Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
In 1998, Jared Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for his book, Guns, Germs and Steel – The Fates of Human Societies. It’s a fascinating look back at 13000+ years of human history and the evolution of civilization, and why / how one group of people prevailed over another, and why some groups faded away completely.
Diamond’s goal in the book was to show that the environment the people lived in had a greater influence on their success that did the nature of the people themselves. He wanted to refute the racist arguments that Europeans have so dominated the world for the last six hundred years because they were somehow borne “smarter” than those born in Africa or New Guinea. He approached this goal by backtracking from 1500 AD, where the Spanish were just beginning their lopsided series of battles with the natives of the New World. Why was it that 160 Spanish soldiers defeated an army of 80,000 warriors? How did a few shiploads of men invade continents with 20 million people, and reduce those societies to rubble in just a few short years? How did European societies evolve into such powerful nations, while those in Africa, Australia, north and South America failed to reach the same levels?
The answer, as Diamond writes, is in the geography, and in the environment. Powerful societies developed in moderate climates, with east-west axis, available domesticable herd-animals, and most importantly, the cereal-grain crops which helped to lift hunter-gathers into farmers who could support the overhead of having permanent craftsmen, government and military. Diamond documents numerous societies from their points of origin (traceable through both archeology and linguistics) to their modern day descendants. The book is filled with interesting anecdotes and short clips of historical incidents which help to support his hypothesis.
I am an amateur historian at best. Many times in my life I’ve regretted not studying history more in school. I actually considered switching to a history major for a while in college, but by then I was already three years into my Physics/CompSci degree, and couldn’t afford 4 more years of schooling. My exposure to much of history has been constrained to the Anglo-European age, from 800 AD to present day, and much of that has been from reading historical fiction. This book stretched me well outside of my area of knowledge, and filled in numerous gaps. I feel ‘smarter’ for having read it. It’s a book I recommend to anyone and everyone who has even the slightest bit of scientific or historical curiosity. I’m not saying the book doesn’t have flaws in its logic. There are plenty of people out there willing to criticize it for one reason or another. But it at least makes you think, and makes you question your own assumptions about how the world developed.
Diamond’s writing style is inviting enough that anyone with a high school degree should be able to read it, though some aspects do require the critical thinking that I believe isn’t introduced until college. There were a few times where I found myself questioning his conclusions, only to find him addressing that exact issue a few pages later.
If there is a fault to be found with this book, it’s that some chapters become quite repetitive. The four aspects of geographic advantage are documented so many times that you begin to think that a chapter or two could have been cut in order to shorten the book, and little would have been lost.
As a fiction writer, I find reading historical-non-fiction inspiring – not in the sense where the tragedies of mass extinction by small-pox infection is enjoyable, but in that in each society, there were key moments, or key situations that changed everything. The ‘high-concept’ plot, driven by the singular hero that must save the world (or cause its destruction) has not always been fiction. The intrepid explorers who sailed a thousand miles from New Guinea to Hawaii in outrigger canoes with no guarantee that Hawaii even existed are not so different from the fictional crews of the space-ships we authors send out amongst the stars. The native man defending his village against invading demons armed with magical weapons that spout fire is not so different than our heroic police officer in Boston who must stop the aliens from destroying his city. There is fiction in history and history in fiction, and a book like this serves up ideas for novels by the bucketful.
If you’re looking to expand the scope of your reading beyond your fiction list, give this one a try. If you like science / history, definitely add this book to your list.