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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Book Review -- Guns, Germs, and Steel
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond

In the interest of fairness I must disclose that during my years in medical school at UCLA Dr. Diamond lectured to us several times. I recall him being a brilliant scientist who wears crazy tropical shirts. ball-and-chain, while she was a graduate student, also had some interactions with him, one of which would make an entertaining post, if I can persuade her to write about it.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has an ambitious goal. It attempts to explain how different human populations developed differently, and to which initial factors the differences in development may be attributed. He begins with a dramatic example. In 1532 Attahuallpa was emperor of the Incas, the most advanced state in the New World. King Charles I was king of Spain. Under orders from King Charles, Spanish conquistadores under the leadership of Francisco Pizzaro traveled to the New World to establish colonies and bring information and treasure back to Spain. In this clash of civilizations, as in most, the two sides were not at all evenly matched, and the outcome was sealed at the very outset. Pizzaro's men rode horses and had guns. The Incas had no large domesticated mammals and no technology nearly as complex as guns. The Spaniards could communicate over long distances with great precision by writing. The Incas had no alphabet. The conquistadores, hailing from a dense population through which many epidemics circulate periodically carried lethal germs from which the Incas had no immunity. In November 16, 1532 Pizzaro captured Attahuallpa. This lead eventually to the conquest of the Incas and to many other European powers colonizing the New World with similarly lopsided victories over the native populations. Even if the intentions of the Spanish would have been entirely benevolent, it is likely that the Incas would not have survived long after the initial contact. The question that Guns, Germs, and Steel tries to answer is: What determines which societies will develop a complex centralized government, technology, writing, and immunity to many germs? What was it about the origins of European and Native American civilizations that allowed one to develop guns, germs and steel while the other did not? Put another way, why was it not Attahuallpa who sent explorers across the Atlantic to capture the King of Spain?

To this broad question, Dr. Diamond asserts that two general answers have been proposed:
1) that there were differences in the humans of the different populations that accounted for the different development of their societies, and
2) that there were differences in the environments of the different populations that accounted for the different development of their societies.
Answer (1) implies that there were various innate strengths in the Spanish or flaws in the Incas. This answer found much favor after Darwin's work, since it became easy to speculate that inherited differences in the populations accounted for their societies' differences. This, of course, supported all sorts of racist preconceptions, and served psychologically to blame the loser of the clash for his defeat.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a comprehensive and detailed argument for answer (2). The book deals with the origins of human societies on all continents and attempts to show for each one how the geography, botany, and zoology of the region affected the development of civilization in pivotal ways. Diamond's argument can be distilled to the following points (with apologies for the oversimplification).
Diamond supports this case very well and with myriad detailed and convincing examples.

Though a strong argument for answer (2), Guns offers no evidence or argument against (1) at all. Diamond states that from his experiences, he believes New Guineans are as intelligent as Americans, but this is the only comparison between individuals in the entirety of the book. No studies are cited that compare individuals of different populations in intelligence, or in any other characteristic.

Conservatives, of course, offer a third possible answer to the book's central question. Conservatives argue that is neither heritable human traits nor geography that is pivotal in history but culture. They would argue that it is frequently the ideas of a civilization that lead to its spread or its demise and that its environmental resources are secondary. Guns does not deal with cultural comparisons in any way. Diamond partially covers for these flaws by admitting in the epilogue that he does not account for the unpredictable effects of individuals or of culture on history, essentially conceding that he is simply ignoring alternative theories.

This is a sweeping, deep, and very edifying book. Though, at over 400 pages, I sometimes found it a slow grind, I learned much from it (and I hope I was able to teach you some of that in this review). Despite the fact that I disagree with the liberal underlying premise that individuals and culture are irrelevant in the broadest trends in history and that environment is solely determinative, I now have a much better appreciation of the effect of the biological environment on early human societies. If you're interested in human history and prehistory, read it.
i read it with high hopes, but found it lacking a convincing world view. he concentrated so narrowly on his agricultural models that he was like a child watching ice cubes melt at the zoo. he tries to ram home a universal theory with the zeal of a subatomic physicist searching for a united theory. i didn't like it, although i agreed with everything he said as being plausible drivers of civilization. way too simplified and therefore cynical and reductionist to me

thanks for the review though!
That sounds a lot like a number of books we've read in my International Studies class. We focused a lot on new revisionist theories of history, which left me mostly as dissatisfied as the old ones.
Dr. Charles: “like a child watching ice cubes melt at the zoo.” Nicely said. Cynical is a good description since he puts the locus of control completely outside of humans. I just started reading The Bell Curve, which I think will give an opposite point of view.

Irina: I don’t think Diamond is trying to be revisionist. I think environmental determinist is the best way to describe his thinking.

Thank you both for reading my long review.
Maybe the point is that Humans need to be challenged in order to bring out their full potential. If food is plentiful, the environment is stable, and life is easy, there's no need to develop.

So I guess you Californians are screwed.
No, we're screwed in California because the price of a house here would buy a city block most other places.
Well, the house I grew up in in Queens is smaller than the one I have in Milwaukee, but it's currently worth about 6 times the value. Scary.
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