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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997)

by Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, And Steel, by Jared Diamond
★★★ and 1/2

Description: Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this groundbreaking book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for history's broadest patterns. Here, at last, is a world history's broadest patterns. Here, at last, is a world history that really is a history of all the world's peoples, a unified narrative of human life.
In A Sentence: A fascinating study with a lot of information crammed in
My Thoughts: I've been meaning to read this for years, ever since my anthropology professor mentioned it. I don't usually read non-fiction novels, though; despite the interesting subjects, I get bored with the tedious amounts of information and facts. Hence why this book took me a whole month to read.
This was a really interesting book, however. I love history, particularly ancient history. I also love archaeology and reading about the different societies and culture this world has. This book had it all: history, archaeology, anthropology, and biological anthropology. Jared Diamond made a valid argument regarding why some societies were able to conquer others. Basically, each society had to work with the resources that were available to them; if the plants and animals were easy to domesticate, and the people could benefit from domesticating them, then more often than not events led to domesticated local plants and animals. Domestication led to sedentary lifestyles, which in turn led to massive food production, diseases, and better opportunities for technological advancement. Geography, climate, and how isolated a society was also affected how domesticated plants and animals and technology would spread to other societies. I summed up the book in a few sentences here, but the science and research that led to this conclusion was really interesting. Plus, Jared Diamond doesn't spend a whole lot of time discussing the Europeans and how powerful they were. He instead discusses everyone, including other societies you hardly ever hear about, making this book very well rounded and very interesting.
There was a whole lot of information in the book however. Jared Diamond had to scrunch in about 13,000 years of world history into one book, as well as a lot of scientific and archaeological information. It was all great information, but it made for a very dense read. No wonder it took me so long!
Overall: If you love non-fiction, particularly historical nonfiction, this is a good book for you. If you're studying history in some type of college course, I would recommend this book as a complementary read. It's certainly worth a look, but prepare yourself for a whole lot of info. Jared Diamond does a great job making the facts reader-friendly, but there's still much to sift through. You have been warned. ( )
  Spirolim | Jan 13, 2016 |
Guns, Germs and Steel is the iconic 1998 work by Jared Diamond positing so clearly the argument that biogeographical factors are the determinant behind relative rates of progress and success among different human societies. His work argues in the very long-term it is ultimately biogeographic factors that are the ultimate cause of trends in human history. What Diamond has done is spell out effectively the seemingly obvious point that geography impacts a society, its success, and culture, and has advanced that idea into a generalised analysis of human history.

Diamond is in particular an expert on New Guinea. It shows. The work goes into extensive detail on Papuans as an interesting historical experiment to assess his theory. His assertion that Papuans are individually smarter than westerners is of course non-verifiable as it is largely only those with access to higher levels of education in the west that will cross paths with Papuans. Nevertheless it is indicative of the close relationship Diamond has with some of the cultures of Papua, especially the part not under the control of Indonesia.

Diamond begins his march through human history by asking the question from the noble savage - why is it Papuans did not develop the tools to conquer far flung parts of the world. Of course, actually they did. Diamond does not offer this obvious counterpoint but given Papuan peoples managed to claim the lands they now own means they must have been able to do some far-flung conquering of their own, just not on the same scale.

Diamond's answer to the question why some societies developed the tools for global conquest and others not is divided into proximate and ultimate causes. The proximate causes are initially described as Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is a punchy title but not the most accurate and Diamond moves on from it fairly quickly. Guns and Steel in particular are fairly interchangeable as they both represent advanced weapon technology. Through the later stages of the work, Diamond makes greater reference to political organisation rather than just sticking to his catchy trio.

The great example Diamond uses is the mortal blow inflicted on the Aztecs by the Spanish. The Aztecs really should have been able to put up much more of a fight against the Conquistadors but Diamond shows how the proximate factors of weaponry, other technology, and germs were able to wipe out a mighty empire. This example though is merely the step towards explaining the far more interesting assessment of ultimate causes.

Diamond's analysis of ancient history is fascinating. The well-known Fertile Crescent was of course the dawn of civilisation but what Diamond catalogues so well is the range of advantages that location had over everywhere else. The reason civilisation arose first there is because of the set of seeds worth growing. Diamond's analysis of the most productive seed groups suggests the Fertile Crescent was inevitably going to be the site of civilisation's birth. It is fascinating to see some of the tables of productive foods. Fascinating for instance that the British Isles offers just oats. Fascinating because oats remain a staple of British diet thousands of years later.

The idea of civilisation's spread through settled farming is of course obvious. Diamond takes that obvious point and applies it to the whole of human history. He charts the spread of societies and their food package. The spread of foods heads along east-west parallels rather than north-south. It makes complete sense because produce will not grow at different latitudes of temperature, climate, and season. This necessarily implies that transfer of food packages runs most easily across continents as in the spread from the Fertile Crescent to Europe rather than up and down continents as did not happen for instance in all of Africa.

Diamond takes this idea a step further by assessing that there is an east-west effect on technology transfer more generally. This is debatable and Diamond does not really show technology transfer beyond food as having a latitudinal effect. His examples are more of geographic barriers with the Isthmus of Panama and the Sahara Desert both being good reasons technology transferred so slowly or not at all.

Diamond does at times make some bizarre claims such as Neanderthals having made no impact on modern humans. The genetic record suggests otherwise. He also seems to have failed to have accounted for the re-populating of Africa by peoples who had already moved into Asia. Nevertheless his analysis is largely sound.

There is sometimes an agenda behind the analysis. Diamond is particularly keen to point out the failings of race-based theories of societal success. He takes on the most obvious example in the form of Aboriginal Australia. It is the hardest argument for those opposed to racism to make - that somehow the most backward socieities on Earth exist in the form they do next to advanced westernised Australia for reasons other than genetics. Diamond's analysis is effective in describing the ultimate causes. Australia was of course populated much later than the rest of the world and it has a terrible set of native food products. It is only the bringing of temperate food to the most temperate parts of Australia that Europeans have flourished. It is a convincing argument.

Diamond divides his book into four parts. Part One sets up the various theories being explored using examples to show how similar peoples, such as Polynesians on different islands, developed differently based on their biogeography. It is a great start and somewhat awe-inspiring to read it spelled out so clearly. Part two is about food development using examples of the availability of differently productive foods and domesticable animals. Why some types of animals are more domesticable than others of the same family is an area Diamond highlights for future research. As well as offering productivity gains, the animal link is important for Diamond's proximate conquest cause - germs which is a key aspect of part three along with some fairly bland writings about the differences between tribes and bands.

Part four is the conclusion. It is the history of different continents following Diamond's theory. Unfortunately it is by far the weakest part of the book and exposes its major flaws. Diamond took a surprisingly non-Euro-centric approach to explaining the world. For some reason more than half of the world's population is lumped together as Eurasia. The analysis of the rest of the world is not always great. The chapter on why China became Chinese is remarkably limited. The chapter on Africa is fairly good, showing the Bantu expansion as a good case study explaining why the Bantu societies triumphed over Khoisan and Pygmy but could only go as far as their food package could take them.

The chapter on the Americas leaves open the most obvious question. Why did they not develop boats? Polynesians boated to extraordinary lengths yet Meso-Americans failed to develop seafaring capability to navigate along a coastline in ways which could have led to contact between Meso-American and South American states. It is not a particularly difficult thing to do - the Celts of course having moved up from Iberia to the British Isles exactly that way.

Diamond begins to address some of the criticisms of his work in a well-crafted epilogue. This was presumably written after the first publication when the most glaring flaws came to light. In particular he posits a believable theory about why China has not been the dominant force in human history. Frankly China should always be the leading player but has never managed to achieve that position. Diamond offers a new idea not present in his earlier discussion - that societal formation itself is determined by biogeography. Europe is divided into smaller States because of its geography which means more competition for ideas and much less possibilty of turning off progress. China is stilted by its dominance of its own expansive landmass and the centralisation of power in the hands of just one who can turn off progress.

The epilogue argument is fascinating because it develops Diamond's theory to effectively begin identifying that it is geography that determines how a society works. This is now a well-regarded and much used idea which can explain how peoples in different parts of the world can develop similar proclivities because of having the same kinds of terrain. The great martial races of the world are of course all from tough places, mostly mountainous ranges.

There are of course areas for development from Diamond's theory. Most obviously why advanced western socieities stopped trying to conquer the rest of the world after World War II. Equally the role of the individual in history must play some role. Diamond suggests it was inevitable that power would shift from the Fertile Crescent west but that is only an analysis of what happened without it being truly inevitable. Would it really be inevitable that Europe would rise had Sparta not defeated the Persian invasion, or indeed had Sparta later defeated Athens? Would the global system of an international rules-based global order be in place had the Axis powers sued for peace in 1944? Such butterfly effects cannot surely have had no impact on the longue duree.

For all the potential critiques of Diamond's work though it is a fabulous piece. It may be turgid at times with the repitition of phrases and argument but it is a defining work in the now widely accepted notion that the environment shapes the socities that inhabit it, and that the success or failure of societies depend on the resources they can draw from the place in which they live. ( )
1 vote Malarchy | Jan 4, 2016 |
Guns, Germs and Steal can best be described as a world history textbook. Instead of being separated,by time period it was organized by geographical location of civilization. This glorified textbook is dreary, incredibly boring and lacks all excitement. That is if not accompanied by note taking or another method to keep the reader awake and more importantly alive, it serves little purpose besides, being educational. The novel was filled with a great amount of information, dates, cultural explanations and historical context. But, this doesn't draw from the fact that it is exclusively read for educational purpose and not one's enjoyment. Unless your purpose is to advance you knowledge in world history, which it excels in, this book is little more than a cure to insomnia. ( )
  Mikayla_Hubner | Nov 3, 2015 |
history, geology, agriculture, civilization, society, religion, evolution, hunter, gatherer, culture, progress, weapons
  aidenella | Sep 7, 2015 |
Jared Diamond has pulled off a startling amalgamation of Bill Bryson's 'Short History of Nearly Everything' and Jacob Bronowski's 'The Ascent of Man'. He writes with great clarity and illuminates a number of turning points while seeking to explain why some societies around the world achieved ascendancy over others.

Diamond's principal hypothesis is that until around 11,000 BC all of the fledgling societies scattered around the globe were on a roughly equal footing, struggling to get by as hunter-gatherers. From that time onwards, different groups started to move towards a more structured mode of agriculture featuring the domestication of livestock and the ability to regulate arable crops. Throughout the book he stops to ask why it was that the European nations colonised Afria, Asia and the Americas, rather than the other way around. Why were those European states able to establish their supremacy?

The dreadful impact of diseases prevalent among Europeans upon the new societies that they encountered throughout the New World and Australasia is well documented. Diamond asserts that some of that contagion was initially contracted from the livestock that formed the basis of their sustaining agriculture. Diamond explores these issues with a mixture of history, archaeology and anthropology, drawing evidence from all around the world.

These are not areas that I know much, if anything, about, and I found Diamond's book completely engrossing. I might question some of his conclusions, but they are all soundly constructed, and liable to provoke lively debate. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Aug 29, 2015 |
Diamond takes an evolutionary approach to the advancement of conquering cultures through the rapid advancement of crop cultivation, domestic animals, and survival of the fittest through disease. Unfortunately, it is in desperate need of an editor. Hundreds of pages should have been cut or redesigned. The last three chapters alone could have been cut to just a few pages. When Guns was first published it was considered quite revolutionary; however, current scholarship has challenged it with a bite. ( )
  revslick | Aug 13, 2015 |
Jarod Diamond examines the question of why are some societies more successful than others. Ultimately, why was it the Europeans who dominated exploration and conquest of the world? Why not China or Africa? Diamond explores the idea of "accidental conquest" based on geographic luck. This informational text is best suited for high school students because of the complexity of ideas. Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize (General Nonfiction) in 1998 for this book and in 1999 and 2004, it was placed on the ALA Outstanding Books for the College Bound list. ( )
  PikeH | Jul 31, 2015 |
I have never thought that germs had a devastating effect on the aboriginal inhabitants of the two Americas. ( )
  Mohamed80 | Jul 11, 2015 |
The author gives a well researched factual account of how the European continent managed to conquer Africa and North America. The luck of beneficial geographic placement and easily domesticated species gave them the greater competitive edge - and explains so much about how the world was explored and subsequently colonized. Very interesting book - National Geographic did a dvd companion piece that was good also. ( )
  Heather_Arrington | May 31, 2015 |
I know it won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. The premise of the book in the reviews I read sounded interesting. But I just found the book dull to read and I couldn't finish it. ( )
  KamGeb | May 20, 2015 |
This was a very insightful book that provided plausible theories that account for things I had wondered myself about human societies. I had always wondered why it was Europeans who created empires around the globe as opposed to other cultures. Also, I was aware that there were no beasts of burden in North America and that played a role in hindering technological advancement. But the author expounded on this and other factors in a way that painted a pretty clear picture on the discrepancies that separate geographically distinct societies around the world. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
Loved this book on the first read. Have been wanting to reread and found a great bargain on a used copy. I would have preferred a hardcover but, as long as I have the book, it's all good. ( )
1 vote kwkslvr | Apr 16, 2015 |
Couldn't read this thoroughly enough to judge fairly, but it seemed heavy on data and weak on careful unbiased analysis, to me. ( )
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
作者以地理、生物因素,闡述文明發展不平等的原因。內容相當具說服力。是瞭解人類文明發展的必讀之書。​ ( )
  windhongtw | Apr 1, 2015 |
This is a fantastic book!
  kimtaylorblakemore | Mar 17, 2015 |
This is a fantastic book!
  kimtaylorblakemore | Mar 17, 2015 |
A fabulous book that does justice to a huge and controversial field, covering evolution, paleobiology, genetics and early human history. The breadth and depth of this work is staggering- this book is not for the fainthearted as it is long, very detailed yet thankfully very readable. ( )
  martensgirl | Feb 5, 2015 |
Fascinating and captivating read. I would have read it a lot faster if not for selecting it as my 'exercise reading matter', meaning it only got attention in short bursts!

Jared takes on the question of why some parts of the world kept to dominate others, and not vice versa, from a historically scientific standpoint, looking at food production and the effect it has on just about everything else - like the innovations of technology, society, politics and so forth. Why did Eurasia serve as a better platform for so many factors than the Americas, Africa or Australia?

I found myself re-reading sections sometimes because of the revelations therein, or mulling over the concepts at length long after I'd inserted my bookmark and put the book down. Jared asks so many questions I have never considered before, and yet in his consideration of them have found myself wishing I'd applied myself more in my own studies!

Something as simple as why did Chinese political unity serve as a poorer platform for dominance than the fractured political mishmash of Europe, despite the Chinese people have piles of technologies and societal advances so long before those of West Eurasia? (well, I say simple, which it isn't... but after reading it, it seems like such a simple explanation).

Loved reading this - grappling with the impact of wild plants and potentially domesticated animals on the progress of world. Considering the roles of isolation, geographic orientation, language, and so many other factors. My eyes have been really opened, and I appreciate it! ( )
  PaulBaldowski | Jan 24, 2015 |
Non è solo un libro; è un compendio di conoscenza, un mondo dove le discipline scientifiche si incontrano e spiegano "La Storia". E ci si rende conto che le inutili ore passate ad imparare le battaglie di Magonza, le dinastie dei re tebani o gli incastri della corte normanna sono molto più che inutili: sono fuorvianti. In queste 400 pagine, che in tre mesi faticosamente ho finito di leggere, c'e' invece tutto quello che può servire per capire perchè il mondo è quello che è, perchè le relazioni tra i popoli sono quello che sono, e perchè un agricoltore è, in fondo in fondo, assai più pericoloso di un cacciatore. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
So far an incredible book...This book basically asks the question why is it that some races, peoples, and ethnicities have far outpaced others in terms of technological achievement, understanding, and civilization?

Chapter 1-Up to the starting line
The great leap forward happens about 40,000 years ago. Man himself emerges only about 100k years ago, diverging evolutionarily from Neandertal then. Neandertal and Cro-Magnon (first modern man) coeval in Europe.
Neandertal went extinct likely from being out competed by Cro-Magnon, by 40,000 years ago, humans have populated much of the easter hemisphere (Eurasia, Australia) having arisen from Africa.
The origin of the great leap forward remains controversial - did it happen simultaneously and in parallel globally, or did it happen in Africa, and then disperse out? At about the great leap forward large mammalian and large fauna extinction coincides with Man's appearance and technological prowess. Such extinction likely attributed to the docility of animals to humans because no previous encounters with Man.
Human colonization of the new world happens between 16000 and 11000 B.C. from human migration across the Bering Straights of Alaska. Two early sites, Clovis (ll000 BC) and Meadowbrook (16000 BC) argue for two different colonizations. Does having settled and occupied a land region (like a continent) confer a "head" start in civilizational advancement, if Eurasia possessed humanity far longer than say the polynesian islands or the New World?

Chapter 2 - A natural experiment of history
Human expansion into the polynesian islands exemplifies an experiment of how geography influences culture and advancement; Moari's invade and slaughter other islanders, who two generations prior, were from the same land - in essence, were the same people. Geography creates political, economic, and cultural seperation.
Each successive polynesian island outward from the pacific rim, had different geographies and climates, imposing on settlers different agricultural, political, military, and cultural philosophies
Geographies that imposed subsistance living fostered communitarian, distributive, and peaceful approaches to culture; geographies supportive of intensie farming enabled specialized societies that were heirarchical, mercantile, specialized, and militarized.
Conquest becomes a function of resource acquisition to support political and economic sustainability.

Chapter 3 - Collision at Cajamarca
Pizzaro captures and kills the Inca king, and conquers the Incas with ease - virtually no loss of life, despite being vastly outnumbered and being in "hostile territory" - how is that possible?
Spanish were not interested in negotiated outcomes, but religious zealotry to convert perceived "heathens" to Christianity; never really any intent to convert for the sake of enlightenment, but for enslavement and pillaging.
Spanish were successful in conquering Incas and Aztecs (to the north) because of several proximate causes:
Horses and military superiority of weaponry based on steel; horses had never been encountered in the New World until European introduction. Horses were trained for war, gave height, weight and speed advantage over footmen. Steel and metallurgy allowed for swords and guns.
Infectious disease; European immunity built on centuries of pestilence and disease killed millions of Indians who never encountered such disease like small pox. Disease spread ahead of European expansion inland so that many societies were weakened or destroyed. Interestingly, many Old World diseases like malaria inhibited EU conquest of Africa and Asia.
Political astuteness and understanding of human nature, as a function of centralized political organization
Literacy as a mode of creating and transmitting competitive intelligence over other peoples; EU learned quickly about tactical success over the indians because of writings that were disseminated over Spain. Indians were misinformed and uninformed because prior encounters with Europeans were undocumented and not communicated.
European maritime technology; the ability to travel en masse quickly and in strength from one location to another.
Question: why did all of the above not happen to New World Indians? And why did they not conquer the old world?
THE RISE OF FARMER POWER

Chapter 4- Farmer power
plant and animal domestication intensified population growth
Food surpluses and animal transportation enabled settlement, political centralization, social stratification, and economically complex technologically savvy societies
Domestication in Eurasia explains why empire, steel, and literacy arose there
Weaponization of animals, horses and camels gave military prowess over those societies where domestication did not occur.

Chapter 5- histories haves and have nots
Food production, animal domestication and agriculture occurred DeNovo in only half a dozen locations globally- each independent from the others.
Occurred on each of the major continents, and temporally distinct from each other
First in SW Asia and China (8500-8000 BC), then two thousand years later in the US
Outside of the six or so locales, food was imported to other locales with founder crops and animals.
Other locales either were invaded by other farmers bringing founder crops, or through trade, or through duplicating what had been done at other locales. E.g. Egypt seems to have adopted SW Asian crops and animals in lieu of hunting and gathering. ( )
  inasrullah64 | Sep 26, 2014 |
Diamond's main focus is answering the question of why some societies developed in ways that others didn’t. Why were Europeans able to easily overrun native peoples in the Americas? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia build densely populated cities with complex systems of government and advanced technologies while other groups remained primitive hunter-gatherers? Why did some develop written languages and not others?

He flatly rejects racist claims of superiority based on skin color or race and instead argues that geography and biogeography played a central role in creating the modern-day haves and have-nots. While Diamond briefly goes back to the beginnings of human development and explains its spread out of Africa, the book is mostly about explaining why some groups made the leap from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary (stay in one place) farming cultures. Such a change allowed for denser populations, better nutrition, and advances in agriculture and crop and animal domestication.

And domesticated crops and animals is a big factor in why modern civilization has its origins in Eurasia. The area known as the Fertile Crescent had more wild plants and animals *available* for domestication than anywhere else. Domesticated animals also provided labor that drove further advances and gave advantages in war (especially the horse). These factors contributed to centralized governments and written languages and ever larger concentrations of people. But it was this combination of high density cities and domestic animals that created the most effective tool of conquest: germs.

It's hard to summarize such a far-reaching and encompassing book like this, but it does a good job of explaining the grand scope of history understandably. This is not to say it's an "easy" read, however, as it required a careful reading. It's also not without detractors, and a few online reviews had very technical complaints. I'm no expert in such history, although I was a little bothered by the *tone* of the book sometimes. He rightly disparages "white racists" who claim racial superiority but he pushes the opposite too far and occasionally engages in his own subtle racism. When he talks of the spread of white Europeans in the Americas he uses the words "kill" and "infect" but when he discusses the spread of Bantus in Africa he uses words like "expand" and "engulf," and then downplays the word "engulf" with a lengthy paragraph softening it. There were a few times I thought his logic was weak and evidence thin, like when he claims New Guinea natives are smarter than Europeans but cites only his opinion as evidence. Still, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening book, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(This review is modified from my 5/22/12 blog post at bookworm-dad.blogspot.com) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Diamond's main focus is answering the question of why some societies developed in ways that others didn’t. Why were Europeans able to easily overrun native peoples in the Americas? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia build densely populated cities with complex systems of government and advanced technologies while other groups remained primitive hunter-gatherers? Why did some develop written languages and not others?

He flatly rejects racist claims of superiority based on skin color or race and instead argues that geography and biogeography played a central role in creating the modern-day haves and have-nots. While Diamond briefly goes back to the beginnings of human development and explains its spread out of Africa, the book is mostly about explaining why some groups made the leap from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary (stay in one place) farming cultures. Such a change allowed for denser populations, better nutrition, and advances in agriculture and crop and animal domestication.

And domesticated crops and animals is a big factor in why modern civilization has its origins in Eurasia. The area known as the Fertile Crescent had more wild plants and animals *available* for domestication than anywhere else. Domesticated animals also provided labor that drove further advances and gave advantages in war (especially the horse). These factors contributed to centralized governments and written languages and ever larger concentrations of people. But it was this combination of high density cities and domestic animals that created the most effective tool of conquest: germs.

It's hard to summarize such a far-reaching and encompassing book like this, but it does a good job of explaining the grand scope of history understandably. This is not to say it's an "easy" read, however, as it required a careful reading. It's also not without detractors, and a few online reviews had very technical complaints. I'm no expert in such history, although I was a little bothered by the *tone* of the book sometimes. He rightly disparages "white racists" who claim racial superiority but he pushes the opposite too far and occasionally engages in his own subtle racism. When he talks of the spread of white Europeans in the Americas he uses the words "kill" and "infect" but when he discusses the spread of Bantus in Africa he uses words like "expand" and "engulf," and then downplays the word "engulf" with a lengthy paragraph softening it. There were a few times I thought his logic was weak and evidence thin, like when he claims New Guinea natives are smarter than Europeans but cites only his opinion as evidence. Still, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening book, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(This review is modified from my 5/22/12 blog post at bookworm-dad.blogspot.com) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Diamond's main focus is answering the question of why some societies developed in ways that others didn’t. Why were Europeans able to easily overrun native peoples in the Americas? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia build densely populated cities with complex systems of government and advanced technologies while other groups remained primitive hunter-gatherers? Why did some develop written languages and not others?

He flatly rejects racist claims of superiority based on skin color or race and instead argues that geography and biogeography played a central role in creating the modern-day haves and have-nots. While Diamond briefly goes back to the beginnings of human development and explains its spread out of Africa, the book is mostly about explaining why some groups made the leap from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary (stay in one place) farming cultures. Such a change allowed for denser populations, better nutrition, and advances in agriculture and crop and animal domestication.

And domesticated crops and animals is a big factor in why modern civilization has its origins in Eurasia. The area known as the Fertile Crescent had more wild plants and animals *available* for domestication than anywhere else. Domesticated animals also provided labor that drove further advances and gave advantages in war (especially the horse). These factors contributed to centralized governments and written languages and ever larger concentrations of people. But it was this combination of high density cities and domestic animals that created the most effective tool of conquest: germs.

It's hard to summarize such a far-reaching and encompassing book like this, but it does a good job of explaining the grand scope of history understandably. This is not to say it's an "easy" read, however, as it required a careful reading. It's also not without detractors, and a few online reviews had very technical complaints. I'm no expert in such history, although I was a little bothered by the *tone* of the book sometimes. He rightly disparages "white racists" who claim racial superiority but he pushes the opposite too far and occasionally engages in his own subtle racism. When he talks of the spread of white Europeans in the Americas he uses the words "kill" and "infect" but when he discusses the spread of Bantus in Africa he uses words like "expand" and "engulf," and then downplays the word "engulf" with a lengthy paragraph softening it. There were a few times I thought his logic was weak and evidence thin, like when he claims New Guinea natives are smarter than Europeans but cites only his opinion as evidence. Still, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening book, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(This review is modified from my 5/22/12 blog post at bookworm-dad.blogspot.com) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
An important and grounded perspective on essential questions of human history as natural history. Diamond's work here is as important to Cultural Studies as it is to Anthropology, Political Science, Art, Law, Religion, and Biology. ( )
  pilastr | Jul 31, 2014 |
This a lively book with an analysis of human society that I would call "Biologist provides a determinist taxonomy for Human progress." While making me wonder for a moment what our definitions of culture and progress really are, Mr. Diamond did get a very large number of people talking about the nature of human society, especially in our modern web-woven world. Power to him for that. I'd say that he's not Toynbee, but he has a paradigm that fits several stages in the evolution of our present world-view. I find it about half-way up to the crow's nest of real vision about humanity. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jul 29, 2014 |
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