"

    And sent him off to distant jungles.

    Camped on a tropic riverside,

    One day he missed his loving bride.

    She had, the guide informed him later,

    Been eaten by an alligator.

    Professor Twist could not but smile.

    "You mean," he said, "a crocodile."

    That bit of

    whimsy came into my head as I thought about

    's

    , a reflection on human history through the lens of evolutionary biology. Diamond, unlike Professor Twist, is seeking answers to real world problems. In this case, he seeks to understand the plight of indigenous peoples and their subordination to European and Asian cultures in light of evolutionary pressures. Even so, Diamond seems awkward in his attempts to justify the ways of the Blind Watchmaker to men as so. One false note comes early in the book, when he departs from his evenhandedness to assure us that not only should we not hold New Guineans to be less intellectually endowed than Europeans (a reasonable enough assumption), but that they are probably intellectually superior. He admits that he can't demonstrate that superiority empirically, so that assertion strikes the reader as an attempt to curry favor by a politically correct reverse bias.

    On the other hand, there's a lot of really stimulating and interesting stuff in this book. Diamond talks about: what kinds of foodstuffs are necessary to support civilization; why disease almost always flowed from native Europeans to native Americans (and not vice-versa), whereas Europeans encounter many new diseases when they attempted to enter Africa; why those previous two topics are related; how innovation happens; etc. It seems like there's an interesting fact or point of view whenever you turn the page.

    The book seeks a complete explanation for the course of human history. It has that sort of broad, sweeping intellectual appeal that a hefty work of philosophy or science has. For example, after someone learns Newtonian mechanics, he tends to see the entire universe as the interplay between physical forces that are expressed in terms of differential equations. A similar dynamic happens here, where the reader suddenly sees commonplaces in a new light.

    As with most grand theories, it's important to see that there are some important limits to the analysis. While we can see why, in broad strokes, European and Asian peoples might have overwhelming advantages in human history in purely biological and geographical terms, Diamond's analysis is of no help in answering historical questions that still might strike us as large, but come within the realm of European or Asian culture, instead of at the border with other peoples. For example, it's hard to see how his analysis adds anything to our understand of conflicts such as the Greco-Persian wars, the rise and decline of Rome, the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War. Certainly these questions are important, and we rightly inquire into agricultural, military, political, and culture causes for these events. In these cases Diamond's analysis is largely impossible, since we are dealing with peoples that share genetics, foodstuffs, climates, terrains, etc.

    Perhaps I'm nit-picking. It's an excellent, thought-provoking book. I'd just like to temper the inevitable temptation to view all history through this lens.

  • Manny

    I liked this book, and it taught me a bunch of things I hadn't known before I read it. Jared Diamond has clearly had a more interesting life than most of us, and spent significant amounts of time in a wide variety of different kinds of society, all over the world. He says he got the basic idea from a conversation he had back in the 70s with a friend in New Guinea. His friend, who later became a leader in the independence movement, wanted to talk about "cargo" (manufactured goods, technology). "W

    I liked this book, and it taught me a bunch of things I hadn't known before I read it. Jared Diamond has clearly had a more interesting life than most of us, and spent significant amounts of time in a wide variety of different kinds of society, all over the world. He says he got the basic idea from a conversation he had back in the 70s with a friend in New Guinea. His friend, who later became a leader in the independence movement, wanted to talk about "cargo" (manufactured goods, technology). "Why is it," he asked, "that you Europeans have so much more cargo than we do?" Diamond thought he had come up with a good question, and wrote the book in an attempt to answer it.

    The core of Diamond's explanation is that Europeans were essentially lucky in two respects. First, we have unusually many easily domesticable plant and animal species. Second, since Europe is oriented East-West rather than North-South, a species which is domesticated in one part of Europe has a good chance of thriving in another, so there are many opportunities to swap farming technology between different areas. It helps that there is an easily navigable river system, and also that there are no impassible deserts or mountain ranges. These conditions are not reproduced in most other parts of the world; Diamond has a range of interesting tables, showing how few useful domesticable species there are elsewhere. Because we got efficient farming earlier than most other people, we also got cities and advanced technology earlier, and everything else followed from that initial lead we established.

    One objection you could make is that it wasn't luck, but rather that Europeans were more enterprising than people in other areas about finding good species to domesticate. Diamond's answer to this is fairly convincing. Having lived extensively with pre-industrial people, he says that we city-dwellers just don't understand how well they know their flora and fauna, and how active their interest in them is. I guess a New Guinea tribesman would, conversely, be surprised at how quickly word gets around on the Internet when a cool new website appears. Basically, what he's saying is that pre-industrial people tried everything that could be tried, and when they didn't find anything good, it's because it wasn't there. Systematic studies by modern scientists do seem to support this conclusion.

    Another criticism some readers have leveled at Diamond is that he makes history completely deterministic - once the geography was fixed, everything that happened after that was inevitable. I don't actually think that's fair. Diamond is open about the fact that his theories make one embarrassingly incorrect prediction: if it was all about being first to domesticate plant and animal species and set up efficient farming, then China should be the world's preeminent civilization. Even though he makes some attempt to explain why this isn't so, there does right now seem to be a fair case for saying that it's not

    geography.

    Luckily, George W. Bush has been working hard to try and smooth things out. If the Western world can just arrange two or three more leaders like him, all of Diamond's data will hopefully come out the way it's supposed to, and the last few hundred years of Western history can be written off as a statistical blip. Way to go, Dubya!

    _________________________________

    I was surprised this morning to discover that Darwin, in

    , expressed an opinion diametrically opposite to the one Diamond argues for:

    Does Diamond mention this? Unfortunately, I don't have a copy to hand.

  • Will Byrnes

    Jared Diamond is a biologist, who had a passion for studying birds, particularly the birds of New Guinea. But as he came to know and appreciate the many native people he met in his work, the question asked by a New Guinean named Yani remained with him.

    that westerners had so much relative to New Guinean natives, who had been living on that land for forty t

    Jared Diamond is a biologist, who had a passion for studying birds, particularly the birds of New Guinea. But as he came to know and appreciate the many native people he met in his work, the question asked by a New Guinean named Yani remained with him.

    that westerners had so much relative to New Guinean natives, who had been living on that land for forty thousand years. Many found an explanation in racial exceptionalism. Diamond decided to find out. Was one group of people smarter than another? Why was there such dimorphism in the amount of

    produced and toted by different groups?

    The arguments he seeks to counter are those stating that since "civilization" came to full flower in the Eurasian countries and not in places where other races dominated, that this success indicated innate superiority. He offers a stunning analysis of why civilization emerged in the places in which it did.

    – image from

    Guns figure large in why some societies were able dominate others, but the development of guns was not a universal. The materials necessary are not equally distributed over the planet, and there are technological prerequisites.

    It turns out that not every locale is ideal for the emergence of farming. He offers some detail on why farming flourished in some areas more than in others. The importance of domesticated animals is considered. Diamond shows how it was possible for them to have been domesticated in some, but not all of the theoretically possible locations. He discusses the impact of germs, the immunity defense developed by more urban dwellers, and the harm those germs can cause when those urban dwellers come into contact with peoples who lack such immunities. Although "Steel" figures prominently in the title, and is significant in its use in weaponry, this aspect is given the lightest treatment in the book. Diamond closes with a plea for history to be redefined as

    , claiming that, as with many other "historical" sciences, it holds the elements necessary to merit the "science" designation.

    While I might have been happier if the title had been

    , it remains a seminal look at the whys and wherefores of how some societies came to flourish, often at the expense of others. It has nothing to do with genes.

    was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

    =============================

    Links to the author’s

    ,

    and

    pages

    An

    was made of this book. Here is a link to the first of its three episodes.

    Diamond's book

    , is also amazing.

  • Riku Sayuj

    Jared sticks to the basic premise and plugs every hole in his argument so well to construct a magnificent explanation of the evolution of societies. What makes the book particularly good is the intimate hands-on experience that Jared has on the wide variety of fields required to attempt a book like this.

    The last four or five chapters start to get very repetitive, but except for that Diamond has taken a stunningly large scale view of history that keeps you enthralled throughout the 13,000 years

    Jared sticks to the basic premise and plugs every hole in his argument so well to construct a magnificent explanation of the evolution of societies. What makes the book particularly good is the intimate hands-on experience that Jared has on the wide variety of fields required to attempt a book like this.

    The last four or five chapters start to get very repetitive, but except for that Diamond has taken a stunningly large scale view of history that keeps you enthralled throughout the 13,000 years we cover in this book.

  • Mike

    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-a

    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

    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.

  • Joshua Parkinson

    In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn't the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in

    .

    Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have somethi

    In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn't the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in

    .

    Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have something to do with race? Were Europeans cleverer than other races? Diamond says no. It wasn't racial characteristics that tipped the scales of fortune for the Europeans; it was their geography. Their geography gave them access to the best domestic grains and animals, which led to specialization and advanced technologies like steel and guns. Their domestic animals also helped them develop potent germs, and the antibodies for those germs.

    The importance Diamond lays at the hoofs and paws of domesticated animals is, in fact, one of the fascinating themes of the book. According to Diamond, our animals have played an uncanny role in our cultural and economic development, both in a negative sense (human contact with farm animals facilitated the germ-exchange that produced man’s deadliest diseases) and in a positive sense (men from the Russian steppes, riding their newly domesticated horses, spread the Indo-European language both westward into Europe and southeastward into Persia and India). Diamond's point is that people living in areas with more domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, etc.) gained an important advantage over people without them.

    For example, Native Americans had only three domesticated animals before 1492: llamas, turkeys, and dogs. Why only three? Weren’t there wild horses and cattle in America too? Actually, fossil records show huge populations of horses, oxen, and millions of other large mammals in the Americas until about 11,000 BC. What happened around 11,000 BC? You guessed it: man showed up via the Bering Strait. The American horses, oxen and other large mammals, having never experienced a human predator, approached the new arrivals like slobbering puppy dogs, and were consequently turned into steaks. In fact, it was steaks every night for a couple thousand years for the new immigrants, until most of the continents’ large mammals— and all but one suitable candidate for domestication— were wiped out.

    Now this is fascinating enough, but then consider that because the Native Americans didn't have any horses, oxen, pigs, etc. left to exploit as beasts of burden and domesticated food sources, they also lost the civilizational benefits those animals would have brought (and did bring to Eurasians), not the least of which is germs. Yes, germs. Because the Native Americans didn't live in close proximity to a plethora of "farm animals" like their counterparts in Eurasia, they lacked the "petri dish" wherein deadly germs could grow and proliferate. They thus failed to develop the infectious diseases and (more importantly) the antibodies to those diseases that might have protected them from the germs of invading Europeans when Señor Columbus and his crew showed up.

    It was for this reason that when the Conquistadores did finally show up, they were able to wipe out 80% of the indigenous population before ever unsheathing their swords— with germs— with small pox and influenza, both diseases generated by the passing back and forth of germs between domesticated animals and their human caretakers (small pox between cattle and humans, and influenza between pigs and ducks and humans). If that doesn't blow your mind, your mind is blowproof.

    Then again, you may well ask: “What about moose and bison? Why didn’t Cortés and his boys float up to the Mexican shoreline and find a bloodthirsty cavalry of Aztecs on mooseback, energized by the milk and meat of their plentiful herds of bison?” Diamond surmises that by the time most the large mammals in America had been digested into extinction by their hungry human friends, there was only one suitable candidate left for domestication: the llama/alpaca. Every other large mammal that remained (including moose and bison) lacked the qualities that allow for domestication.

    In all of human history only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Outside of these, no other large mammals have been transformed from wild animals into something useful to humans. Why? Why were Eurasia's horses domesticated and not Africa's zebras? Why were Eurasia's wild boar domesticated and not America's peccaries or Africa's wild pigs? Why were Eurasia's five species of wild cattle (aurochs, water buffalo, yaks, bantengs, and gaurs) domesticated and not Africa's water buffalo or America's bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (the ancestor of our sheep) and not the American bighorn sheep?

    The answer is simple: we tried and it didn't work. Since 2500 BC not one new large mammal (out of the 148 worldwide candidates) has been domesticated, and not for lack of trying. In fact, in the last 200 years, at least six large mammals have been subject to well-organized domestication projects: the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison. All six failed. Why? Because of one or more of the following problems: diet, slow growth rate, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, captive breeding problems, and/or social structure.

    Diet: Why don't we eat lion burgers? Because raising lions, or any other carnivore, is uneconomical. You need 10,000 lbs of feed to grow a 1,000 lb cow. You would likewise need 10,000 lbs of cow to grow 1,000 pounds of lion. That means you’d need 100,000 lbs of feed to produce 1,000 pounds of lion. Hence the lack of lion burgers on the Wendy’s drive-thru menu.

    Growth rate: Why don't we eat rhino burgers? Simple, it takes 15-20 years for a rhino to reach adult size while it only takes cows a couple.

    Nasty disposition: Here's where we eliminate zebra burgers, hippo burgers, grizzly burgers and bison burgers. These animals retain their nasty and dangerous tempers even after several generations of captive breeding. Did you know zebras injure more zookeepers per year than do lions and tigers?

    Tendency to panic: No deer or gazelle burgers either. Why? Because they take flight at the first sign of danger and will literally kill themselves running into a fence over and over to escape the threat.

    Captive breeding problems: Many animals have elaborate breeding rituals that can't happen in captivity.

    Social structure: This may be the most important requirement for domesticates. The best candidates for domestication live in herds, maintain a clear herd hierarchy, and overlap ranges with other herds rather than having exclusive ranges. Here humans just take over the top of the hierarchy. They literally become the herd leader (think “Dog Whisperer”).

    So the reason European explorers didn't find Native American ranchers with herds of bison and bighorn sheep is because these animals can’t be domesticated. Diamond contends that if there had been any horses left in the Americas, or any of the other 13 candidates for domestication, the Native Americans surely would have domesticated them, and reaped all the attendant benefits. But alas, their great-great-grandpas had already killed, grilled and digested them all.

    Diamond's book is a great read. If you're a student of history, it’s a must read. The way I see it, the story of man (and the story of all things, for that matter) is the story of varied states of disequilibrium moving violently and inexorably toward equilibrium. What was Pizarro's vanquishing of Atahualpa's empire if not an example of such violent re-balancing? The beauty of Diamond's book is that it seems to pinpoint, with surprising simplicity, the original source of disequilibrium among men: geography. Roughly put, some got born in the right place and some didn’t. Skin color had nothing to do with it. Race has always been nothing more than an arbitrary mark to show the geographical birthplace of one's ancestors'.

    By the way, if you do read this book, take note of the way we humans first discovered agriculture. According to Diamond, it happened at the latrine. We'd go out gathering seeds, eating some along the way, and then come back to camp and defecate, all in the same spot. Guess what started growing in that spot? Yes, my friends, as crude as it may sound, we humans shat are way to civilization. Thank your ass when you get a chance.

  • Michael Finocchiaro

    It took me a while to complete Diamond's book (and admittedly I also distracted myself with a few Roth novels in the meantime) because of the density of the text and the variety of ideas presented. The central thesis that it is not racial biology that determines the victors in history but rather a complex combination of agriculture, geography, population density, and continental orientation is a fascinating and compelling one. The style is not academic (and did admittedly put me off by using sen

    It took me a while to complete Diamond's book (and admittedly I also distracted myself with a few Roth novels in the meantime) because of the density of the text and the variety of ideas presented. The central thesis that it is not racial biology that determines the victors in history but rather a complex combination of agriculture, geography, population density, and continental orientation is a fascinating and compelling one. The style is not academic (and did admittedly put me off by using sentences with "!" in them), and yet does come across as the fruit of years (or decades) of research in an astounding number of fields simultaneously: biology, agriculture, history, climatology, sociology, etc. I can understand why Mr. Diamond received accolades and a Pulitzer for this complex work written at the level that the layman, non-scientist can still grasp. The funniest story that struck me was the QWERTY keyboard one which apparently is the least ergonomic design but due to its rapid adoption by typists due to capitalist competition and afterwards its ubiquity once computers became important, it is impossible to dislodge. (I still find it easier to use than the AZERTY one here in France LOL). The one thing that struck me - and here I warn readers that I climb on my soapbox near the Marble Arch for a moment - is the abundance of corroborating evidence for human evolution and development that has solid artefacts and proof going back 40000 years and more by the most precise dating methods available by today's scientists. For anyone with a shred of intelligence to try and say the world is only 6000 years old and created in-state as it were is pure insanity and blindness. And yet, we now have high-placed individuals in the US holding these beliefs and poised to poison American youth with medieval and ignorant ideas such as young-earth creationism. If one is to take reality at face value rather than with massive filters eliminating reason and coherence from it, then one cannot possibly justify believing that all humans came from Adam and Eve and that they were white as snow and racially superior to their offspring. This book proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that just because one has white skin, that this is not a determinant in the development of the individual and his/her peers as human beings. It is critical that works like this get wide diffusion in order to debunk racial superiority theories that gave rise to the horrors on Hitler and continue to inform white supremacists and Islamic radicals and all other religious or racial bigots because their underlying fundamentals are based on patently false principles. OK, down from soapbox now. The book was well-written (if a bit repetitive at times) and presents eye-opening and inventive analysis that will help me see the world I live in differently. Highly recommended. Especially in view of the rise of revisionist, white supremacist bullshit.

  • Jason Koivu

    Misleading! The actual title should be

    .

    Why has no publishing house knocked down my door trying to obtain my book titling services yet?!

  • Molly

    This is what happens when you take an intelligent person, and casually make a few mentions of a field of study they have no knowledge of.

    Mr. Diamond, NOT an anthropologist, takes Marvin Harris' theory of cultural materialism and uses it to explain everything in life, history, and the current state of the world.

    Materialism is a way of looking at human culture which, for lack of a better way to explain it easily here, says that people's material needs and goods determine behavior and culture. For

    This is what happens when you take an intelligent person, and casually make a few mentions of a field of study they have no knowledge of.

    Mr. Diamond, NOT an anthropologist, takes Marvin Harris' theory of cultural materialism and uses it to explain everything in life, history, and the current state of the world.

    Materialism is a way of looking at human culture which, for lack of a better way to explain it easily here, says that people's material needs and goods determine behavior and culture. For instance Jews stopped eating pigs because it became so costly to feed pigs they themselves were starving.

    On the surface, materialism seems very logical. Like any theory it has to be at least somewhat probable sounding, and since people are used to thinking of life, these days, in terms of materialistic values already, Harris' theory sounds logical and likely very often.

    But like every other time you attempt to explain everything that ever happened in the history of man with one theory, this falls desperately short of reality. Materialism is likely ONLY when coupled, sensibly, with other theories and, need I say it, actual PROOF, of which Diamond has little.

    As an exercise in materialist theory this book is magnificent. I would recommend this book ONLY to people in Anthropology with a great understanding of theory, less educated or unwarned people might think this book is fact rather than an exercise in speculation.

    As an explanation of why the world is the way it is, it is an utter and complete failure.

  • Nate

    This may be the most over-rated book in the history of book rating. The point he is making is that we in Western Civilazation haven't built skyscrapers, made moon landings, mass produced automobiles, eradicated polio (or for that matter lived indoors with running water) while aborigines in certain remote outposts still hunt and gather in isolated tribes because we are inherently any smarter or more industrious than those individuals. Of course he is mostly right, but why in the 21st century is t

    This may be the most over-rated book in the history of book rating. The point he is making is that we in Western Civilazation haven't built skyscrapers, made moon landings, mass produced automobiles, eradicated polio (or for that matter lived indoors with running water) while aborigines in certain remote outposts still hunt and gather in isolated tribes because we are inherently any smarter or more industrious than those individuals. Of course he is mostly right, but why in the 21st century is this considered such a novel idea, and why does he have to be so BORING about it? Don't believe the hype.

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