Mar 16, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel

The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond

Phew! It is a relief to be done with this book. I've been reading it for three weeks! Granted, being sick and starting the garden distracted me a bit, but mostly it was just slow going with the book at times. The reading wasn't quite as heavy as the last book I waded through (Arctic Dreams), it's actually very reader-friendly, but the ideas could be complex and there's a lot of information to take in.

Basically, Guns, Germs and Steel examines how history has created the haves and have-nots of the world, what factors have given certain societies advantages over others. It tries to answer questions like why did agriculture arise in some parts of the world and not in others? why did technology develop faster in different areas? and how were some smaller groups able to easily overpower larger populations? A lot of the ideas were new to me, but made perfect sense the way Diamond described them. I enjoyed reading the parts about why certain animals were domesticated but not others, how agriculture probably began, and what language patterns reveal about how peoples spread and dispersed in ancient times. More difficult for me to process were the sections about things like why societies organized themselves the way they did, which got more and more complicated. What it all boils down to, in Diamond's opinion, is that environment was a huge factor in shaping early human history: local native animals and plants provided different resources for different groups, some far more useful to humans than others, and topography and climate dictated how quickly new technologies could spread.

I had a lot of discussions with my husband about ideas in this book, which helped me to understand them better, and he kept insisting that it was way too simplified to assert that certain societies overran others solely because their environment and resources gave them an advantage. How can you talk about China without considering Confucius? he kept saying to me. How can you discuss the reasons why one country overpowered another without taking into account the cultural reasons? I'm not very good at arguments so I had to just tell him to read the book! One thing I know for sure, Diamond's look at world history is very different from what I remember learning in school, and so many more things make sense to me now.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 494 pages, 1997

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12 comments:

Jenny said...

I didn't realize this book was about the development of societies like you're describing. From the title and the cover I thought it was about WAR and how people fought and strategized over WAR. Actually it sounds really interesting!

Shelley said...

I read this one and enjoyed it as well. There's a documentary based on the book that I haven't seen. I think that maybe Diamond's argument would be that it was the environment that also led to cultural ideas of different nations. If an area was excelling in agriculture, certain people had the time to think and come up with philosophies that added to their culture? I think his main objective was to debunk the idea that certain societies are inferior to others based on race. It was all a bit above my intelligence level, but I found it very readable anyways!

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this book gives the reader a lot to think about. I'd probably drive my husband crazy if I read it.

Jeane said...

Jenny- He does mention wars, but it's certainly not the focus (although the incident depicted in the painting on the front takes up a lot of the first chapter). If I'd thought it was about war, I never would have picked it up either!

Shelley- I think I'd like to see the documentary. You've summed up his objective pretty well, as I understand it. Not that one race was smarter or even more adaptive than another, but that the environment provided them with different basic materials to start with, and that had consequences reaching far into the future.

Bermudaonion- It might have been because of all the tough thinking that it took so long for me to read it!

carolsnotebook said...

I've thought about reading this several times. It just seems really interesting, but it's so thick. One of these days.

Nymeth said...

I've been meaning to read this for ages! I can see your husband's point about culture, but before I read it I can't really comment :P

Biohistory said...

***Diamond's opinion, is that environment was a huge factor in shaping early human history: local native animals and plants provided different resources for different groups, some far more useful to humans than others, and topography and climate dictated how quickly new technologies could spread.***

Diamond's book is excellent, but he seems to start out with a pre-set conclusion and omits information that contradicts his position. For instance, he doesn't mention that people become somewhat genetically adapted to their environment through natural selection.

And more recent research by geneticists such as Bruce Lahn, Eric Wang, Scott Williamson and Benjamin Voight, in fact confirms that genetic changes actually accelerated about 10,000 years ago at the time agriculture intensified and populations in Asia and Europe expanded rapidly.

(see for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/09/science/09brain.html?pagewanted=print)

More recent books like 'Before the Dawn' by New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade or 'The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution' by Harpending and Cochran build on Diamond's book in this respect.

There was actually an article just a week or so ago in the New York Times discussing how culture influenced natural selection.

I think Diamond omitted these ideas because it conflicted with his desire to disprove group differences.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/science/02evo.html

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Sounds really interesting! I had a professor say some not-so-flattering things about this book a long time ago, but for the life of me I can't remember what. It's interesting your husband critiqued it for being too simplified because, it seems to me, all history has to simplify the world in order to advance a theory. No one theory is correct, but using a lens like this can help explore some themes and factors.

Jeane said...

Carolsnotebook- the length was daunting. I almost thought I wasn't going to make it through, at one point!

Nymeth- well, my husband hasn't read it either.

Biohistory- thank you for the insights. I will be reading those articles.

Kim- Of course it had to be simplified (all of world history in just 400 pages?)but I take it that Diamond just looked at one broad slice that fits in with other things he didn't discuss.

Resolute Reader said...

It's an excellent book. His follow up, Collapse, which was similarly lauded, hyped and critiqued is interesting, but frankly not as good. There's a review on ResoluteReader somewhere.

Jeane said...

Resolute Reader- I've been wondering about reading the second book, but right now it feels like too much effort.

Chandra said...

I tip my hat to you! I've always wanted to read this one, but always opt for 'lighter' material instead. Love your review though and you've made me think perhaps I still might give this a try one day!