Monday, December 20, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond—a review

Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of those books I’ve heard so much about—mostly in the positive—that it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. Published in 1997, it won a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve frequently seen it cited around the internet as a must-read book on the origins of the human species. Today I was able to finish it up.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is certainly well-worth reading. One of my petty complaints is that it more accurately should have been called Latitude, Longitude, and the Development of Human Society (I guess Guns, Germs, and Steel was catchier). That’s because Diamond postulates that all our development, including current inequities among continents like South America and Africa vs. North America or the countries of western Europe, can be traced to geography. “Much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots: between peoples with farmer power and those without it, or between those who acquired it at different times,” Diamond writes. He then sets out in Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain how this unequal distribution of wealth and power occurred.

In short, Diamond argues that the topography and east-west alignment of Eurasia set the stage for its success. It was more conducive to farming, was populated with native, domesticable livestock and plant life that facilitated mass food production, and allowed for trading between various peoples and dispersal of scientific invention. This in turn led to sedentary populations able to devote time and brainpower to the invention of writing and the development of technology. Australia, North America, and Africa, with their north-south axes and corresponding extremes of climate, were late to the starting line of development. Their slower diffusion of cultivatable crops caused them to become history’s “have-nots,” leading to their subjugation or outright extermination and repopulation by foreign invaders, or their place as a third-world nation.

“The peoples of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and steel,” Diamond writes. “The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.”

First, what I liked. Guns, Germs, and Steel is well-written. It has an incredible scope, summarizing human development from our start as a divergent strain of chimpanzee up to the modern age. It’s very thought and opinion provoking as well.

Contrary to its title Guns, Germs, and Steel contains disappointingly little discussion on guns. I was hoping for some good debate on the effectiveness of the blunderbuss vs. the musket, for example. But Diamond does lay out a convincing case that germs, not guns, were the primary reason smaller groups of Europeans were able to dominate far more populous indigenous races. He shows how the introduction of germs derived from domesticated animals, introduced to native populaces with no immunities, resulted in catastrophic epidemics which in some cases resulted in a 99% mortality rate among the infected. It’s all very interesting, and it strikes me as true.

Now some negatives. Some of the arguments Diamond spends considerable time building feel rehashed and/or self-evident. However, this may be because Diamond’s book has been assimilated into mainstream thought. After all it was published 13 years ago.

But my main problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel is in the degree of importance Diamond attaches to geography. In Diamond’s view geography is the overwhelming factor in the “success or failure” of a nation (meaning its ability to produce food and thereby develop a complex culture). Diamond’s book takes no account—and I mean none—of the influence of different political systems, or religion, or even individual initiative. For him, human history is purely scientific, the result of geographic determinism. He argues that even the biggest individuals—the Alexander the Greats and the Adolf Hitlers of the world—are scarcely relevant in the grand sweep of history. In the epilogue Diamond anticipates arguments to the contrary with a half-hearted apology:

“The label [geographic determinism] seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are passive robots hopelessly programmed by climate, flora, and fauna. Of course these fears are misplaced,” Diamond writes.

Yet to me Diamond’s equivocating rings hollow. There’s seemingly little to no place in his intellectual universe for things like free will and personal responsibility. I felt personally diminished reading the book. That’s not a value judgment of Diamond’s book, just my personal reaction upon reading it.

Another area in which Guns, Germs, and Steel can be criticized is some of the petty biases that Diamond allows to creep into the book. His occasional forays into editorializing are simply out of place in a book that purports to exalt science. For instance, he flat-out calls modern native New Guinean hunter gatherers not equal, but smarter than your average educated, sedentary resident of Europe or North America. He relays another story about a noble Native American corrupted by coarse Montana farmers into adopting their hard drinking, wasteful lifestyle. Both of these observations are purely anecdotal, not the result of any scientific inquiry. I detected a slight undercurrent of disdain for modern life and a romanticized (albeit very faint) view of the hunter-gather lifestyle. Their presence diminishes the work.

In the end my opinion of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it is no more a true version of human history than a book about capitalism/communism or Christianity/Islam as the sole shapers of mankind’s destiny. It’s an important but incomplete piece of the truth.


Lagomorph Rex said...

I read this several years ago, and then recently read a paper (Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000BC? By Diego Comin, William Easterly, and Erick Gong) which posits that it is the People who matter, and not the geography.

The paper's main idea is that, if a given society had not mastered X number of technologies by 1500, then in the year 2000 they would be classified as part of the "Developing world". Exceptions being of course, if they were colonized by a group who had all of those inventions, they were more likely to be an advanced nation themselves.

Of course I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

David J. West said...

You pretty much nailed it on the head Brian.
I felt Diamond was going uber-PC with things like the New Guinea hunter and the myth of the noble savage.

And by his own logic-WHY isn't the Fertile Crescent ruling the world? Why isn't China? (I know, they're working on it)

And my single biggest problem with the cold scientific view Diamond proposes - he doesn't acknowledge (whether it be right or wrong) the sheer balls it takes for someone like Pizarro or Cortez to beat the incredible odds and conquer. You cannot discount that drive in man-that Willpower is a scientific fact-just not a PC one.

I came away from G,G & S with the feeling that Diamond set out (rather unscientifically) to prove his own PC biases.

Wickedmurph said...

I think you all failed to grasp the fundamental concepts of geographic determinism. Might want to try giving the book another read.

Geography determines the fundamental toolsets that a culture has to work with. Everything else - political systems, religions, technology, arise from that. If you live in a place with no usable metal, and no domestic animals, you will never develop a feudalistic society.

Alexander and Hitler are barely blips on the time scales the book is working with, and Pizarro and Cortez only notable in that they were at the point of the spear when cultures met.

It didn't make a lick of difference what their names were - the fight was already over. Steel, horses, cannon and smallpox won. The name of the guy in the armor, on the horse, carrying the germs hardly matters.

David J. West said...

I grasp it, I just disagree with it.

If its all about the cold equations of geography and technology why did Rome fall? Why didn't the Turks take Vienna? Who halted the Mongols? As I phrased the last question-they are all answered with a WHO, not a what. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?
Names may not matter-but the person with the will and intelligence does.

It may not be a tangible thing that can be scientifically measured, but the human spirit cannot be discounted.

Prince Herb said...

See, I'd say that the questions about Vienna and the Mongols are basically the same, to wit : Where is the last place on the journey from Asia to Europe where there is enough grazing for a cavalry-based army? The answer seems to be central Hungary, which can graze about 100 000 horses, so the Turkas and the Mongols would both find it hard to penetrate much beyond that, at least by land. Which is really to say that the constraints of logistics place hard limits on the movements of armies, no matter who leads them.

Brian Murphy said...

Wickedmurph: I don't think I failed to grasp geographical determinism (I thought I gave a half-decent summary of its principles, actually). Like some others here I just disagree with Diamond that it is by far and away the greatest predictor of a nation's success or failure (i.e., a nation's ability to grow food and industrialze and innovate).

I don't discount geography and Diamond makes a very convincing case for its importance. But I think history (and humanity) is far more complicated than that.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Diamond has an interesting point of view that has indeed been assimilated into current thought on how the history of the world has progressed. However, like all researchers/scientists/academics/etc, he makes the all too common mistake of saying that this interpretation is the only (or at least most important) interpretation. Diamond's point of view is valuable to add to the ones we already have about why and how history happened. But it should not be gospel, and it should not exclude the other points of view.

In other words, the world/universe is an unbelievable complexity, and any reduction will diminish it to a ridiculous simplicity.

Just don't let it diminish you, Brian!

Wickedmurph said...

@David - yeah, still missing the point. I know it would be nice to think that the hand is the really important thing. But if you don't come from a place where iron working was ever developed. Well, ask the Aztecs how much personal guts helped them out.

As for the rest of your questions, Herb answered 2 of them pretty well, and by the fall of Rome, I assume you mean the western empire, right? My understanding is that climate change was a major factor there. Colder winters displacing steppe tribes, who pushed Germanic tribes who overwhelmed the borders and destroyed it as a political unit.

And Brian, you did give a decent summary of the principles, but then you give counter-arguments that don't seem to follow. Hitler and Alexander were very important and notable, but they were barely blips in terms of the scale of history. It seems like you're comparing apples to oranges, then saying that the oranges are evidence that against apples.

I agree that history is considerably more complex than simple geography. It's also demographics and economics. But the tools that Diamond uses in this book are better big-picture ones than others I've seen. They lose their power when applied to smaller scales, though. The politics of Germany leading up to WW2 require a scalpel to look at - geography is a trowel.

Anonymous said...

it's a very interesting topic and the book looks interesting too, your opinions in the two senses are great too by the way wickedmurph the question of the origins of the WWII is a more complex theme than is supposed I have read that the economic exigences in the Versalles treaty were exagerated and humilliating for Germany, specially since the germans were no really defeated in the battlefield and they signed an armistice not a rendition
and I have to read in deep an article on the net about the polish politics in august of 1939, the author compares the Danzig question with the cubans being silly enough to take Guantanamo
sorry for my english

Brian Murphy said...

Francisco: Regarding your English, I can read it just fine! Yes, Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting read and I highly recommend it, even if I don't agree with all its conclusions.

WickedMurph: The Fall of Rome can't be reduced to changing climate. A large part of it was an increasingly decadent society that used unreliable mercenaries to fill the ranks of its armies, leading to its defeat on the battlefields. Another factor is incompetent leadership. It's generally regarded by most historians as a complex series of events.

In the end, it's interesting to me that the mightiest empire in the west was ultimately conquered by barbarian tribes, which seems to undermine one of Diamond's central theses (only civilizations with a high degree of technological skill can wage successful military campaigns).

noisms said...

To be fair to Diamond, he's not just talking out of his proverbial with regard to native New Guineans. He did live there for a number of years and speaks a few of the languages.

I don't want to be accused of being overly PC myself, but his argument about the bonus of being a "native" person (that you don't watch TV from babyhood so you grow up to be more creative and more interested in your surroundings) seems spot on to me, from my limited experience of volunteering in the third world. I wouldn't say it's a question of intelligence, just upbringing. (Though Diamond does provide some logical arguments for why people in hunter gatherer societies might be more intelligent on average than those in developed ones - namely that if you are a stupid hunter gatherer you often die whereas if you are a stupid settled person you can just sit on a sofa watching TV and eating hotdogs or whatever. This could have an effect on median intelligence levels. The obvious caveat: I'm not saying it's a bad thing that stupid people don't end up dying in our societies!)

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Noisms, I have no doubt Diamond has formed a valid opinion of native New Guineans from first-hand experience. Having never lived outside of my own country, the U.S., I'm in no position to say otherwise.

My comment in general was about the way Diamond inserts these anecdotal observations into the text, when Guns, Germs, and Steel otherwise applies a broad scientific method to its analysis of human history. Diamond's observations of the intelligence of New Guineans vs. sedentary, first world residents felt out of place in a book that otherwise claims that all peoples are equal in innate ability and intelligence. It struck an odd note with me that I (don't think) was just defensiveness or disbelief on my part. Though it may have been!

Also, I would say that people who have survived in hunter-gather societies might have done so not because it's a natural selection of the smartest, but the fittest (they were stronger, had a better constitution and were able to resist disease, and so on).

noisms said...

I suppose a whole host of factors come into play when determining survival in hunter gatherers, but you would definitely expect intelligence to be one of them.

I agree those sections were a bit out of step with the rest of the book - I think Diamond was trying to emphasise that the European dominance of the world requires a special explanation that goes beyond anything genetic.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone is still reading, but I wanted to say a few things. First, excellent review by Diamond.

I was surprised by the discussion in the comments below. Clearly, the author didn't mean to suggest that guns, germs, and steel were the ONLY determinants.

He was just saying, "all things being equal," if one people have great advantages, they will more likely succeed.