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Guns Germs Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) starstarstar
by Jared Diamond.

Reviewed 2001-11-17: As all scientific inquiries do, this one began with a question. Jared Diamond, a physiology professor at UCLA and an evolutionary biologist working for many years in Papua New Guinea, was asked the question Second Look Reviewthat launched this book by a native friend, Yali. To paraphrase, both the question and the thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS), "How come Western societies developed the means to conquer and exploit non-Western societies?" And why wasn't it the reverse -- why didn't the Americas conquer Europe, for instance?

Thus begins what Diamond calls "13,000 years of history on all continents [compressed] into a 400-page book." The breadth of what GGS covers is breathtaking, and the conclusions, surprisingly, not at all counterintuitive. In fact, every time Diamond pointed out a conclusion based on his researches, it wasn't so much a door opened on a new room as a door opened on an old room I couldn't quite construct in my mind until I was shown how. I think that's how teachers teach best: not by showing you something entirely new, but by showing you how to fit together the jagged edges of pieces of the old you already know.

To risk even further compression, here is what Diamond proposes. The necessary conditions for cultural triumph, in no particular order, are: population density, large animal domestication, food production (agriculture), resistance to diseases passed from animals and plants to humans, technological inventiveness and acceptance of change and improvement, literacy (at least among the élites), and centralized government. Add to that mix of accident and planning the good fortune of an east-west continental orientation -- and the consequent east-west spread of population, domestic animals, disease, technology, writing and government -- and you have the necessary conditions for a dominant society.

However, as Diamond takes pains to point out, these are not sufficient conditions for success. A lot depends on chance, some of it on inventiveness in individual societies, some to forward-looking government, and some even to individual vision and initiative. It's as if, as I paraphrase from what he says at the beginning of chapter nine, which is Diamond's own paraphrase of Anna Karenina, "successful societies are all alike; every unsuccessful society is unsuccessful in its own way":
If a society's population is not sufficiently dense, or has an unfavorable climate, or poor raw materials, it will never graduate from the hunter-gatherer stage;
If a society has no crops at hand that are suitable for domestication, they will never develop sufficient population density to overcome weaker societies;
If a society has no large animals at hand that are suitable for domestication, they will never develop sources of meat, transportation, beasts of burden and so forth;
If a society fails to develop dense populations of crops, animals and humans, they will never develop the germs, and resistance to those germs, that allow them to kill off (usually unintentionally) less dense, less resistant populations;
If a society fails to develop a population sufficiently dense to support specialist classes and a strong central government, it will never become organized enough to overcome or absorb its enemies in war.
And so on. Diamond appears to agree with Hobbes that war is the natural state of humankind, and his examples demonstrate that depressing assertion. Likewise, he asserts that all centralized governments evolve into a "kleptocracy," which justifies feeding the rich off of the labor of the poor, either through fear of its power or though religion (which is another form of fear). In writing this book, Diamond at once provides a convincing explanation for the differing developments of human societies on different continents throughout human history, and explodes myths of innate racial superiority. The recurring theme that I glean from GGS is that the success of a society rests in equal parts on accident and on human intervention -- and not all of that human intervention is entirely conscious.

Some of the author's detractors may say that his assertion that the east-west continental orientation of the Old World, versus the north-south orientation of the New World, is a strained explanation of societal success -- a geographical determinism -- but I must point out that Diamond stresses that there are no single causes: there are many causes of failure to develop "cargo," as the Guinean Yali put it. And there are many causes for societies who once had cargo -- like the medieval Islamic and the ancient Chinese, not to mention the ancient Mediterranean -- to lose their cargo and their superiority. But, as Diamond so excellently points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the causes was not race.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. New York: W.W. Norton. 1997. ISBN 0-393-03891-2 (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.