Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of the most popular non-fiction books in the last decade, and it’s easy to see why. While it took me a long time to read it (I think I actually started last year), I very much enjoyed this summary of the history of mankind. Jared Diamond has a great way of capturing broad events and trends across centuries, cultures, and continents.
Guns, Germs, and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize for its discussion of how cultures evolved. Starting from the question of a New Guinea native about why the Western societies (Europeans and Americans, mostly) were so much more successful than native New Guineans. From that point, he discusses how differences in tools (Guns), diseases (Germs), and technology (Steel) are the direct causes of the success of the Eurasian-based societies.
Fortunately, he goes further, delving into the questions of why those differences developed. He rejects the idea that races are inherently inferior or superior to each other, instead demonstrating with many examples how such differences are the indirect result of many natural effects. For example, one of the reasons that people from Eurasia colonized the Americas instead of the other way around is that Eurasia is oriented mostly East-to-West and the Americas are oriented North-to-South. That difference in orientation means that the same basic climate exists across thousands of miles and through millions of people in Eurasia, so new discoveries in agriculture were able to spread to many different cultures. In the Americas, however, the zones of similar climate are much smaller and separated, so innovations are not combined.
Additionally, he gives examples in another direction showing that the natural environment determines the success and failure of societies more than any inherent racial tendencies: showing what happens when groups of the same people expand to different places. In particular, he shows how the differences in geography, flora, and fauna of different Polynesian islands easily explains the different societies discovered on the islands.
Guns, Germs, and Steel gives a lot food for thought about how we as a society got to where we are, and goes a long way to explain how European and American cultures became dominant, but also demonstrates that such dominance is not guaranteed to last.
The biggest unexpected pleasure in reading the book for me was reading something that simply accepts that the origin and history of human that science has discovered is the best explanation possible. I’ve spent so much time in the past few years debating science on a political forum, so I’ve become sadly accustomed to having to defend the notions of evolution and an Earth older than 6000 years old. It was interesting to read in this book about how evidence from archaeological pottery findings, animal husbandry, plant discovery, tool development, and linguistics all seamlessly work together to provide co-ordinated scientific evidence of how human cultures changed and competed. It was refreshing that Mr. Diamond never felt that he had to apologize for coming to conclusions that didn’t mesh with the pre-conceived ideas of particular religions and ideologies.
The only real gripe I had about the book is that it was sometimes repetitious. Certain points about the North-South vs. East-West orientations of the continents were explained many times throughout the book. Perhaps some will read the book as isolated chapters and need that approach, but it was a bit frustrating for me as I read it linearly.