Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel


Before jumping into this week's read,the Pulitzer Prize Winning book,  Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, I need to offer a few disclaimers:

  • I didn't actually read this book in a week; it's been closer to a month.
  • By "read" I actually haven't finished the Epilogue, Afterwords, and I'll likely never touch the Further Reading.
  • I'm not sure I understood everything I read.

If you're still interested in my thoughts, you've been warned.

I offer this sentence as an example of why it's been slow and confusing:

“One way to explain the complexity and unpredictability of historical systems, despite their ultimate determinacy, is to note that long chains of causation may separate final effects from ultimate causes lying outside the domain of that field of science.”

Wait. What?

I have to break it down. What is the context?

Well, this book is all about why human societies are the way they are. What were/are the biogeographical reasons for why there are "haves" and "have-nots."  With the statement above I believe the author Jared Diamond is saying is that the cause and effect of human history may not be contained under one specific scientific field.

(I suspect this why he coins the term "biogeographical.")

Well, OK.

I'm not sure the time spent absorbing those particular 40 words was worth the effort. Pretty early on I realized if I was going to make it through this book, I would need to back WAAAAAY up and pick up on the themes or risk being lost in the details.

My perspective was actually encouraged by the writer.

“History is not 'just one damn fact after another,' as a cynic put it. There really are broad patterns to history, and the search for their explanation is as productive as it is fascinating.”

And so I looked for themes and after reading for a while, they are easy enough to see. However, what constitutes "productive" and "fascinating" may vary based on your interests.

So, in the broadest of strokes (the book is just under 500 pages long) the top 3 themes are...

#1 - Differences in cultures today reflect the different development rates of the past:

“Different rates of development on different continents, from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500, were what led to the technological and political inequalities of A.D. 1500.”

Fair enough.

But WHY were there different developmental rates?  Well, Diamond doesn't even flirt with the idea of race superiority.  Instead he makes the case in his...

#2 theme - The environment (particularly agricultural) is the largest deciding factor.

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

The environment on the different continents allowed people to develop advantages, namely theme #3, Agriculture, Animal husbandry, and complex social structures.

"In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”  

There are sub-themes about diseases and a little bit on guns, but the title of the book isn't a reflection of how the topics are weighted.

There are fascinating stories about conquests (Pizzaro in particular was CRAZY), language development, and factual tidbits (a "five dog night" was used to describe a particularly cold evening when Australians would sleep under a bunch of dingos).

But however unique the stories, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading a book for an anthropology class.

Did you love anthropology? Are you fascinated with New Guinea? (Jared Diamond has a tremendous bias expertise on this part of the world) Do you wonder why the alpaca doesn't contribute much to population advances?

This is your book.

Subject matter interest must be high to enjoy this read. If not, you probably won't find it "productive," and you should probably move along to other things on your list.