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
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.