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" (Will...

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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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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