Thoughts on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

So the last of the historical works that I decided to work through was “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. This book made the rounds of all the progressive circles that I occasionally frequent a while ago, if I recall correctly, which is why it stood out to me when I was browsing historical books a long, long while back. But for the life of me I can’t really remember why they were talking about it, except that I think they liked it. After reading it, I think I know what about it interested them, but let me give my overall assessment of the book first.

The big problem with this book is that I think it’ll have a hard time finding an audience. The book is too technical and detailed for a casual history fan like myself who just wants to know or find out some interesting things or theories about the rise of civilizations. It takes on too many areas in too much detail and spends too much time trying to prove its case to be just an interesting read. However, for anyone who really wanted to be able to assess Diamond’s thesis it’s no where near detailed enough, nor does it spend enough time linking the myriad details presented in the work to the overall hypothesis. So a serious scholar looking to assess Diamond’s theory will find it sorely lacking details, while the casual reader will find it to be absolutely swarming in details that aren’t all that interesting. In both cases, the failure to directly link the details to an overall hypothesis hurts the work because all audiences will at least spend some time wondering what some detail actually has to do with anything the work wants to talk about.

So, what is that overall hypothesis? Well, one of the problems with the book is that the book doesn’t really seem to know what that thesis is … or, rather, that it doesn’t really want to come out and tell us what that is. From the start, Diamond presents the work as aiming to simply figure out why one area in particular came to be dominant over most of the rest of the world, starting from the proximate cause of “guns, germs and steel” — weaponry and diseases — to get down to the heart of the matter. He even apologizes for taking on a question that could lead to a racist conclusion, that being that there are differences in the people themselves that explain that. Well, that sounds interesting, and potentially risky. But as the work goes along it becomes clear that his main goal is to actually refute the racist conclusion and to demonstrate that it wasn’t differences in the people that were responsible for that. He raises it initially as a question that he somewhat hand waves an objection to, but by the end of the book he’s taking it on directly. But nothing in the early stages of the book sets us up for this, which really makes me wonder why he didn’t just say from the beginning that he was taking on that idea and even to say that he thinks that geography plays a far larger role than biological differences. If he wasn’t so blatant about it later, this wouldn’t matter, but by the end he is addressing it directly despite dancing around it up to that point, which makes it stand out.

On top of that, without that direct challenge to the racist conclusion, his hypothesis isn’t all that interesting or controversial. It essentially boils down to the fact that a number of peoples who stayed in the hunter/gatherer mode instead of moving to towns or the more “civilized” mode did so primarily because geographical factors made that move at the very least impractical if not impossible. At a minimum, the geography meant that towns and so on weren’t obviously more beneficial than the hunter/gatherer models that they were using at the time. The reasons for this can be interesting, such as it being the case in the Americas that there were few remaining large animals that they could domesticate for use in agriculture (although I find his reasoning for this — that they were too trusting and so were hunting into extinction — a bit specious). But overall it’s a mildly interesting theory that I might listen to at a party but not one that I want to spend a 400 page book reading about, which includes a survey of all areas to try to explain all of those things. It’s only if one is attached to the idea that it has to be biological differences that one would really care about his theory, which is precisely why it is so baffling that he doesn’t focus on that more throughout the entire book and be obvious that that is the theory he is directly challenging.

Even his refutation of the racist conclusion is lacking, however. While all of those factors certainly were the base causes of the distinctions, most people who care about the racist conclusion do so because of its implications for today. And since those geographical distinctions persisted for thousands of years, those conditions could have an evolutionary impact, and so the people could indeed have different capabilities today based on how they lived for those thousands of years. Diamond even ends up at least the specter of this while trying to show that the people of a particular area that he worked with are as smart as we are. He does so by appealing to them being able to do spatial mapping that he and most Westerners wouldn’t be capable of, explaining it as being necessary for them to survive. But if that’s the case then that would have been selected for and the sorts of capabilities that are necessary for our Western societies wouldn’t have been, and so it might still be the case that their biology makes them less capable for our world as our biology makes us less fit for theirs. Or it could just be the result of lots of practice. Either way, he leaves much room open for those who want to claim biological differences while spending too much time arguing against that for people who have no attachment to that hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it was an okay book. I didn’t hate reading it, but it didn’t thrill me either. I highly doubt it will get the 3+ reads that “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” got.

And that’s the last of my history reading. As already stated, I’m now reading some older science fiction by Ben Bova, which is a huge departure from the formal academic stuff that I’ve been reading for the past while. Hopefully, I’ll also find it more enjoyable, if less educational.

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