Review: ‘Guns, germs and steel’ by Jared Diamond

First published:
Chatto & Windus

This edition:
Vintage Books


I was still at school when this book was first published seventeen years ago. What a frightening thought. If I’d read it then, I might have stayed in the historical sciences rather than going almost completely over to the traditional sciences. As it happens I didn’t. I finally read this book, after buying it at the Wellcome Collection book shop in London.

The basic premise of the book is to trace the proximate and ultimate causes for the different paths human history has taken in the last 13,000 years, since the end of the last glacial period (Ice Age) to the modern day. As the author has studied, and taught in the fields of the biological sciences and environmental history he’s in a strong position to provide an overview. He was still lecturing in 2013, at the age of 76 having spent over fifty years gathering knowledge. He is described as ‘America’s best known geographer’ and a writer of award-winning popular science books.

But what did I think of the book?

The argument that geographic differences in the major landmasses (ultimate cause) were responsible for the differences in available domesticable crops and animals, ease of diffusion of ideas and technology, as well as people, population density and the transfer of diseases from animals to humans etc (proximate causes) is well made and backed up by a variety of evidence. This evidence includes archaeology, the evolutionary biology of plants, disease organisms and domestic animals, linguistics, both of existing languages and of extinct but recorded languages and reconstructed proto languages, and written evidence from the literate societies that have arisen in the last 8000 years.

This line of reasoning produces a sensible, logical answer to the question of why some societies have been more successful than others.

The author illustrates his argument effectively. For example his argument that the major axis of a landmass effects how, where and when agriculture etc will arise, he uses the major east-west axis of the Eurasian landmass and lack of significant barriers as an example of this time and again. He argues that it has allowed a greater diversity of domesticable plants and animals, which made farming a more productive lifestyle that hunter-gathering, which in turn allowed food surpluses, encouraged sedentary lifestyles, close proximity to disease vectors, allowing the crossing of diseases from one species to another, greater population density and the appearance of specialists. Thus the conditions were set, such that when Eurasian populations came into contact with American, African (which both have their major axis North-South) and Australian populations that hadn’t encountered the same diseases, or were sophisticated but isolated by mountains or desert from other sophisticated societies preventing the diffusion of ideas and technology such as the narrow stretch of land and thick jungle separating the empires of Mesoamerica and the Andes, and the desert that separates them from the Mississippi river valley culture of the US south east,  had adapted to completely different climates e.g the Aboriginal Australian tribes that can survive in the desert and have done for 40,000 years, or had limited suites of domesticable plants and animals as is found in Africa, then the Eurasian societies had the advantage in terms of numbers and technology.

The author is at pains to put to rest the racist ideology that genetic, innate differences in the human populations of each continent are responsible for the different development of the societies e.g. Why some people still lived as hunter-gatherer bands when European oceangoing ships arrived in Australia, etc, when geography and it’s consequences can account for them.

Geographic differences can also account for why a place that was comparatively backward, north western Europe, should have produced some many dominant cultures. China was far ahead technologically than England, but it was English ships that crossed to America and colonised the continent, rather than Chinese ships. China had agriculture at about the same time as the Fertile Crescent, long before agriculture made it’s way to the British Isles. With such a huge headstart the Chinese should have been forging across the Pacific and round to India and Africa long before the English crossed the Atlantic. They almost did. Until a dispute in the Chinese court put an end to the sending of long distance expeditions, then the building of ocean going ships, and finally of shipyards.

China is effectively isolated from the west by the Tibetan Plateau, and united by the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. This allowed the development of a large unified state over 2000 years ago. In these conditions, when a local decision is made by a bureaucrat then it effectively prevents any innovation for the entire region.

Europe in the other hand is defined by it’s disunity. If an innovative individual couldn’t get backing in one state then they tried somewhere else. The competition between states to survive and prosper fostered the expansion of some of those states. European countries are divided by rivers and mountains, there are peninsulars that are effectively islands and large islands. The coastline is heavily indented, and for many centuries it was easier to get about by boat.

So, when an advanced and united China takes a step backwards from overseas exploration it gives less advanced but disunited European countries the opportunity to get there first.

Other things I liked about the book were the structure of the chapters and the desire to find ultimate causes for events. Copious references for further reading is  provided at the end of the book. The author discusses human history as a science and it’s further development – what else could be studied.

Now, the other side of the coin.

The book is ambitious in it’s scope and generalises fairly regularly. This is counteracted by some detailed studies and a long list of further reading as I mentioned above.

The author is strongest when it comes to discussing the hemi-continents of Australia and New Guinea, since he’s worked there for many years.

It is clearly written for an American audience, which can be off-putting at times as Professor Diamond assumes the reader has the same cultural background as he on occasion.

He’s also not saying anything new,even in 1997. I started secondary school in 1994, my history and geography teachers had all been teaching that history and geography depended on each other for years, to the point where it was a game to try to persuade students which discipline was the most important.

What Jared Diamond did when he wrote ‘Guns, germs and steel’ though, was to collect the information up and present in a way that everyone could understand. An increased level of scientific and historical literacy can only be a positive thing. This is a scientists view of history, of extraordinary scope and ambitious in it’s aim.

As I was reading Part 2 of this book, the following news was published (I read about it in New Scientist, this link goes directly to the researchers page):

I kept the new information, a confirmation of the origins of the ancestors of Native American people, as I was reading the book.

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