Guns Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond

September 12, 2009 at 22:24 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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I recently read ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond. It a book about world history, but is somewhat different to the average history book.

It delves back in time to discover the originating causes of how some societies came to dominate others; why agriculture and metallurgy arose in some places and not others, and the mechanisms by which cultures and societies grow, fight and absorb each other. He discusses the well-known reasons why, for example, that the a small Spanish force was able to overrun the whole Inca empire with its millions of citizens and soldiers in 1532; the Spaniards had better weapons made of steel, brought infectious diseases, and better military efficiency and tactics in part because they had writing, and could therefore transmit orders and knowledge more easily. Such is the stuff of conventional history, but Diamond finds this unsatisfactory. Why did the Spaniards have steel and writing and not the Incas? Why was it not the Incas that developed ocean-going sailing ships in order to ‘discover’ Europe?, rather than vice versa?

The ‘conventional’ view right up until modern times has been that the peoples of such other cultures have been more ‘primitive’ and less intelligent than the Europeans. However, Diamond debunks that myth, and shows why European civilisation is currently the dominant global culture by stepping back fifteen thousand years to show how various confluences of natural resources and geography sowed the seeds for that eventual dominance.

It’s a book that is at times rather repetitive, and sometimes tiring to read, but nonetheless very interesting. For sure, there are a few weak spots in his thesis; his theories about the differences between Chinese and European civilisation seem somewhat tenuous at times in his attempts to reduce everything down to geographical determinism. However, the main thrust of the book is well researched, evidence and argued and offers a fascinating perspective on world history.

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  1. Diamond’s book is a little out of date on genetics. Recent studies have shown that there was an increase in genetic change with the development of agriculture and population expansion in eurasia. Some of these changes appear to relate to neurological function (see papers by Benjamin Voight, Bruce Lahn or Scott Williams).

    New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade’s book ‘Before the Dawn’ covers some of this, as does the more recent ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’.

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