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Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies

Reviewed: January 3, 2007
By: Jared Diamond
Publisher: W.W. Norton @ Co.
480 pages, $22.99

Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating attempt to forge a science out of the art of history. This is a difficult task, given that science depends on the scientific method, the ability to conduct controlled experiments and the possibility of either replicating or refuting the findings of those experiments.

History can hardly be seen in quite those terms. It is, after all, a one-time, non-repeatable series of events with no controls and no way to really get outside the situation to gain an objective viewpoint, When it comes to history we are all participant observers. While this is a role that is much accepted in the “social sciences”, it is one which the empirical sciences tend to sneer at.

Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, holds the view that no one this should be a stumbling block. In a field where more and more has been written about less and less (the history of garment weavers in a specific ethnic region between the years 18?? to 18??, for instance)over the last few decades, Diamond essayed the daunting task of putting forward a large and abstract thesis and attempting to prove it from the existing historical record, this part of the process being a bit like what engineers and scientists do when they undertake a literature survey into a particular topic.

Several friends of mine have read part way into this book and abandoned it, intimating that they found it to be almost racist in its propositions. This probably comes from the framework question which provided the impetus for the book. Diamond has done a lot of work in New Guinea, and has a great admiration for the native people there. These people, who were isolated and still in the stone age when Europeans arrived two centuries ago, refer to all the material worth of the white arrivistes as “cargo”.

The question posed by Yali, a local politician, couched in those terms: “Why is it that you white people people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own.”

The answer Diamond proposes is that the disparity between the two groups of people is not a matter of race, but rather of opportunity, and that this opportunity had to do with where they lived rather than who they were. He ranges over all the inhabited continents and through 13,000 years of recorded or speculatively reconstructed human history to develop his thesis and gather his supporting data.

Europe had a better and broader selection of food plants and domesticatable animals, enabling it to sustain larger population centers, more specialized labour pools. A lack of political uniformity meant that the various nations competed with each other in the development of new methodologies and technologies.

Diamond shows that these advances were more easily spread across the east-west axis of Europe, where the north-south orientations of both Africa and the Americas inhibited the spread of innovations.

A more urbanized civilization led to the development of a different type of germs and plagues, survival of which became an evolutionary trait for European races. When they met the rural, hunter-gatherer peoples in other lands, who had no defenses against urbanized European germs, it often happened that the conquests owed more to disease than to military prowess.

Where the pro-European bias argument against the book breaks down is that Diamond offers the same analysis to explain the dominance of Chinese culture in the Far East and to demonstrate how black Africans came to dominate the other racial shades there in the centuries before the Europeans arrived.

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Diamond ends up presenting a case for the inevitable domination of the rest of the world by  some form of European civilization, but he goes out of his way to insist repeatedly that whatever race had occupied that part of the world would have ended up in the same position. Europeans are not, he says, innately or genetically superior to any other race.

Nor is civilization necessarily a boon. I haven’t read Diamond’s followup book, Collapse, but reviews indicate that it develops ideas about the traps of civilization which were important to Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.

Diamond’s book is, at any rate, a fascinating piece of speculation and worth a look.

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