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Book review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Were you ever asked to write a book review, for example during high school or university? The first assignment I had to work on in St Andrews was a critical book review and I spent a considerable amount of time researching how to actually write such a review. I came to the conclusion that there are various way and styles of writing, and even though most good book reviews have several aspects in common, you have to figure it out for yourself. Therefore, I don’t want to give any advice on how to structure a book review or which questions you should ask yourself while reading, but share a good book review with you. It was written by a fellow student, who received a distinction mark for his work (and who remains anonymous).

Probably this will also awake interest to read the book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ by  Jared Diamond. Jared M. Diamond is a Professor for Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. His book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Click on ‘Continue reading’ and enjoy!

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Guns, Germs and steel is an elaborately written and thought-proving piece of literature. However, after having read the book one might think it may be strangely titled. Diamond hardly ever mentions guns and steel in his book – although there is a chapter examining the consequences of germs in human history.

The author attempts to illustrate why human societies all over earth have evolved completely different from each other during history. Starting 13000 BC, Diamond puts the subsequent millennia until the industrial age into focus. There are multiple findings that are by far not free of controversial statements. That is how Diamond manages to – deliberate or not – stimulate one’s own grasp of understanding evolution – which makes Diamonds work an enjoyable journey through human history.

The book is wrapped around the primal “Yali question”. Yali, a native politician who the author met in the 1970s in New Guinea, asked why European settlers brought far more “cargo” with them than the island’s natives north of Australia had at this time. “Cargo”, meaning technology and goods that could make one’s life easier and process a society’s forthcoming. For a better understanding, when European settlers first stepped foot on New Guinea during the 16th century, the natives still used stone tools like Europeans did in early Stone Age, many millennia ago. Such societal and technological inequalities must have a cause – and the answer depicted by the author might be far more complex than the reader would likely think in the first place. Answering Yali’s eminent question, which forms the heart of the book throughout the reading, was not possible for Diamond at this time. 25 years later, his book Guns, Germs and Steel tries to answer Yali’s question.

Diamond firmly criticizes the all too easy answer many Western readers would instantly have in mind before reading the book, namely a lower average intelligence of slower developing societies. He even turns this answer upside-down. While the most severe causes for deaths in developed societies with stable structures like the old Europeans would be related to infectious diseases, it would mainly be human disputes and the provision of food for countries like New Guinea. According to Diamond, the development of resistances towards illnesses and infections had little to do with intelligence – while the ability to acquire food, solve human conflicts and escape tribal warfare in New Guinea made the natural selection in terms of intelligence fiercer than in Europe. But how, one might think, could the Europeans still evolve more quickly?

While the author’s answer may be simple in principle, it is more complex in detail. Diamond names the differences in environmental surroundings as the major cause for a society’s quick or slow development and not differences in human biology. Specialists, administrators and craftsmen, who are of high importance for a society’s development, can only unfold their work if there are food surpluses. If a community is only able to provide food by hunting and gathering, there is simply no space for “nonproductive” members within the society. The availability of easy-to-gather food is depicted as a prerequisite for all societies to grow larger numbers of people, political advantages and a military for defense, before even speaking about domestication of animals and the cultivation of land.

In one of the first chapters Diamond supports his statements by describing historical circumstances among Polynesians in early history, all coming from the same home region. In two extremes, some set out for volcanic atolls like Tonga and Hawaii, while others stepped food on colder regions like the Chatham Islands, New Zealand. Due to their common origin, there did not seem to be huge disparities in terms of intelligence, which could be the initial idea of Western readers, which Diamond greatly criticizes, as mentioned in the introduction.

The settlers on Hawaii and Tonga were able to quickly cultivate the fertile soils of the volcanic islands and achieve food surpluses, managing to differentiate their population, specialize in disciplines and form political organizations with sophisticated warfare. The climate in New Zealand however was too cold for agriculture the way the Polynesian settlers were used to. They fell back to a hunting and gathering society. Diamond uses this example to show how people from the same origin develop completely different, just because of the availability of food and the consequent advantages in terms of development.

Diamond’s observations of the highly arable lands in Europe in terms of agriculture are an important foundation of his arguments concerning the importance of farming. He points out that the most fertile regions in Europe are basically on the same latitude, which allows people to travel with their crops east and west without the need of a long evolutionary adaption of the crops and seeds to day lengths. This made emigrations of nations easier possible than in other parts of the world. As mentioned before, the food surpluses allowed the elaboration of more civilized societies. In contrast, the Americas and Africa had arable land across large north-south latitudes, which made the adaption for crops difficult. Diamond specifically mentions Central American maize, which needed long time of genetic adaption to changing day lengths and growth patterns.

Speaking of animal domestication, Diamond’s approach why quite few herd animals could be successfully domesticated was one thing I had not known before reading the book. The author refers to the level of hierarchy within an animal herd, the more dominant this hierarchy the better. He points out that humans virtually take over the highest position during domestication and this would bring humans and animals closer together. Diamond explains why European animals, like the ancestors of dogs or sheep are easier to domesticate than likely promising herd animals like African zebras or Asian cheetahs, but he completely neglects the important American bison for example, which could definitely have helped the Indians against the European invaders if they had been domesticated. His argumentation in this part of the book seems to be elaborated, but needs to be thought further.

While moving forward through the book, there come three sets of factors Diamond constitutes as vital for human development. The first is the mountains, deserts and length of days and the according latitude, the second is the distances across seas and oceans, followed by the continental differences. Partly, this is what enabled Europe to develop with a higher pace than other parts of the world and allowed Europe’s success in conquering other empires during the colonial era, specifically the conquest of the Inca Empire of Peru by Pizarro. He finds additional reasons for success in advanced weaponry, disease germs and maritime technology, which were accompanied by sophisticated organization, made possible by writing and printing.

Diamond’s argumentation in this part is well conceived. He mentions flat lands in Europe as promotive for a society’s development as well. Simply because it is easier to get in contact and compete with other peoples. Early China within the Zhou and Qin Dynasty (1100 BC until 200 BC) serves as a substantiated example in the book, which was unified very early and was not hindered by large natural barriers in Eastern China.

Undoubtedly these natural barriers definitely influence the evolution of societies. However, Diamond’s approach to make human history purely “scientific” and driven by the tyranny of natural environment seems somehow misguided. No doubt the development is related to a constraining environment – but many achievements of later generations are a result of long chains of events and doings of the society’s ancestors. New ways of thinking or actions or a change in spirit might influence human development as well, although not related to environmental factors. This is a point where Diamond mentions the importance of language in human history and is particularly well-informed about linguistics in a historical context. While he writes about the importance of linguistics and written work in ancient cultures for the cultivation of land, he purely attributes environmental effects to the success of later human societies.

While I share a lot of Diamond’s thoughts, I do not agree upon his dismissive assessment of cultural peculiarities completely unrelated to the environment during the whole human history. While I accept his explanations during early human history, where technology was virtually non-existent and the only thing that drove humans was the provision of food and water, I would suggest a more compelling view. As the number of inventions grew and people became more and more aware of their surroundings and the ability to shape the environment according to purpose became greater, the human development likely became more autonomous from harsh environmental factors. The ability for self-awareness, self-criticism and corresponding learning and improvement is what makes the difference between humans and animals.  This is generic history and Diamond is wrong to decline it as a sheer following of initial disparities of arable land and tamable animals to serve human’s needs.

It is clear that these constraints have not been completely overcome in newer history. American-based Indians have never managed to catch up with Eurasians and faced the brink of extinction, in some ways similar to New Guineans. By clearly depicting these constraints Diamond focuses the attention on an important part of human history. The controversial approach of naming the linguistic abilities, environmental factors, specifically related to animal domestication and arable land and the subsequent evolutionary advantages due to food surpluses compared to pure hunter and gatherer societies are brilliant and deserve the highest appraisal.

Certainly almost every part of the book is questionable in some way, but this is ancient human history – theories about our development emerge and might be supported, while other historians completely disagree. Surely, one could accuse Diamond of eurocentrism (like anthropologist James Morris Blaut did) and there are columnists like Victor Davis Hanson who deem political freedom, capitalism and open debate as far more important than nutritional values for a society’s forthcoming. This is an important part of historical research, and Diamond surely does not want his book to be seen as the ultimate and ideal answer – but to encourage the reader to critically evaluate the development of our history. I am sure that for most of the readers Diamond’s work is an eye-opener in many ways, may it only be because of his highly interesting reconstructions of ancient human history in Oceania and South-East Asia, which was nothing other than a revelation.

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