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

by Jared Diamond

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A very good book, with fascinating and convincing concepts, somewhat marred (particularly towards the end) by excessive repetition. It seems he took the advice to "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" a little too much to heart. The last two chapters, in particular, replicate his arguments about the east-west expanse of Eurasia being one of the major factors in its quick advance almost word-for-word - between the chapters, and from the early presentation of the idea and the more detailed discussion of it in the middle of the book (several times, with different supporting evidence). It got positively boring, which is not what I expected from the earlier parts of the book. I'm not sure I precisely agree with him - wish there were more controls, like another east-west expanse (apparently Australia doesn't count because it's too small). It's awfully easy to find reasons why things turned out the way they did - what's hard is determining the real reasons. Diamond presents good arguments for his chosen factors, and they seem reasonable at least at the grand-sweep level of detail he presents, but I'd like to see more evidence and more possibilities. Why did every continent except Eurasia lose most of its large fauna at the end of the Ice Age? He suggests it's because the Eurasian animals had had more contact with man and knew to avoid him (in a single mention early on - after that the fact of the extinctions is accepted without discussing the why). It may be that we'll never know the answer, or there is no answer - just chance. Diamond, at the very least, raised some very good questions, and knocked holes in quite a few racist arguments. Interesting, and I may reread - but if I do, I think I'll skim the last few chapters at most, and possibly skip them entirely. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Mar 10, 2014 |
A good book, I throurly enjoied his way of thinking and ansering a question, simple as it was. The focus on south-east aisa was a focus on a area of the world frenquently passed over until european arrival.

5/5 stars ( )
  Colin5038 | Feb 4, 2014 |
Take after finishing - good information well documented. An antidote to racialist thought. But very hard to get through. ( )
  dcornwall | Jan 11, 2014 |
Diamond explicates his premise that society’s development in the world followed a single pattern dependent upon factors of geography, geology, and the availability of natural resources that could be domesticated and more easily utilized, leading to sedentary populations overtaking hunter-gatherer ones. The key to advancement is the accumulation of food stores beyond subsistence levels within a tribe/clan, achieved by domesticating cereals (largely) and beasts suitable for burden and transportation.

From that state, populations rapidly expand; bureaucracy, specialists, and a standing military arise; writing and technology develop. Concomitantly, with increasing population density and the proximity of domesticated animals, germs that elicit epidemic diseases proliferate. The end result is that technology produces guns, high population densities produce germs capable of overwhelming unexposed societies, and contending population centers produce innovative technology (steel).

The civilization that stays ahead in those three areas predominates. Thus advancement has nothing to do with race, only abundance, adaptability, and timing.

Diamond quickly establishes a formula to develop his thesis that rapidly becomes repetitive and predictable. The book could have been half its length by simply applying his reasoning formula to each title topic once, offering archaeological and linguistic evidence to support examples from history that illustrate each, bring up some troubling apparent exceptions and dismiss those, and wind up (as he does in the book) with “where do we go from here” speculation.

Why GGS won a Pulitzer, I don’t know. Personal, and admittedly insightful, anecdotes about New Guineans are not enough to make the book prize-worthy. There is no artistry in the writing and the content is largely common sense connections that I’m sure I’m not the only one who had made already. ( )
  Limelite | Oct 7, 2013 |
An epic piece of multi-disciplinary research powerful enough to make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about the human race. ( )
  dele2451 | Oct 6, 2013 |
Thank you for communicating relations between people and technology. ( )
  Michael.Bradham | Sep 2, 2013 |
how we got to be the way we are, well told even though only one theory ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 28, 2013 |
Smart, though presented a bit mechanically. Brilliant book though. Brilliant theory. ( )
  matthewbloome | May 19, 2013 |
[guns, germs & steel] Jared Diamond (not counting this one, didn’t get past the preface)

So I read a few pages of this book then decided to throw it in the bin. Not pass it on in any way. Just Dump it.

In the first paragraph - “Why did history unfold differently on different continents? In case this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought you are about to read a racist treatise, you aren’t” As Charlie Brooker pointed out on the 10 O’clock show recently someone introducing themselves as “Not a Racist” is a bit suspicious. Still that wasn’t what made me throw this book at the wall. A few pages later we have this: “New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by TV” hmm that old saw of TV rots the brain, for which evidence is ambiguous at best and many studies actually say that moderate TV viewing actually increases intelligence. But no, Mr Diamond has obviously decided the goggle box is the Devil’s device as a few sentences on he says “irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation” (the TV being an anti-stimulation device of course) and “mental abilities in New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages that most children in industrialised societies now grow up” (my italics) Oh Really? Can you say sweeping generalisation without any evidence Mr Diamond? And the reason he thinks New Guineans “may have come to be smarter than Westerners”? Well apparently it’s because they live a hand to mouth style existence struggling to find food (malnutrition in children is actually a cause of mental retardation isn’t it?) and fighting tribal wars so the stupid is killed off before it can breed and in Western society we’ve apparently conquered Maslow’s hierarchy of needs beyond the find food, find shelter level or as Mr. Diamond puts it “Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central governments, police, and judiciaries where murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule.” Oh Really? Thousands of years you say, exactly what history books have you been reading Mr Diamond?

This book gets an average of 4.15 stars on LT?!? Most people say it is a must read (there are few thoughtful reviews (from people who actually read the book) pointing out much larger flaws than the ones I’ve highlighted above, and apparently Diamond, a non-historian, tells historians that they’ve been doing history wrong!

It was such an important book that not only is there an abridged version there is also a reading companion, a documentary series AND it won the Pulitzer? My flabber is well and truly gasted

And that’s probably the longest review I’ve done for 10 pages worth of reading! ( )
8 vote psutto | May 17, 2013 |
Classic book which attempts to answer the question of why did white europeans conquer the americas and not the other way around? Hint: it has little, if anything, to do with inherent vices or virtues of europeans or indigenous americans. ( )
  gkonopas | Apr 19, 2013 |
No, don't just watch the video of the book. Read it, though it is repetitious, its message is worth engraving in your brain. Why do we have so much "stuff", when others don't? ( )
  kday_working | Apr 7, 2013 |
Interesting, yes, but entirely too in-depth for my taste. Listening made it a little more like an interesting, but very long radio program. I'm looking forward to the discussion over this one. ( )
  JessieP73 | Apr 6, 2013 |
p87
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
A very analytical observational approach to unraveling history that had very interesting insights. There was a lot of repetition that I assume was meant to make sure all i's were dotted and all t's were crossed for anyone looking to tear down his arguments. I listened to the unabridged audio, but might recommend the abridged version for that reason. ( )
  anguinea | Apr 4, 2013 |
Posted on my blog (http://aboutthestory.wordpress.com/)

Title: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Author: Jared Diamond
Hours (audiobook): ~5 abridged copy
Summary: For anyone who has ever wondered why the heck the European and Asian civilizations were able to make ships and conquer other civilizations, this book tries to figure that out. A lot of the problems of today’s world comes from the inequities of the civilizations of the past, and at first blush it can be confusing to students of history why the Spanish made ships and guns before the people of South America. Diamond explains that a lot of the development of history’s civilizations depended on the domestic-able plants and animals in the area and the fact that Europe and Asia have a major axis that goes East to West where as Africa and the Americas are oriented North to South. This actually makes a big difference in terms of how easily crops can be adapted from neighbors. The major geographic barriers also play a role in how easily ideas and inventions can get spread between cultures. All of this paints a fairly convincing story of why people in one area progressed so much faster than others, giving us the world we currently have.

As stated above, I only listened to the abridged audiobook of this book because that is what I had available, but I found the audiobook still very enlightening, unlike most abridged books that I’ve encountered. The full paper book is quite long, and so if you want an idea of the argument but not all the gory details, I do recommend the abridged version. In any case, I think this book makes a very important argument because it presents evidence that it wasn’t something special about the genes of the people who became the conquerors, it was simply the luck of the land that they happened to inherit.

More reviews at http://www.onstarshipsanddragonwings.com/ ( )
  anyaejo | Apr 2, 2013 |
This book literally changed everything for me. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
ebook version
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Wonderful popular survey with unique interpretation of world events.
  lfcb | Mar 30, 2013 |
I wasn't actually primarily interested in Jared Diamond's thesis. The book is entirely worth it just for the things you learn about pre-history that he uses to back up his arguments. We learn so little about non-western history and pre-history. It is thrilling to realize that archaeologists and anthropologists can tell us so much about migrations and evolution for the past 15,000 years. I think this is the kind of book that is a pleasure to read (though overly saturated) and should definitely supplant textbooks.
  bianca.sayan | Mar 7, 2013 |
More reviews at: http://www.onstarshipsanddragonwings.com/2012/04/08/tangenttimenonfiction1/

Title: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Author: Jared Diamond
Hours (audiobook): ~5 abridged copy
Summary: For anyone who has ever wondered why the heck the European and Asian civilizations were able to make ships and conquer other civilizations, this book tries to figure that out. A lot of the problems of today’s world comes from the inequities of the civilizations of the past, and at first blush it can be confusing to students of history why the Spanish made ships and guns before the people of South America. Diamond explains that a lot of the development of history’s civilizations depended on the domestic-able plants and animals in the area and the fact that Europe and Asia have a major axis that goes East to West where as Africa and the Americas are oriented North to South. This actually makes a big difference in terms of how easily crops can be adapted from neighbors. The major geographic barriers also play a role in how easily ideas and inventions can get spread between cultures. All of this paints a fairly convincing story of why people in one area progressed so much faster than others, giving us the world we currently have.
As stated above, I only listened to the abridged audiobook of this book because that is what I had available, but I found the audiobook still very enlightening, unlike most abridged books that I’ve encountered. The full paper book is quite long, and so if you want an idea of the argument but not all the gory details, I do recommend the abridged version. In any case, I think this book makes a very important argument because it presents evidence that it wasn’t something special about the genes of the people who became the conquerors, it was simply the luck of the land that they happened to inherit. ( )
  anyaejo | Feb 15, 2013 |
Great book. It condenses a wealth of knowledge in an easy to follow and manageable way that is perfect to convey to the non-specialist the magnitude of human evolution and explain why the world is the way it is from a socio-historical point of view. Definitely worth a read (and a re-read) for the perspectives it opens for the reader. ( )
  CarloA | Feb 15, 2013 |
Reading this made me think of the story of the blind men and the elephant; a Jain version of the story reads:

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

At the end of the book, I did find Diamond persuasive enough to be convinced he had part of the truth, but I admit at this point of my life I'm skeptical of simple explanations that purport to explain everything. Granted, sometimes there are cases like that--at the root of the Theory of a Heliocentric System or Evolution by Natural Selection is a pretty simple concept. But think of trying to explain an individual human being solely by his environment. Similarly, Jared Diamond here tries to explain the "broad patterns" of human history by one factor--environment. Geography really.

The argument goes something like this. Humans had a "Great Leap Forward" around 50 thousand years ago--probably through a reorganization of the brain--that allowed them to invent things more sophisticated than crude stone tools and fire. They then spread to every continent but Antarctica, and about 11 thousand years ago, after the end of the Ice Age, came the Neolithic and the first herding and agriculture. But this is where human society became complicated and unequal. Because the different continents offered a different "suite" of animals and plants to choose from for domestication--and in that respect the Fertile Crescent (and to a lesser extent China) were insanely gifted and the continents outside Eurasia poor. Also, the axis of the continents meant diffusion of these developments were much more rapid in Eurasia than the other continents. The package of domesticated plants and animals in Eurasia enabled much greater food production--but also the development of "crowd diseases" such as small pox that came with close association with herding animals such as cattle and sheep. The greater food production caused a population explosion that led to more powerful forms of political association devolping and specialization into professions and crafts and with it the invention of writing and other technologies. And all that is at the root as to why when the Old World and New World came into contact, who would win and who would lose was inevitable.

There is something very appealing about Diamond's hypothesis. It's a theory of history without heroes or villains. Or at least without nationalist triumphalism or finger-pointing. It's the antithesis of racism. Diamond quickly dismisses the racist IQ theories such as presented in Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve. I'm using "racist" here, or trying to, in the objective, neutral definition that it consists of the belief that there are innate differences between subgroups of humans that make some superior to others. Of course, it would have helped if Diamond didn't talk about how he thought natives of Papua New Guinea are probably superior in intelligence to Westerners (tribal warfare and knowledge of natural environment selecting for intelligence more than literacy and video games). But as he'd argue, since that would only cut against the results you'd expect, it doesn't affect his analysis of the important factors that gave some parts of the globe a head start on powerful technologies and social organizations.

I'm skeptical of Diamond's claims for his theory as the foundation of a "science of history" that could explain nearly everything. As with explaining the formation of individual character, I suspect history is formed by an array of factors--from material factors such as those Diamond details to the "Great Men" theory of Carlyle to the cultural and political factors such as those detailed in Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Much of Guns, Germs and Steel read like a refutation of Landes' book, which was actually published a year after this one. I don't want to go into the parallels between the books and contradictions point by point, except I think both works are worth reading and provide food for thought. Both agree that "fragmentation" of political control (which Diamond again thinks might have geographical roots) might explain why Europe, rather than China, was the center of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

I'd give Diamond's book a slight edge over that of Landes simply because I found it more fun to read. I could have done without Diamond's politically correct sensibilities that made it necessary to always put "discovery," "exploration" and "backwardness" in quotes. At the same time his claim that what happened between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahuallpa is "well-known" based only on Spanish accounts was eyebrow raising. My eyes did glaze over a bit at the long, involved detailed discussions of linguistics, and many of his points are repetitive. Nothing is cited and sourced. But I found it fascinating to read about that crux between pre-history and history--when and where and why humans first developed agriculture and systems of writing and the development of human diseases. In my geeky way I loved reading about how writing developed independently in Mesoamerica, China and the Fertile Crescent. How writing spread from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt, which developed a system of writing that included an alphabet side by side its hieroglyphs developed into the first alphabet by the Phoenicians. How Sequoyah developed a syllabary for the Cherokee. As a once upon a time political science major in college with my own idiosyncratic political beliefs, I found Diamond's speculations on the formation of the state thought-provoking. I was surprised to find out leprosy is a pretty "new" disease that first appeared in 200 B.C. Given its mention in the Bible, I thought it a particularly ancient malady. And did you know chickens were first domesticated in China? Why we type on a QWERTY keyboard? Well, you would have had you read this book. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Feb 4, 2013 |
Deeply insightful examination of the development of human society with a strong argument for the fundamental equality of all people. ( )
  literarytech | Jan 19, 2013 |
Currently NOT in Tercs Library
  atercs816 | Jan 17, 2013 |
I think of myself as a cultural materialist, that a lot, if not most, of what marks a culture is ultimately based on a physical need or the like, though I allow that individuals' quirks and preferences can influence the evolution of the whatever it is. But I'm no expert on the matter, only judging by what I learned in some introductory anthropology classes and from reading. So, therefore, I am inclined to want to accept as true Diamond's assertion that the course of human history - the migration patterns, which culture dominated certain regions, and so on - is largely an effect of geography, climate, and what resources were available.

But I have no real background to know where Diamond might be cutting corners or simplifying matters for a tidier thesis. I can only say that when I got to the last two chapters and the conclusion, I couldn't follow the argument at all. Everything that made sense up to then stopped fitting together for me - Diamond asked, for example, how people from Borneo arrived in Madagascar without writing or compasses to be able to navigate. This seems to suppose that the Borneans both knew of Madagascar and intended to migrate to the island, and furthermore in planning to reach the island, they were unable to use their knowledge of astronomy to navigate (which I've been given to understand was how most seafaring people got around before compasses and sextants and so on - it was less precise, perhaps, but wasn't just sailing blindly). This may have been a throwaway rhetorical question, as in the following section, Diamond doesn't seem to seriously consider that the Borneans planned to migrate to Madagascar instead of somewhere else, but that it is even there threw a shadow over the remaining chapters and made me less inclined to accept Diamond's assertions.

Also, that most of his support for his thesis regarding Africa is based on linguistics really undermined the whole thing. He is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, not a linguist, or an archaeologist for that matter, and I didn't feel like his linguistic-based arguments held as much weight. I mean, his terminology felt off and so did his descriptions of the transmission of language (though, again, I'm only an armchair linguist) - especially since language transmission is subject to cultural factors which aren't necessarily related to the environmental ones.

On the whole I thought Guns, Germs, and Steel's main points were ones that I wanted to support and get behind, but Diamond totally undermined any confidence I had in him in the last sections.

Also, too, I was reading this in the Kindle edition without any figures and with poorly rendered tables that appeared in the text in odd ways (it wasn't always clear what was the table description and what was the main text). That plus the difficulty in flipping back to previous sections made my reading comprehension for the book all the worse, so that I felt like my ability to read critically was suffering - even as I'm already less knowledgeable than I'd like to be on the subject. The experience made me super aware of how much I hate ebooks for "serious" reading rather than lighter novels. ( )
1 vote keristars | Jan 6, 2013 |
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