book review: guns, germs, and steel

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of these books I’d been sort of meaning to read for years, but it took getting it as an Xmas present to actually kick-start the process.

The book basically looks at why societies developed the way they did, why Europeans were the ones who went off colonizing and killing people all over the world instead of the Inca or Aborigines or whoever. Reading the book made me never ever want to play one of those Sid Meier games (like Civilization) ever again just because of the simplifications inherent in that kind of “progress” oriented game. If I were more industrious I’d beak the computer game through a GGS lens. It’d be a good way of going through the major points he’s trying to get across.

The basic idea is that environmental and ecological determinants are the root causes for most of the way human history has played out (in the broad scale). It’s a thought provoking read. I would have liked more China-centric information because it’s the history I’m most familiar with, but he doesn’t do a lot with China until the language section. And there’s some good stuff in the epilogue which I would like to discuss with Chinese people to see if it’s just a clever-looking idea from the outside or if it might carry some self-reflexive water too.

My biggest complaint was something endemic to this kind of material analysis; there’s no room for people being good. As in not going and killing a whole bunch of folk because widescale murder isn’t a good moral choice. The only reason people don’t go in and assimilate/enslave/murder societies in this book (exaggeration ahead) is because of malaria. If it weren’t for malaria killing off potential invaders we’d be all monocultured up. No one would ever decide to leave people alone just for the hell of it. In the 2003 epilogue he talks about applying this book to business culture and how efficiency is the ultimate goal and it made me nauseous. I get that this is part of the “ultimate” instead of “proximate” causes he’s trying to get down to and that this is the base of science and stuff, but the future of this way of thinking is the basis for all that dystopian SF in the world. Or maybe that’s just me.

3 thoughts on “book review: guns, germs, and steel

  1. good point, ripping refutation to follow in the DJS5BRBO… not that ripping – but your distillation of his distillations is funny to me.

  2. Diamond, surprisingly given he’s an evolutionary biologist, overlooks the genetic changes over the past 50,000 years (see the recent paper by Robert Moyzis). Agriculture & population growth lead to increased genetic change. A more recent book, ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ addresses this point omitted by Diamond.

    “From that platform the authors undertake discussions of everything from the origins of the Arthurian romances in Britain to the Spanish conquest of the New World. Much of this was attempted before, in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book whose influence is clear in The 10,000 Year Explosion. But Cochran and Harpending do one better than Diamond. Where he was content with environmental determinism and sought to write around and even against human biology, Cochran and Harpending embrace it. That discussion of gene flow becomes the lynchpin in the argument for biology as central to history, and the backdrop for the book’s two biggest set pieces.

    Even with its flaws, Cochran and Harpending’s book has provided the best example to date of what E.O. Wilson would recognize as consilient history: not history done just with science in mind or even done scientifically, but history done with human biology treated as an essential cause and effect of the stories that history tells, and as a key without which history cannot make sense.”

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