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

February 10th, 2011

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Book Overview:

In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion --as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war --and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Rhone-Poulenc Prize, and the Commonwealth club of California's Gold Medal. Some images are not available in the Kindle edition due to rights issues.

Book Review

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History Books In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion --as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war --and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Rhone-Poulenc Prize, and the Commonwealth club of California's Gold Medal. Some images are not available in the Kindle edition due to rights issues.

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  1. Valer Ambrus
    February 10th, 2011 at 10:50 | #1


    Jared Diamond is a thoroughgoing geographical determinist. His book highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of this approach.

    Diamond’s major topic is the Neolithic Revolution. His intention is to demonstrate that environmental conditions were not equally suitable to the development of agriculture on different continents. Eurasia, he contends, was the most appropriate place. It had the largest number of domesticable plants and animals, an east-west axis favoring the diffusion of inventions, offered good possibilities for inter-continental communication, and was the largest and most populous continent. So the Eurasians were first in developing agriculture, gaining thus a headstart in history. Agriculture led to rising polulations and created a dynamic that prompted the evolution of states, writing and a sophisticated technology (guns and steel). These social and technological advantages, plus immunity to the most dangerous infectious diseases (germs), allowed Eurasians to easily subdue the natives of the Americas, Australia and Southeast Asia.

    On the whole this argument, which takes up the first 410 pages of the book, is convincing. Diamond is also right to insist on adopting a long time-frame. As early as 8000 years ago Eurasians had a substantial edge over their rivals on other continents, making it unlikely for those peoples and civilizations to catch up.

    Had Diamond stopped writing at this point, he would have published a good work.

    However, he was not content to treat only the Neolithic Revolution, but wanted to cover all major turns in world history. Hence the last 15 (!) pages of the book are devoted to a completely different subject. Having explained the rise of Eurasia, Diamond now wants to explain the rise of the West. Quickly the question becomes: Why Europe, not China? Borrowing an idea from Eric Jones (‘The European Miracle’; but beware: Jones’ approach is much more sophisticated than Diamond’s, avoiding any kind of monocausal determinism) Diamond provides a simple answer: Europe was geographically more diverse than China. Therefore it did not become politically unified. Political fragmentation led to openness and openness to progress – ideas and inventions that were rejected at one place could succeed at another.

    This speculation is not plausible at all.

    First, there is no geographical NECESSITY for European fragmentation and Chinese unity. Europe has many features favoring political unity. Its long coastline and a great number of navigable rivers allow for easy transportation by water, offering an important asset to any would-be imperial power. The Romans took advantage of this to the utmost, and if they were able to conquer a great part of the continent, there can surely have been no compelling GEOGRAPHICAL reason for later powers to fail. Diamond himself seems to realize this, when he admits that India had even more agricultural core areas than Europe. Yet India was ruled as a unified empire for most of its history.

    Second, Diamond’s explanation – even if assumed to be correct – accounts only for INNOVATION. It tells us why certain inventions made by Chinese craftsmen were never introduced into the production-process of China’s economy. A more important question to ask would have been why many significant inventions were not made in China in the first place. A prime example coming to mind is modern natural science, which was never developed in the Middle Kingdom.

    Third, it is easy to see that Diamond’s argument is undermined by his own evidence. As he tells us, China was scientifically and technologically ahead of Europe (and the rest of the world) for more than 1000 years. If China could achieve this superiority despite its supposed geographical disadvantages, we cannot escape the conclusion that those disadvantages either did not exist or were of minor importance. Europe, on the other hand, remained a cultural backwater for most of its history despite its supposed geographical advantages. Again, we cannot but conclude that these advantages either did not exist or were of minor importance.

    Thus Diamond’s environmentalism is completely refuted by Chinese and European history before 1500 a.d. Moreover, no other version of geographical determinism is likely to fare better. Since China’s geography did not change within the last 2000 years, every purely geographical interpretation of its history must be wrong. It will either fail to account for the period of Chinese superiority or for the period of Chinese backwardness.

    Diamond’s errors are grounded in his method. Geographical determinism can explain the Neolitic Revolution, because this transformation was brought about by small bands of hunter-gatherers extremely dependant on their environment. Even so, Diamond needs FOUR causal factors to account for its different outcome on each continent (1. The wild plant and animal species available; 2. Orientation of the major continental axis; 3. Possibilities for inter-continental communication, 4. Size of area and population of a given continent). When we look at the great Eurasian civilizations, we have to deal with a type of society vastly more complex and far less dependant on its environment than are bands of hunter-gatherers. Yet Diamond wants to explain the history of these civilizations with reference to just ONE causal factor (the impact of geography on political unity). Instead of becoming more sophisticated in accordance with its subject, Diamond’s approach turns brutally simplistic just as it is applied to the most difficult problem of world history.

    It is unlikely that the rise of the West can ever be explained geographically. Any serious attempt to write global history for periods after the Neolithic Revolution will have to be sensitive to the complex interplay between geography, economy, technology, politics and culture that shapes the development of large societies. The work of Max Weber and Fernand Braudel provides good examples of the kind of scholarship needed for this task. Jared Diamond’s book not only fails to rise up to this standard, but is crude, superficial and disappointing even from a geographical point of view.

    Clearly Diamond did not know when to put his pen down. His book would have been better if he had refrained from addressing topics unsuited to his method.

  2. Anonymous
    February 12th, 2011 at 02:18 | #2


    I think some of the reviewers here didn’t read the book closely enough to understand the context of some of Diamond’s arguments. He never says that biogeographical effects are the ONLY causes history. His main purpose is the search for the ultimate, extremely general causes for the broadest of trends in human history and prehistory.

    By the time the Mongols roared across Asia, or the Moguls invaded India, many cultures around the world already changed so much that bioregional factors, though seminal in the creation of these broadest trends, weren’t nearly as important as the political, religious and economic ones. He is not ignoring religion and so on but, he states plainly several times that isn’t his focus. He is looking for ultimate causes–before humans had extremely advanced mental concepts like religion.

    He also wanted to point out the devastating influence of disease on history. It was surely the European germs that did most of the conquering of Native Americans. The guns and horses were almost incidental. Later on, once Europeans had established themselves, then we can focus on economic and political systems. But we can’t ignore the effects of the diseases unleashed on the Americas. These plagues gave the Europeans a very lucky boost that catapulted them beyond the wealth and power of China, India or the Middle East–long before the Industrial Revolution made this gap obvious.

    Another thing that some people seem to be having trouble with is his assertions about the native intelligence of tribal peoples around the world. (If you read the book, you notice that he is not just saying this about the New Guineans.)

    He takes pains to point out what he means by this. He not talking about some mysterious genetic superiority of tribal peoples. It’s all straight up culture. Tribal culture forces people to be better generalists than they’d have to be in literate civilizations. They can’t rely on embedded support structures like books for memory or experts for obscure fields. They have to be pretty good at a lot things. Otherwise they die. They have to be better at memorizing things because they can’t count on computers or books to remember things for them. Living in a dangerous, wild environment makes them cautious and aware of all that is going on around them. That was all he meant. The circumstance of tribal peoples force them, only in very broad ways and only on an individual basis, to be smarter and more curious than civilized people.

    And in the end it does them no good. Because civilized societies are SMARTER than tribal societies. That is why tribal society has been steadily disappearing over the millenia. They just can’t compete.

    Finally, of course the book is repetitive. In fact he sums up his argument in the preface of the book. You needn’t even read the rest if you don’t want to. The rest of the book consists of him reiterating his points from different angles to point out the objections he has managed to answer and the many questions that still remain. He is just following scholarly practice and exposition–just to make things clear that he has thought about this.

    He knows that his theory can’t explain everything. In the epilog he points out that China, India and the Middle East are good counter examples to his idea. They each had an expansionist rise to great power–a time when they were unafraid to try new ideas and explore new ways of doing things. If the highly complex forces of economics, politics, religion had arrayed themselves differently. We might all be speaking Arabic now. Or Cantonese. Europe was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time for things to come together as they did.

  3. Marc Marasco
    February 12th, 2011 at 12:51 | #3


    In July 1972, Author Jared Diamond, was walking along
    a beach on a tropic island of New Guinea, where as a
    biologist he studied bird evolution. By chance, he
    ran into a local politician, named Yali, who was
    working to liberate what was then Papa New Guinea from
    the Australia government. After hours of
    conversation, Yali posed the question, “Why is it that
    you white people developed so much cargo (technology)
    and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had
    little cargo of our own?” Why did wealth and power
    become distributed as they are now, rather than in
    some other way? Diamond was troubled that he did not
    have an adequate response to Yali’s Question. Fast
    forward 25 years — Diamond writes a 425 page answer.

    The most common explanation to this question involves
    implicit or explicit assumptions based on biological
    inequalities. Usually these racial explanations are
    cast in some sort of Darwinian argument where
    causality is often left in question. Diamond thesis
    attempts to refute these theories with an alternate
    theory. Relying on a combination of history,
    archeology, and microbiology, and genetics, Diamond
    suggests that the most striking differences between
    the long-term histories of different cultures have
    been due not to innate differences in peoples
    themselves but to differences in their environments.
    These environmental factors include: continental
    differences in the wild plant and animal species
    available as starting materials for domestication;
    environmental factors affecting rates of diffusion and
    migration; and continental differences in area or
    total population sizes. Diamond believes that these
    geographical inequalities set different civilizations
    on pre-determined trajectories to develop political
    organization, technological advancements, and immunity
    to disease that allowed them to encounter and conquer
    other civilizations.
    A cultural historian in a past life, I get all excited
    about this sort of thing.

    As one can imagine, trying to explain the history of
    civilization in one volume is an arduous task.
    Diamond chooses to explain his theory in broad strokes
    then uses natural experiments at distinct points in
    history to demonstrate how his ideas play out. This
    is a general problem with all meta-histories.
    Historical methods teach us that it is virtually
    impossible to forge a bulletproof argument without
    delving into the minutia. But when focusing on the

    “big picture” issues, there is just too much
    information to cover. Diamond does a very good job
    managing this balance. He begins by outlining his
    methods and follows through on his explanation with
    dedication and accomplishment. He goes into just
    about the right amount of detail on every subject and
    infuses the traditional historical approach with a
    healthy dose of scientific discovery. The chapters
    concerning the domestication of plants and large
    animals are a joy to read. While speaking on the
    familiar new world conquest, Diamond is balanced in
    the application of his detailed examples to forward
    his theories. Notably, Diamond uses Australia and the
    south pacific to demonstrate the dissemination of
    technology and China to discuss the application of
    unified language and political entities. In fact,
    with my American History background, I was more
    partial to the Euro centric examples.

    So what’s bad about the book? One of my pet peeves
    involves arguing by anecdotal evidence and I cringed
    every time Diamond brought up some story about a
    bushman to illustrate his point. But this was a minor
    annoyance. Another problem is Diamond’s paucity of
    footnotes. There were several portions of prose that
    I felt should have been annotated with further
    discussion and evidence. I should also warn you that
    this book is a little dense. Be prepared for a 20
    page discussion about the cross pollination of
    language. It’s a good idea to remember that I’ve got
    a degree in this stuff. Back when I was younger,
    smarter, and more exciting, I used to pour through
    thousands of pages of this garbage every week. Beaten
    into submission by a desk job and dearth of …
    pitchers of beer, I found the last 100 pages of Guns,
    Germs, and Steel difficult to get through

    So if you are up for the challenge, “Guns, Germs, and
    Steel” is a insightful and rewarding book. For me, it
    was probably a good substitute for chasing women and
    the cultural/political theories almost kept me warm at
    night. All joking aside, I guarantee that this book
    will change the way you think about European conquest.

  4. Kirill Pankratov
    February 14th, 2011 at 10:42 | #4


    With so many reviews already available, there is no need to repeat main arguments of this extremely interesting and well-written book. I’ll rather concentrate on several of the most controversial issues.

    It is impossible to write a comprehensive treatise on world history, which will not induce attacks on political and cultural grounds. Some critics blamed J. Diamond for advocacy of pure geographic determinism, that “culture doesn’t matter” and so on. I think it is unjustified. He considered foremost the time before and during emergence of agricultural and, consequently, sedentary societies, not today’s civilizations. When human population consisted of small bands and, later, tribes, their development was determined by environmental factors. Indeed, evidence from all continents suggests similarities in the emergence of domesticated plants, agriculture, and village life, starting about 10.000 years ago. The difference was in speed of this process – faster in places of benign environment, where food resources allowed denser population, slower in more adverse areas. As human societies grew in complexity and technological and cultural sophistication, more nonlinear interactions and feedbacks emerged. Then geography had likely to become less of a decisive factor, at least in a relatively straightforward way described by J. Diamond.

    Moreover, history of the last few thousand years didn’t resemble anything like the linear ascendance of the Western Europe. Western civilization achieved its dominance right at the moment when advances in ship-building and navigational technology brought the era of “great geographic discoveries” starting in 1492, which led to colonization of much of the world. Had seafaring been more developed before, during the Islamic dominance of several centuries earlier, or had China not scrapped its fleet and long-range exploration plans in early XV century, the world history of the last five hundred years could be very different.

    Some readers took issue with the author’s statement that “average Guinean is probably smarter than average westerner”. It is indeed highly debatable, even with the notion of “smartness” very different for different people. However, if one puts aside cheap chauvinism, one can see that there is something to this statement. A Guinean lives in a very diverse natural environment. He constantly needs to actively process (in contrast to, say, watching TV) large amount of information relevant to his essential survival and well-being. Another reason is that the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mechanism still works in tribal New Guinea, while amenities of the modern consumer society allow procreation of relatively unattractive, inept and stupid people.

    Primary enabling factors of early civilization developments was the availability of domesticable plants and animals. Interestingly, the role of animals, as follows from the author’s discourse, was much greater in this respect. Indeed, domesticated plants number many hundreds species, with each major agricultural regions having at least several developed crops. In contrast, large domesticable animals good for field work and transportation, are much rare. American continent and much of Africa didn’t have suitable animals at all. Domesticated animals not only provide muscle power, but also make humans adaptable to germs. This allowed expansion into new regions with different germ population, which was one of the crucial factors in rapid conquering of Latin American territory by Spain.

    In Jared Diamond view the ultimate cause of Eurasian (and later European) domination is the extent of the East-West axis – largest for Eurasia and much smaller for other continents. Latitude stretch of Eurasian landmass certainly did play a role, but it is likely overstated by the author. Total East-West extent of the Eurasia was probably irrelevant, and the history of Sumerian and Egyptian empires would likely have been similar even without the Europe west of Greece and the Asia east of Persia. The crucial property was the Mediterranean and the Middle East juncture (Fertile Crescent and neighboring coastal territories). Was it latitudinal dominance or a fractal coastline? The role of a long, winding coastline could be a very significant one. It provides a lot of beachfront and river estuary water resources, temperate seashore climate, great variety of flora and fauna from sea level to mountains nearby. All this ensures richness of resources sustaining high-density human population. At the same time such topography allows easy interaction, trade and exchange between settlements, while preserving pockets of diversity and preventing easy conquering and destruction by a dominant tribe, unlike in areas of open mid-continent plains. Indeed, it is evident in this book that the Fertile Crescent and two-river delta in China are the only places having this combination of climate, topography and biological resources.

    To stress the importance of geographic factors and in particular availability of domesticable animals, the author mentions a curious fact – the absence of wheeled transport on American continent. To J. Diamond the failure of relatively advanced Mesoamerican cultures to develop wheeled transportation was due to the lack of any domesticated animals, which could be used to power them. Indeed, he argues, they had used wheels in toys, therefore they didn’t lack technological creativity in this respect. I disagree with the author on this issue. There is a huge difference between a toy wheel – something rotating on an axis – and a working tool for transportation. The latter needs much higher degree of sophistication than many other contemporary technologies. A wheel even in a simple wheelbarrow must be very round and well-balanced on an axle, have a very sturdy and low-friction axle and hub, firm but light and flexible stress-distributing spokes and stress-tolerant outer edge. A transportation carriage in addition to that needs to have a sophisticated amortization system for a smooth ride, and a suitable harness for the animal. Manufacturing an inexpensive, sturdy and reliable wheel for hauling and transportation was a very tough challenge. Still, the question of why Mesoamerican cultures hadn’t developed a wheel requires further scrutiny. Perhaps the reason was related to available material technologies and quality of soil less suitable to build roads.

  5. Lowe On Books
    February 15th, 2011 at 02:30 | #5


    Many years ago a New Guinea native asked Jared Diamond a simple question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Only slightly rephrased, Diamond devotes this book to answering the question why, from the depths of the primeval forests of Africa, mankind emerged at different rates, some achieving the heights of civilization and technology while others remained virtually in the Stone Age? And why did people on some continental landmasses prosper while people on others lagged behind, especially because some locations, like the California Coast, are mild and desirable while others, like Northern Europe are harsh and forbidding?

    Diamond’s thesis is that some populations got a head start over others in the development of civilization. But the head start resulted from favorable geography and natural resources, not from any innate superiority. Given the same location and advantages, any group of people over time would have reached the same result. The first beneficiary of geography happened to be the Fertile Crescent. The “cradle of civilization” not only had all five major large mammals (sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses) available for domestication, but they also possessed the major wild seed groups that would become domesticated grain and cereals. Not all areas are so favorably endowed.

    Once hunting and gathering gave way to food production, population density took hold, which in turn made possible civic development and technology. The head start then spread roughly along the same parallel east to Asia and west to Europe. Diamond contrasts Eurasia’s wide girth and similar climates with America’s and Africa’s narrow waist and elongated longitude. Technology and culture can shuttle back and forth vast distances between east and west, but climatic zone differences as well as mountain ranges and deserts inhibit flows north and south.

    I have two criticisms of the book. One, it has no footnotes so that one can source out the author’s materials. For example, on page 108 Diamond asserts that early man, because of his ego, would rather hunt giraffes than gather nuts. Is that theory his, or someone else’s? The very nature of a book such as “Guns, Germs, and Steel” requires that it pile theory upon theory to make a picture puzzle of a distant and hidden past. If key pieces don’t fit, the picture may take a decidedly Cubist theme. A few footnotes would help the reader who wants to delve deeper into a topic.

    The second criticism is the author’s failure to address the role of human intelligence in the development of civilization. Considering the grief Charles Murray took into for writing “The Bell Curve,” which held that certain populations have actually raised their intelligence level through centuries of using their brains to solve problems, one understands why Diamond steers clear of the topic – no academic can afford to be tinged with even a hint of racism or euro centrism. Plenty of professors on the leftist fringe stand ready to point the accusing finger any anybody who deviates from the acceptable norm. But surely scholars can deal with the role human intelligence in a non-racist way; after all, the physiology of the human brain is the same in all Homo sapiens. Diamond owes it to his readers to complete the mosaic he has created.

  6. Anonymous
    February 17th, 2011 at 08:23 | #6


    Prof. Diamond has produced a fluently-written account of a popular theory — that contemporary differences in human cultures and societies are the result solely of starting conditions with respect to geography and environment. However, the book holds numerous flaws.

    There can be no doubt that Prof. Diamond is the master of a vast amount of data, biological and historical, and he marshals those data to good effect in support of his theories. However, there are many troubling omissions and contradictions contained in the book, which indicate that either there are important holes in Prof. Diamond’s knowledge, or that he has been somewhat too selective in his use of data. For example, in discussing the native cereals available to various local groups for purposes of cultivation, he consistently speaks as if corn were the only grain available in Mesoamerica for domestication, and, indeed, that it was the only grain so domesticated. In fact, amaranth was also available, and domesticated. It further lacks many of the deficiencies which Diamond asserts made corn an imperfect domesticate. His failure to deal with this contradictory fact calls his more general arguments into question.

    Diamond also ignores facts which are uncomfortable or unexplainable under the terms of his theory. For example, he points out that certain grasses native to the Eastern U.S. produce “dream” grains — the example he offers is sumpweed. Yet the reason he offers that it was not domesticated is weak; it causes hay-fever, and has an objectionable smell. As Diamond should be aware, the question of whether a smell is objectionable is often culturally determined, as are many aesthetic notions. So the fact that we may find it objectionable now does not mean that contemporary consumers of it did, and does not explain why they failed fully to domesticate it. He also offers that other grains had seeds that were too small; but at the same time offers the example of corn being engineered over many years from teosinte, which had even more drawbacks. Why could these plants not have been bred for larger seeds, over time? Why did mesoamericans engineer corn in this way, while north-eastern inhabitants failed to do the same with the plants available to them? He argues that the fact that eastern US farmers abandoned their own crops when offered mesoamerican replacements indicates they were less worthwhile; but all that proves is that the mesoamericans had done a better job of engineering their crops for human consumption, not that those crops were better. Diamond also fails to provide an answer to the question of why mesoamericans failed to adopt the wheel. While arguing that the lack of large draft animals made their use unlikely, he acknowledges that the wheel was, in fact, first used as an adjunct to human labor, in the form of wheelbarrows. The reader is left to wonder why mesoamericans failed to adopt this practical use for the wheel, while leaving them on toys.

    The book is irksome in its continual reliance on loose arguments, consistently indicated by the use of such terms as “surely”, “clearly” or “it must therefore follow,” etc. Those words indicate a weakness of proof, not clarity of proof, and encourage the reader to disagree with his conclusions. The book needs a good edit.

    Finally, Prof. Diamond proves too little. It is unsurprising, and probably not subject to serious debate, that the earlier occupation of the old world by humans means those societies would have a head start over societies arising on a continent populated only tens of thousands of years later. Furthermore, it is intuitively acceptable that isolated societies (such as his precious New Guinea) are less likely to innovate, based on a lack of intellectual cross-currents and the inability to take advantage of new discoveries. But his book cannot explain the peculiar phenomenon of the rise of the West. His geographical and environmental advantages are spread over the whole Eurasian continent, from Spain to China, and are centered in the Fertile Crescent, and these areas have indubitably been linked by trade and war for millenia. Why, then, was America not colonized by Chinese explorers? Why was China invaded by Europeans during the eighteenth centuries and forward, and not the reverse. The fertile crescent was indeed the center of civilization for many years, while Europe was a back-water suffering invasion until the mid-seventeenth century. Why was that trend reversed so suddenly and dramatically, so that by the nineteenth century Britain, France and Russia could vie for protectorates from Palestine east to Indochina? The answer, I would argue, is that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe — indeed it began at the very time that China, the giant in terms of industrial production at the time, was turning in on itself. Why, then, did the IR, which is what made possible the enormous European expansion of the 18-19 centuries, occur in Europe and not China, Safavid Persia or the Ottoman Empire? That is the key question which Diamond’s book leaves unanswered, and which, I believe, cannot be answered based on geography and climate alone. Better technological innovation is said to be a product of larger population sizes and densities; thus Eurasia’s population is compared with Australia’s to in support of that theory. But why did densely populated China fall behind in technological innovation versus the less crowded, less populated countries of Europe from about 1500 on?

    So, while this is an interesting book, full of valuable tid-bits of information, it fails because the facts offered to support the theories are inconsistent and incomplete and because it ultmately fails to do what its author set out to do — explain the rise to predominance of one set of cultures or civilizations over all others. Ultimately, it appears more as an opportunity for Prof. Diamond to show off his extensive knowledge than the marshalling of that knowledge in service of a larger argument

  7. Tom L. Forest
    February 17th, 2011 at 16:09 | #7


    I read this book when it came out and saw Diamond on the lecture circuit when he plugged the book. I thought highly of it at the time. Seeing it still selling well four years later, I wanted to review it but felt a re-reading was in order. It was even better this time.

    Diamond’s central rhetorical device is answering New Guinean friend Yali’s questions why Europeans have so many more goods than New Guineans do. The answer is location, location, location: location with lots of domesticable crops; location with lots of domesticable animals; and location with lots of productive acreage having ‘Goldilocks’ access to the rest of the world — strong enough for crop and idea diffusion but weak enough to prevent political unification. The book is twenty solidly written essays like his ‘Discover’ magazine articles. Linguistics, evolutionary biology, history, archaeology, anthropology, epidemiology, agronomy and paleontology are just part of the palette from which Diamond draws for his sweeping portrait of the most recent 13,000 years of human existence.

    There is hardly a wrong word written, a false step taken, or an error made in this exciting book, which delights in no small part by raising as many questions as it answers. Diamond knows a lot about a lot of things, and provides many an aha! moment. He also asks interesting questions about some things that neither he or anyone else knows about, and those questions are as interesting as any of his answers. He answers questions like: How did Africa become black? How did China become Chinese? and Why aren’t Australia, New Guinea, and Malaysia Polynesian? One may not like the answers, but he takes a great shot at them, and I relish his doing so. He asks why proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) were driving forces for conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not Chinese. He also relates several interesting bits about his extensive field work (as an ornithologist) in New Guinea.

    The best page of the book is page 87, figure 4.1, “Factors Underlying the Broadest Pattern of History.” The entire book is spent explaining that diagram, which is itself an answer to What are the proximate, intermediate, and ultimate causes to history’s broadest pattern? I would modify his ultimate factors to be geography (adding carrying capacity to his east/west axis) and, more controversially, co-evolution between humans and large animals (with respect to their availability and behavior). I am also surprised that he did not cite the island-area effect in species or cultural diversity. But perhaps that would have been gilding the lily. There is nothing in the author’s framework that precludes a change in where the most goods are today. He notes carrying capacities and access have changed radically over the last 13,000 years, shifting the balance of power from time to time. 200 years ago, for instance, China had the most goods. 200 years from now it may again.

    If you like history, evolutionary biology or (like me) both, read this book today!

  8. Jim Luebke
    February 20th, 2011 at 07:12 | #8


    In one compelling volume, the famous biologist Jared Diamond tackles the most important question of global history: Why did Europeans come to dominate the New World?

    This question has been answered by others before; Diamond’s idea that Europe’s geography is the cause (“geographical determinism”) has also been proposed before. Any student of history can drag up a case or two of this thesis. Baron Montaigne, for example, proposed that Europe’s primacy stemmed from its superior government, which could be derived directly from the coolness of its climate.

    The deep significance of this book is that Diamond’s thesis is not simply idle speculation. He proves that the Eurasian land mass had by far the best biological resources with which to develop agricultural societies, and was thus more able to form large, coherent, and powerful social entities.

    To support this idea, Diamond introduces thorough set of well-researched data on what kinds of plants and animals are necessary to support a farming society. He investigates the biological resources available to potential farmers in all parts of the world. The people of Eurasia had access to a suite of plants and animals that provided for their needs. Potential farmers in other parts of the world didn’t– and so their fertile soil went untilled.

    After establishing this strong foundation, Diamond falls into repeating ideas about the formation of large-scale societies. These ideas, while unoriginal, are still compelling, and Diamond presents them in a very clear and well-written way.

    His other major original contribution comes when he discusses the diseases that helped the Old World conquer the New. Building on his earlier chapters dealing with Old-World domesticated animals, he shows that these very animals were the sources of the major plagues (such as smallpox) which virtually annihilated New World populations. The fact that Old Worlders had immunities to these diseases was a direct result of their agricultural head-start.

    Along with these monumental contributions to History, this book has its drawbacks. If you’re looking for a narrative explaining Great People, Great Events, or Modern Ideas, you will be sadly disappointed. Diamond’s thesis offhandedly assumes that it is difficult to believe Shakespeare’s plays or Newton’s laws could have been written by hunter-gatherers.

    If you are looking for reasons why Europe came to dominate the world, rather than, say, China, Diamond presents mixed results. He mentions the 14th century self-isolation of China, but does not analyze it. He also brings up the odd theory about the relationship between the coastline lengths of Europe and China and trade potential; this idea is provably wrong.

    If you are looking for a book that explains the world’s history of the past 500 years, look elsewhere. Guns, Germs and Steel exhausts itself by effectively, coherently, fundamentally, definitively, and entertainingly explaining the preceeding 15,000.

    I do not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with an interest in world history. The scholarship is first-rate, and the thesis is incredibly significant. The technical details, while complete, are presented in a very easy to understand way, and Diamond’s writing style is fun and engaging. It fully deserved the Pulitzer prize.

  9. James D. DeWitt
    February 21st, 2011 at 01:19 | #9


    Jared Diamond set out to do two very difficult things in this book: first, by his own admission, to summarize in one book 13,000 years of homo sapiens’ history, and second, to write a popular, entry level book about the complexities of geographical and environmental determinism. To his credit, he brings both off very well.

    Diamonds’ thesis, as noted by other reviewers, is that the triumph of western culture traces in large measure to accidents of geography and environment. In particular, the east-west orientation of Eurasia and the abundance of usable crop species and animal species in Eurasia in general and the Fertile Crescent in particular. The ability to create domestic crops and domestic animals, by his reasoning, led through a series of steps to the development of larger communities, the development of technology, and the triumph of the West.

    Diamond’s critics accuse him of political correctness, of over-simplification and determinism. I don’t believe any of those criticisms is accurate.

    Diamond frankly admits he is challenging the myth of caucasian inherent superiority. The sense of outrage some reviewers express when Diamond states that the most intelligent man he knows is a New Guinean “primitive” more or less proves Diamond’s point. By confusing intelligence with education, and a subsistence culture with technological culture, those critics demonstrate and illustrate the myth Diamond addresses.

    Half of his critics accuse Diamond of oversimplification; the other half complain that he repeats points and that the book is hard to read. I think this is mostly reaction to the common problem of a scholarly subject being treated in a popularization. It is a very difficult thing for a scientist to write a popularization of his or her subject that isn’t either condescendingly simplistic or too complex for lay readers. Diamond strikes a nice balance.

    Finally, critics claim that Diamond is asserting a kind of determinism that denies free will and understates cultural variables. They point to cultural variables like religion (the aggressiveness of Christianity and Moslem beliefs, for example), social, intellectual and others that are overwhelmingly important today. Those critics are missing Diamond’s key point: it was those geographical and environmental factors he identifies that made the development of those cultural variables possible.

    Overall, this book is a very significant contribution to lay understanding of why the West “has more cargo” than other cultures. It is not intended to be a work of pure scholarship; it doesn’t pretend that this is the Complete and Final Answer. It is frank in identifying issues still be be addressed. I strongly recommend it to any reader who wants to better understand the world we have inherited.

  10. mateo52
    February 21st, 2011 at 03:42 | #10


    GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL is a persuasive discourse of competitive plausibility regarding the challenging question why population groups on different continents experienced widely divergent paths of development. Contrary to the voluminous objections cited in the many of the reviews below, Professor Jared Diamond, clearly an enthusiastic proponent of environmental determinism, presents a set of premises consistent with evidence provided from a wide range of disciplines, but he does not attempt to answer the question of genetic diversity, including differentiated intelligence, among racial groups as many reviewers have inferred. If anything, implicitly, the author appears to support promulgations of differentiated intelligences; he sets out to demonstrate intelligence was not the root cause to Eurasian dominance.

    On at least two occasions Diamond, without equivocation, stated he found on average the New Guinean to be more intelligent than the average European or American. He was prompted to undertake this investigation as a result of a question posed by a New Guinean friend – Why white people developed so much cargo (material goods) and brought it to New Guinea while the indigenous had so little. Diamond summarized his findings as follows: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.”

    Beginning 13,000 years ago, the author illuminated the conditions or circumstances that may have facilitated growth for some groups and inhibited the same for others. Diamond accepts the out of Africa theory for the dispersion of Homosapiens to the other continents (for purposes of his treatise Europe and Asia are indivisible), and like the old axiom of real estate, the importance of location, location, location becomes readily apparent. For Diamond, food production is the ultimate cause of variable rates of development for different peoples. He illustrates how the abundance of wild plants subject to domestication and availability of large mammals served as immediate factors to transition from hunter/gatherer bands and tribes to sedentary agriculturally based chiefdoms and states.

    Diamond lists what he proposes as proximate causes to European dominance:

    1) Germs – based on close proximity to domesticated animals, immunities were developed infectious strains Europeans would carry to other areas, resulting in the decimation of non-immunized populations. In turn, those groups had few autochthonous diseases that would affect the invaders.
    2) Invention of writing- relatively sedentary lifestyles facilitated devotion of more time and effort to the creation of methodologies to control and coordinate commerce. These systems eased transfer of information among society members, and had further implications to the establishment of hierarchical political organization.
    3) Axial orientation of the different continents – east/ west orientation was conducive to transmigration of people, products, and technologies. Plants best suited to specific climatic conditions were readily transferable; geographic encumbrances were less severe and population isolation was not as significant.
    4) Establishment of hierarchical organizations – food production instigated the growth of artisan classes focused on technological improvement, leisure classes devoted to functions unrelated to subsistence, organization of massive armies comprised of professional soldiers, and religion, which allowed individual groupings to live together under codification without killing one another.
    5) Continental Isolation – Landmasses that were separated by geographic or ecological boundaries were under less pressure to develop or adopt new ideas, products or technologies from competing civilizations.

    Some of the author’s theories were not defended as successfully as others. His explanation why Sub-Saharan Africans were unable to identify species (the water buffalo and Zebra are two prime examples) that may have been used in farming and commerce seemed rather weak. Capture, taming and subsequent selective breeding for temperament seems as viable here as he indicates was the case on the Eurasian plains for other species. Similarly, he does not offer a convincing argument regarding the American Indian’s failure to domesticate the Bison, although the inference seems to be the lack of cultivatible plant life was certainly a factor.

    Overall, Diamond provides a compelling theory of the differences in development rates among different peoples, linking a wide set of factors that are not generally considered in parallel in the historical record. For anyone with even peripheral interest in the evolution of different societies, this is an enthralling book.

  11. Christopher A. Smith
    February 21st, 2011 at 17:49 | #11


    According to Diamond, four factors are responsible for all historical developments: 1) availability of potential crops and domestic animals, 2) the orientation of continental axis to facilitate the spread of agriculture, 3) transfer of knowledge between continents, and 4) population size.

    Diamond states that “those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute.” Fair enough, but what *is* subject to dispute is that there might be some other factors at work. Thomas Sowell in Race and Culture does a good job of developing the thesis that the exchange of information among European cultures, facilitated by Europe’s plentiful navigable rivers, was the key to Europe’s technological and economic rise. David Landes in the Wealth and Poverty of Nations attributes China’s conscious decision in the 1400′s to isolate itself form other nations as the key event (decision) that caused it to lose it’s technological advantage and fall behind Europe. (Diamond briefly touches on 15th Century China in the final chapter, but manages to boil this as well down to an accident of geography.)

    This is unfortunate, because the book contains a wealth of excellent material which is excellently explained. Many of the core causes which Diamond explores ring very true, and his points are persuasively argued. The connection between the development of agriculture and the subsequent unequal rise of military capability worldwide is very convincing. But convincing though they may be, reading these theories one can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that Diamond is selectively presenting evidence which he’s has found to support his previously drawn conclusion, and neglecting evidence which runs counter.

    Diamond plants these doubts through his sometimes-careless prose. Consider the following statement, which he includes in the introduction to his chapter on the rise of food production:

    “My fellow farmhands were, for the most part, tough whites whose normal speech featured strings of curses, and who spent their weekdays working so that they could devote their weekends to squandering their weeks’ wages in the local saloon. Among the farmhands, though, was a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe named Levi, who behaved very differently from the coarse miners – being polite, gentle, responsible, sober, and well spoken”

    I thought for a moment that I’d wandered into the script for “Dances With Wolves.” Note that had this statement been turned on its head – had he, for example, recounted an unflattering anecdote about Native Americans or Hispanics -my instincts would immediately warn me that the author’s biases might be influencing how he chooses to present the evidence. I myself am a Black American, I’m all too painfully aware that we’ve had to wade through some pretty grim stuff penned by authors clutching at straws to support their racist white supremacist views of the world. In this case Diamond does the reverse by aiming his negative bias towards Caucasians, but if I’m truly interested in unbiased science then my skepticism should remain the same.

    That I lead with these criticisms is evidence of my disappointment in what could have been an excellent book, and indeed much of it *is* indeed excellent. This is a book that taught me much and has indeed changed my view of world history in many ways. I do recommend this book – the details are good and many of the theories ring true, but in the same breath I would warn against accepting Diamond’s conclusions in their entirety without a bit of skepticism.

    In summary, Guns, Germs, and Steel contains an important feature which David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations so conspicuously lacks: a grand unifying theory which links the disparate growth rates of diverse societies worldwide. But Diamond’s tidy conclusion that world history is simply a deterministic result of geography and nothing else is not entirely satisfying, especially in that it might cause us to be complacent about the future. I accept that accidents of geography have had a huge effect on mankind, and Diamond convincingly argues this. But culture and human decisions do matter. Diamond argues that human ingenuity is simply the result of the accident of having a larger population from which to draw innovations – but societies that internalize this philosophy do so at their considerable peril.

  12. D. Jenkins
    February 22nd, 2011 at 05:59 | #12


    Once in a while a book comes along compelling enough to bring mind altering new perspectives, spark extended contemplation, and arouse fresh interest in overlooked fields of study. This is one of those books. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond investigates human prehistory from a scientific perspective drawing on numerous disciplines to develop a hypothesis that the globally unbalanced rise of civilization and technology was primarily a function of advantageous environmental conditions and resources available to those societies where civilization arose. Though the present landscape may suggest that early societies were on a relatively equal environmental playing field, Diamond’s scientific review of the evidence indicates convincingly otherwise. A particularly persuasive point in the book argues that environmental conditions amenable to agriculture (mild climate, indigenous protein-rich plants, and large indigenous domestication-ready animals) facilitated a food surplus and consequently denser populations with surplus time for some members of the society to take on trades, invent, engineer, lead, develop government, heal, build, paint, etc. Innovations then fuelled more surplus time perpetuating a tornado of advancement, sparked in large part by the proverbial flapping butterfly wings of agriculture.

    Diamond’s book challenged my fractured knowledge of human prehistory leaving worldview shattering ideas in its wake. His book also sparked my renewed interest in geography, anthropology, archaeology, weather, and geology among others. The book’s fusion of the scientific method with the study of history was quite potent and refreshing, though at times overly reductionist. As such, less scientifically reducible elements like culture and religion are not considered within his hypothesis.

    At times the book did seem to forgo scientific rigor for political correctness. For example, though Diamond relies on numerous examples of relatively recent non-human elements of natural selection and genetics to build his case, he is unwilling to discuss the potential role of human biological variation created by our settling contrasting environments. Considering modern humans resided and/or began migrating to new and varied lands over 100,000 years ago, there seems sufficient time for some physiological variations to develop that may be relevant to Diamond’s case. Unfortunately for this reader, anticipating a compelling argument either way, Diamond just states that environment-induced genetic variations are irrelevant to societal development (and “loathsome” to even think about) as if it were a self-evident axiom. Curiously, he challenges this axiom himself by postulating that the people of New Guinea are likely smarter than the average human considering the mental acuity necessary to survive in their harsh environment.

    Overall, besides some minor disappointments, this was a spectacular book and I highly recommend it.

  13. Anonymous
    February 22nd, 2011 at 23:44 | #13


    First, a quick description of what this book does and what it does not do. Diamond presents an excellent summary of ideas on why native Eurasians came to dominate native Americans, Africans and Australians. He explains some existing theories clearly and relatively concisely (despite some repetition)and adds in some plausible new ideas of his own. His main thesis is that geography and an abundance of domesticable plants and animals gave the Eurasians a clear advantage over others. Contrary to what some critics seem to have been expecting, “Guns, Germs and Steel” does not explain why Europeans came to dominate rather than Indians, Chinese or other Eurasians. Although the European conquest of America is used as an example throughout, the Europeans are intended as representatives of Eurasia rather than as a distinct culture within the continent. This book takes the reader up to the point where nations and empires developed (about 3000 years ago in Eurasia). For further examination of how different societies within Eurasia developed beyond that point I recommend David Landes’ “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”.

    Within the scope of what Diamond addresses, I found the book to be very informative and well written, in an easy style that combined theory with examples from history and the occasional anecdote. As other reviewers have said, there are plenty of other books that contain more detail for those who want it, but as a newcomer to the subject I learned a lot from this book.

    The one drawback I found is that the reader is asked to accept a lot of information merely on the word of the author. If Diamond had added references to other books and journal articles as notes to the text he would have greatly enhanced the authority of the book.

  14. David Gladfelter
    February 23rd, 2011 at 04:05 | #14


    As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like nails. I found Diamond’s basic hypothesis that the march to civilization is accelerated (if not determined) by availability of useful, domesticable plants and animals and a geography suited for the transmission of the plants and animals (and later ideas) over a large distance very compelling.

    The two places he fails in what would otherwise be one of the best books I’ve read is he seems to be working toward a personal agenda, and he applies his theories to inappropriate situations. His personal agenda is not hidden, with his discussion of New Guinea’s tribesmen fairly glowing. I guess it’s better to have it out in the open than hidden, but it makes the work seem like a justification for his preconceptions rather than an unbiased research into the broad strokes of history.

    His very compelling basic point is that when numerous small groups (tribes, etc) compete, the rate of adoption, modification, and usage of available resources will be fairly constant across any group of people. The rate is only modified by the quality of those resources and the number of people with access to them, because if one society fails to use its resources at the best rate of human invention, a competing society will force the adoption either through competition or conquest.

    The problem is, and he acknowledges it in one sentence and ignores it in another, is that when societies (especially dictatorial ones) no longer feel competitive pressure, they can behave in largely unpredictable ways governed only by happenstance and psychology. He tries to explain the failures of the Aztecs and (especially) the Incas to use the wheel by describing them as “Island Cultures” since they did not have competing societies nearby. He later uses the same argument about China.

    The problem is that there is a range between small tribes and enormous islands where his theory only partially applies, and where much of written history has occurred. His arguments to explain why Europe was not one big island (meaning politically unified) were not very compelling, but given the fact that Europe wasn’t unified his theory does explain why the West outpaced China in the past 600 years. His troubling assertion that the fertile crescent couldn’t compete with Europe in modern times merely due to resource depletion (since it had been civilized for so long) was only in passing and lacked much backing in statistics or research.

    Unlike some other reviewers, I don’t feel he was too hard on the West’s modern conquest of the native peoples of the Pacific, the Americas, and Africa. He points out that disease made the lands empty, and that much of the pushing out of the natives was inadvertent due to the actions of people behaving just as our prehistoric ancestors did (and every other continent’s ancestors did) for thousands of years. And when he chooses the words “exterminated” (in modern colonization) over “displaced” (in prehistoric colonization) he does it because he has the historical facts to back him up in one case, and only conjecture in the other, and he acknowledges the difference at least a few times.

    I definitely recommend this book if you are unfamiliar with the geographical element of the prehistoric move to civilization. Just keep in mind this is a theory that by nature no longer applies, and stopped applying somewhere between 100-600 years ago as modern communication destroyed geographic separation.

  15. Timothy J. Graczewski
    February 24th, 2011 at 23:22 | #15


    As an avid reader with absolutely no previous contact with the field of anthropology, I found this book to be mesmerizing. Jared Diamond has achieved great success with “Guns, Germs and Steel” (national best-seller, Pulitzer Prize), but it has also made him the target of strident, often venomous criticism…

    Diamond’s general thesis is that the West conquered the world rather than vice versa because of a fluke of nature. In short, Eurasia was home to an important number of crops and animals that readily lent themselves to successful domestication. This domestication resulted in mass food production, which the author claims is the “ultimate” cause of Western dominance. Food production, in turn, led to a number of “proximate” causes related to the rise of the West: farms and animal herds led to stationary populations and excess food to support a specialized class of bureaucrats and soldiers; it also increased population density, which, along with close contact with animals, led to germs and the subsequent genetic resistance of Westerners to those diseases. Finally, Diamond concludes, the unique East-West axis of Eurasia and the absence of any impenetrable geographic barriers fostered the spread of new crops, technologies, etc., which gave rise to many competing communities, whose competition further increased the western lead over the rest of the world.

    Diamond’s arguments are persuasive on the surface, and even the biggest skeptic will have reason for pause after reading his book. However, the final chapter reveals that he can’t really resolve a fundamental question: why did Europe, rather than the Middle East, India or China come to conquer the world? Almost the entire book is dedicated to explaining why the Eurasian landmass was blessed with the prerequisites for large civilizations rather than the Americas, Africa and Australia. His terse explanation for why Europe in particular dominated leaves much to be desired and explained.

    In this reviewer’s opinion, the recent book by classicist Victor Davis Hanson (“Carnage and Culture”) provides a plausible epilogue for Diamond’s piece. Hanson completely and explicitly rejects Diamond’s geographic determinism, but I don’t think the two theses are incompatible or in any way mutually exclusive. In fact, it seems to me that Diamond and Hanson support one another, as the latter’s assertion that the war-making efficiency of liberal democracies beginning in the Hellenistic period explains Europe’s ultimate triumph.

    In closing, as an introduction to anthropology and a cogent depiction of one school of thought on the rise of the West this book is marvelous. Approach it with an open-mind, reflect on the thesis and the supporting evidence, and then draw your own conclusions. Love it or hate it, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

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