am 25. Februar 2005
Jared Diamond is a thoroughgoing geographical determinist. His book highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of this approach.
Diamond's major topic is the Neolithic Revolution. His intention is to demonstrate that environmental conditions were not equally suitable to the development of agriculture on different continents. Eurasia, he contends, was the most appropriate place. It had the largest number of domesticable plants and animals, an east-west axis favoring the diffusion of inventions, offered good possibilities for inter-continental communication, and was the largest and most populous continent. So the Eurasians were first in developing agriculture, gaining thus a headstart in history. Agriculture led to rising populations and created a dynamic that prompted the evolution of states, writing and a sophisticated technology (guns and steel). These social and technological advantages, plus immunity to the most dangerous infectious diseases (germs), allowed Eurasians to easily subdue the natives of the Americas, Australia and Southeast Asia.
On the whole this argument, which takes up the first 410 pages of the book, is convincing. Diamond is also right to insist on adopting a long time-frame. As early as 8000 years ago Eurasians had a substantial edge over their rivals on other continents, making it unlikely for those peoples and civilizations to catch up.
Had Diamond stopped writing at this point, he would have published a good work.
However, he was not content to treat only the Neolithic Revolution, but wanted to cover all major turns in world history. Hence the last 15 (!) pages of the book are devoted to a completely different subject. Having explained the rise of Eurasia, Diamond now wants to explain the rise of the West. Quickly the question becomes: Why Europe, not China? Borrowing an idea from Eric Jones ('The European Miracle'; but beware: Jones' approach is much more sophisticated than Diamond's, avoiding any kind of monocausal determinism) Diamond provides a simple answer: Europe was geographically more diverse than China. Therefore it did not become politically unified. Political fragmentation led to openness and openness to progress - ideas and inventions that were rejected at one place could succeed at another.
This speculation is not plausible at all.
First, there is no geographical NECESSITY for European fragmentation and Chinese unity. Europe has many features favoring political unity. Its long coastline and a great number of navigable rivers allow for easy transportation by water, offering an important asset to any would-be imperial power. The Romans took advantage of this to the utmost, and if they were able to conquer a great part of the continent, there can surely have been no compelling GEOGRAPHICAL reason for later powers to fail. Diamond himself seems to realize this when he admits that India had even more agricultural core areas than Europe. Yet India was ruled as a unified empire for most of its history.
Second, Diamond's explanation - even if assumed to be correct - accounts only for INNOVATION. It tells us why certain inventions made by Chinese craftsmen were not introduced into the production-process of China's economy. A more important question to ask would have been why many significant inventions were not made in China in the first place. A prime example coming to mind is modern natural science, which was never developed in the Middle Kingdom.
Third, it is easy to see that Diamond's argument is undermined by his own evidence. As he tells us, China was scientifically and technologically ahead of Europe (and the rest of the world) for more than 1000 years. If China could achieve this superiority despite its supposed geographical disadvantages, we cannot escape the conclusion that those disadvantages either did not exist or were of minor importance. Europe, on the other hand, remained a cultural backwater for most of its history despite its supposed geographical advantages. Again we cannot but conclude that these advantages either did not exist or were of minor importance.
Thus Diamond's environmentalism is completely refuted by Chinese and European history before 1500 a. d. Moreover, no other version of geographical determinism is likely to fare better. Since China's geography did not change within the last 2000 years, every purely geographical interpretation of its history must be wrong. It will either fail to account for the period of Chinese superiority or for the period of Chinese backwardness.
Diamond's errors are grounded in his method. Geographical determinism can explain the Neolithic Revolution, because this transformation was brought about by small bands of hunter-gatherers extremely dependent on their environment. Even so, Diamond needs FOUR causal factors to account for its different outcome on each continent (1. The wild plant and animal species available; 2. Orientation of the major continental axis; 3. Possibilities for inter-continental communication; 4. Size of area and population of a given continent). When we look at the great Eurasian civilizations, we have to deal with a type of society vastly more complex and far less dependent on its environment than are bands of hunter-gatherers. Yet Diamond wants to explain the history of these civilizations with reference to just ONE causal factor (the impact of geography on political unity). Instead of becoming more sophisticated in accordance with its subject, Diamond's approach turns brutally simplistic just as it is applied to the most difficult problem of world history.
It is unlikely that the rise of the West can ever be explained geographically. Any serious attempt to write global history for periods after the Neolithic Revolution will have to be sensitive to the complex interplay between geography, economy, technology, politics and culture that shapes the development of large societies. The work of Max Weber and Fernand Braudel provides good examples of the kind of scholarship needed for this task. Jared Diamond's book not only fails to rise up to this standard, but is crude, superficial and disappointing even from a geographical point of view.
Clearly Diamond did not know when to put his pen down. His book would have been better if he had refrained from addressing topics unsuited to his method.
am 14. September 1999
Diamond takes on an extremely complicated topic that spans essentially all of human history and boils it down to some very basic premises. For example, he argues that Eurasia (i.e. Europe and Asia) enjoyed the advantage of the lion's share of the most desirable and domesticatable grains and large mammals. This advantage led to earlier agriculture, which led to denser populations, which led to more specialization, which led to better technology and organization, which led to societies better equipped to wage war and conquer their neighbors. Other reviewers, however, take Diamond to task. But is this premise really so darn controversial? The idea that the Fertile Crescent had a nice variety of native large-seeded, protein rich, perennial grains is not new. Heck, I learned as much in my History of Agriculture class as an undergrad (10 years ago). If you believe that Europe was somehow destined to rule the world because of some innate cultural and/or genetic superiority, this book is not for you. If you want wonderful insight into the biogeography of different regions of the earth, and how these differences contributed to differences in development, check out this book. I simply could not put it down.
am 13. Februar 2000
Many years ago a New Guinea native asked Jared Diamond a simple question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Only slightly rephrased, Diamond devotes this book to answering the question why, from the depths of the primeval forests of Africa, mankind emerged at different rates, some achieving the heights of civilization and technology while others remained virtually in the Stone Age? And why did people on some continental landmasses prosper while people on others lagged behind, especially because some locations, like the California Coast, are mild and desirable while others, like Northern Europe are harsh and forbidding?
Diamond's thesis is that some populations got a head start over others in the development of civilization. But the head start resulted from favorable geography and natural resources, not from any innate superiority. Given the same location and advantages, any group of people over time would have reached the same result. The first beneficiary of geography happened to be the Fertile Crescent. The "cradle of civilization" not only had all five major large mammals (sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses) available for domestication, but they also possessed the major wild seed groups that would become domesticated grain and cereals. Not all areas are so favorably endowed.
Once hunting and gathering gave way to food production, population density took hold, which in turn made possible civic development and technology. The head start then spread roughly along the same parallel east to Asia and west to Europe. Diamond contrasts Eurasia's wide girth and similar climates with America's and Africa's narrow waist and elongated longitude. Technology and culture can shuttle back and forth vast distances between east and west, but climatic zone differences as well as mountain ranges and deserts inhibit flows north and south.
I have two criticisms of the book. One, it has no footnotes so that one can source out the author's materials. For example, on page 108 Diamond asserts that early man, because of his ego, would rather hunt giraffes than gather nuts. Is that theory his, or someone else's? The very nature of a book such as "Guns, Germs, and Steel" requires that it pile theory upon theory to make a picture puzzle of a distant and hidden past. If key pieces don't fit, the picture may take a decidedly Cubist theme. A few footnotes would help the reader who wants to delve deeper into a topic.
The second criticism is the author's failure to address the role of human intelligence in the development of civilization. Considering the grief Charles Murray took into for writing "The Bell Curve," which held that certain populations have actually raised their intelligence level through centuries of using their brains to solve problems, one understands why Diamond steers clear of the topic - no academic can afford to be tinged with even a hint of racism or euro centrism. Plenty of professors on the leftist fringe stand ready to point the accusing finger any anybody who deviates from the acceptable norm. But surely scholars can deal with the role human intelligence in a non-racist way; after all, the physiology of the human brain is the same in all Homo sapiens. Diamond owes it to his readers to complete the mosaic he has created.
am 21. Juni 2000
Reading Diamond is a bit like getting into an engrossing conversation while riding on a train. Suddenly, you realize that the train is at the final stop, while you were supposed to get off three stations back. Diamonds prose is so excellent, his arguments so compelling, his answers to questions that most of us had never thought to ask so persuasive that it is someting of a surprise to finish the book and realize that he has gone too far. Geography may be important, but surely it is not everything. If it were, why was Taiwan primitive while Japan was advanced and wealthy? Why was Holland the wealthiest province on the continent while Denmark was a nation of peasant farmers? Why did northern Italy lead the renaissance only to fall into backwardness, before resurging to become a powerhouse of twentieth century industry? Culture matters. Nevertheless, we are all in debt to Diamond. Rarely are such important ideas presented in such a well-written book. David Fisher's Albion's Seed comes to mind, and Diana Muir's recent Bullough's Pond, but it is rare to find someone who is both an original thinker and a good writer.
am 9. April 2015
Vor rund einem Jahrzehnt mal die Originalversion zum Schnuppern ausgeliehen, habe ich es mittlerweile schon mehrfach gelesen und verschenkt.
Das Buch ist jedem zu empfehlen, der fasziniert von neuen Perspektiven und neuen Zusammenhängen ist. Immerhin werden hier 10'000 Jahre Kulturgeschichte auf ein paar hundert Seiten reduziert und mögliche biotische und geographische Faktoren für die unterschiedlichen Entwicklungsströme dargelegt.
Faszinierend waren unter anderem die Ausführungen zum Einfluss der Nutztierhaltung auf die Resistenzbildung gegenüber Pathogenen.
Die verheerende Auswirkungen der durch die "Conquistadores" eingeschleppte Keime auf die "Neuen Welt" sind hinlänglich bekannt und vergleichbar mit der aus Asien nach Europa gelangten Pest. Ironischerweise anders in Afrika, wo ungezählte "Eroberer" an der Malaria zugrunde gingen.
Typisch für den Stil ist die Vernetzung mit den Faktoren, welche eine Nutzierhaltung ermöglichen, das Massensterben der Megafauna und was an Domestizierbarem übrig blieb und streift den Einfluss der Geographie auf die Ausbreitung von kulturellen Errungenschaften, Zersplitterung oder Konsolidierung von Gesellschaften und die Bedeutung des Ackerbaus als Grundlage für eine "Überflussgesellschaft", welche eine Stratifizierung und Spezialisierung der Bevölkerung erst ermöglicht.
am 6. Juli 1999
i found the book unenlightening, ploddingly written, and agenda-ridden. diamond has some contributions to make, but his book is deterministic, p.c., and self-congratulatory -- ie., very '60s. '60s folks looking for some "science" to back up their prejudices should be happy with the book. readers looking for the science and the thinking to take precedence may be disappointed.
as diamond presents his thesis about geography's impact on the development of civilizations, it doesn't just condition human existence, it determines it, it explains everything. a little modesty wouldn't have hurt. and isn't it worth at least toying with ideas of this sort, for example: that the reason a group of hunter-gatherers didn't become farmers was because they chose not to? diamond doesn't once, that i recall, discuss the question of human preferences and choices. evidently for him they count for nothing.
diamond's p.c. agenda seemed to me to distort his thought processes. for example, he denounces anyone who makes the claim that one population group may be more intelligent or gifted in some way than another -- fine. but then he goes on to confide that he thinks the new guineans he knew were smarter than europeans. ooops. he thinks he's scored a point. but didn't he, or his editor, notice a little logic problem here? invasions and migrations of populations are matters of fact for diamond -- until it's europeans doing the invading or migrating, at which time they're described as murderous. all of which -- and much more -- made me conclude that diamond is more intent on fitting his many, many facts and occasional not-bad idea into a p.c. scheme than he is on trying to make a little sense out of history and life.
and as a writer for the general audience, diamond is only passable -- not in a class with e.o. wilson, or pinker, or paul davies. overall, a disappointment.
am 12. Juli 2000
Prof. Diamond has produced a fluently-written account of a popular theory -- that contemporary differences in human cultures and societies are the result solely of starting conditions with respect to geography and environment. However, the book holds numerous flaws.
There can be no doubt that Prof. Diamond is the master of a vast amount of data, biological and historical, and he marshals those data to good effect in support of his theories. However, there are many troubling omissions and contradictions contained in the book, which indicate that either there are important holes in Prof. Diamond's knowledge, or that he has been somewhat too selective in his use of data. For example, in discussing the native cereals available to various local groups for purposes of cultivation, he consistently speaks as if corn were the only grain available in Mesoamerica for domestication, and, indeed, that it was the only grain so domesticated. In fact, amaranth was also available, and domesticated. It further lacks many of the deficiencies which Diamond asserts made corn an imperfect domesticate. His failure to deal with this contradictory fact calls his more general arguments into question.
Diamond also ignores facts which are uncomfortable or unexplainable under the terms of his theory. For example, he points out that certain grasses native to the Eastern U.S. produce "dream" grains -- the example he offers is sumpweed. Yet the reason he offers that it was not domesticated is weak; it causes hay-fever, and has an objectionable smell. As Diamond should be aware, the question of whether a smell is objectionable is often culturally determined, as are many aesthetic notions. So the fact that we may find it objectionable now does not mean that contemporary consumers of it did, and does not explain why they failed fully to domesticate it. He also offers that other grains had seeds that were too small; but at the same time offers the example of corn being engineered over many years from teosinte, which had even more drawbacks. Why could these plants not have been bred for larger seeds, over time? Why did mesoamericans engineer corn in this way, while north-eastern inhabitants failed to do the same with the plants available to them? He argues that the fact that eastern US farmers abandoned their own crops when offered mesoamerican replacements indicates they were less worthwhile; but all that proves is that the mesoamericans had done a better job of engineering their crops for human consumption, not that those crops were better. Diamond also fails to provide an answer to the question of why mesoamericans failed to adopt the wheel. While arguing that the lack of large draft animals made their use unlikely, he acknowledges that the wheel was, in fact, first used as an adjunct to human labor, in the form of wheelbarrows. The reader is left to wonder why mesoamericans failed to adopt this practical use for the wheel, while leaving them on toys.
The book is irksome in its continual reliance on loose arguments, consistently indicated by the use of such terms as "surely", "clearly" or "it must therefore follow," etc. Those words indicate a weakness of proof, not clarity of proof, and encourage the reader to disagree with his conclusions. The book needs a good edit.
Finally, Prof. Diamond proves too little. It is unsurprising, and probably not subject to serious debate, that the earlier occupation of the old world by humans means those societies would have a head start over societies arising on a continent populated only tens of thousands of years later. Furthermore, it is intuitively acceptable that isolated societies (such as his precious New Guinea) are less likely to innovate, based on a lack of intellectual cross-currents and the inability to take advantage of new discoveries. But his book cannot explain the peculiar phenomenon of the rise of the West. His geographical and environmental advantages are spread over the whole Eurasian continent, from Spain to China, and are centered in the Fertile Crescent, and these areas have indubitably been linked by trade and war for millenia. Why, then, was America not colonized by Chinese explorers? Why was China invaded by Europeans during the eighteenth centuries and forward, and not the reverse. The fertile crescent was indeed the center of civilization for many years, while Europe was a back-water suffering invasion until the mid-seventeenth century. Why was that trend reversed so suddenly and dramatically, so that by the nineteenth century Britain, France and Russia could vie for protectorates from Palestine east to Indochina? The answer, I would argue, is that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe -- indeed it began at the very time that China, the giant in terms of industrial production at the time, was turning in on itself. Why, then, did the IR, which is what made possible the enormous European expansion of the 18-19 centuries, occur in Europe and not China, Safavid Persia or the Ottoman Empire? That is the key question which Diamond's book leaves unanswered, and which, I believe, cannot be answered based on geography and climate alone. Better technological innovation is said to be a product of larger population sizes and densities; thus Eurasia's population is compared with Australia's to in support of that theory. But why did densely populated China fall behind in technological innovation versus the less crowded, less populated countries of Europe from about 1500 on?
So, while this is an interesting book, full of valuable tid-bits of information, it fails because the facts offered to support the theories are inconsistent and incomplete and because it ultmately fails to do what its author set out to do -- explain the rise to predominance of one set of cultures or civilizations over all others. Ultimately, it appears more as an opportunity for Prof. Diamond to show off his extensive knowledge than the marshalling of that knowledge in service of a larger argument
am 6. Juli 2000
Once in a while a book comes along compelling enough to bring mind altering new perspectives, spark extended contemplation, and arouse fresh interest in overlooked fields of study. This is one of those books. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond investigates human prehistory from a scientific perspective drawing on numerous disciplines to develop a hypothesis that the globally unbalanced rise of civilization and technology was primarily a function of advantageous environmental conditions and resources available to those societies where civilization arose. Though the present landscape may suggest that early societies were on a relatively equal environmental playing field, Diamond's scientific review of the evidence indicates convincingly otherwise. A particularly persuasive point in the book argues that environmental conditions amenable to agriculture (mild climate, indigenous protein-rich plants, and large indigenous domestication-ready animals) facilitated a food surplus and consequently denser populations with surplus time for some members of the society to take on trades, invent, engineer, lead, develop government, heal, build, paint, etc. Innovations then fuelled more surplus time perpetuating a tornado of advancement, sparked in large part by the proverbial flapping butterfly wings of agriculture.
Diamond's book challenged my fractured knowledge of human prehistory leaving worldview shattering ideas in its wake. His book also sparked my renewed interest in geography, anthropology, archaeology, weather, and geology among others. The book's fusion of the scientific method with the study of history was quite potent and refreshing, though at times overly reductionist. As such, less scientifically reducible elements like culture and religion are not considered within his hypothesis.
At times the book did seem to forgo scientific rigor for political correctness. For example, though Diamond relies on numerous examples of relatively recent non-human elements of natural selection and genetics to build his case, he is unwilling to discuss the potential role of human biological variation created by our settling contrasting environments. Considering modern humans resided and/or began migrating to new and varied lands over 100,000 years ago, there seems sufficient time for some physiological variations to develop that may be relevant to Diamond's case. Unfortunately for this reader, anticipating a compelling argument either way, Diamond just states that environment-induced genetic variations are irrelevant to societal development (and "loathsome" to even think about) as if it were a self-evident axiom. Curiously, he challenges this axiom himself by postulating that the people of New Guinea are likely smarter than the average human considering the mental acuity necessary to survive in their harsh environment.
Overall, besides some minor disappointments, this was a spectacular book and I highly recommend it.
am 17. April 2000
In short, the author pulls together current archeology and anthropology with ad hoc reasoning to come up with a story to explain the disparities seen in the modern world, rediscovering Marxism in the process.
After decades in New Guinea bird-watching, the author writes in the prologue his goal is to explain why "...Europeans, with their likely genetic disadvantage and (in modern times) their developmental disadvantage, end up with much more [material success]. Why did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?"
The author assesses superior intelligence based on the native's ability to find their way in the jungle, where Europeans find themselves lost. In this way, the uniquely human ability to abstract knowledge symbolically is discarded as a sign of intelligence in favor of finding ones way around a jungle -- an ability found in creatures with microscopic brains.
The author says New Guinean's genetic superiority is due to their not being affected by indiscriminate diseases like Europeans. They were naturally selected for intelligence. Specious stuff -- and the book is filled with it.
The West obviously dominates encounters with other cultures due to superior technology, organization, etc. This does not yield the right answer, so these are called proximate causes. In order to get the right answer (dumb luck), it is necessary to push the origin of the advantage back 13,000 years into conveniently prehistoric times.
The author is up-front with his intentions; one knows from the start the book third world are the same -- or preferably -- better than we are, despite the actual results obtained, evidence of which we see around us generation after generation.
At times, the author seems unhappy with civilization. We live in a world dependent on complex systems we don't have the time or ability to understand. If ones feels guilty about seemingly unearned material wealth, its easy to feel (falsely) virtuous by identifying with those who don't have it.
One major problem is the author assumes that human history is only a product of economic forces. He speculates whether individuals have any effect on the broad sweep of history before concluding they probably don't.
Others who think like this are usually called Marxists. Replace the book's take on aboriginal people with the proletariat and the underlying philosophical assumptions lead in the same direction. The author is probably not a Marxist, just starts with a set of assumptions that lead inevitably to its rediscovery.
Marxism has been discredited at tremendous cost, yet keeps popping up to delight Pulitzer Prize committees and PC types in academia. They share interest in pushing the buttons and turning the knobs to direct the automatons that are us toward their perfect society. They have adopted a material-causation worldview at odds with reality; it keeps failing. They don't know why, since they are barely aware of their underlying assumptions (or the alternative is unthinkable). Thus, the same erroneous ideas keeps recycling in different guises, always with the hope the next take will be the guide to man-made Utopia.
A different "assumption" one could make is that humans are moral agents who initiate new chains of cause-and-effect without preceding causes. This assumption is supported by most of human history in that people who accept it as true create things of lasting value. It would have resulted in a totally different book.
By instead adopting the (failed) materialist model of human history and treating people as automatons responding to economic forces, the author ends up writing a book filled with interesting but often selective facts, linked by irrelevant conclusions that can only mislead people from actual lessons of history.
Truth, justice, and fully realized human potential will not be found by romanticizing the desolation of the Third World or by propping up stone-age peoples while denigrating "ourselves". Just the opposite.
But there are those who feel a spiritual calling they cannot respond to directly due to their irreligion; they think they find it by taking responsibility for those worse off than themselves. Others just know that if they can turn the whole world into the Third World, it's easier to be "on top". Kings need peasants. It is these two groups for whom this book will click. How else can one explain the dismissal of math, science, philosophy, in favor of "jungle knowledge" as a sign of intelligence?
am 19. März 2000
'Guns, germs, and steel' is a highly readable scholarly work by the distinguished author of 'The third chimpanzee.' It is also a very important book, one bound to generate (as it already has) considerable debate and more research. On the one hand, it deftly exposes pseudoscientific and racist arguments about how some people were able to conquer other people; on the other, it offers a cogent account, with plenty of evidence from different fields (linguistics, anthropology, genetics, botany, and zoology, among others), of how the world came to be what it is since the last glaciation (i.e., about 12,000 years ago). As Paul Ehrlich said, it's a 'whirlwind tour' of world history, but one worth taking.
In this book, Diamond is primarily interested in ultimate, not proximate, causes. His main argument is simplicity itself: some people were at the right time and the right place to harness whatever nature gave them--and, as a consequence, were able to end up with several advantages over those people they eventually conquered. Evidently, the biogeography of plants and animals was different on every continent and played a crucial role in the development of human history; Eurasia, for example, had more plants and animals that could be domesticated just because its large size guaranteed large numbers to experiment with, whereas, say, Australia, due to its relative isolation and aridity, had almost nothing to offer to those who settled there. Eurasian people, therefore, were able to abandon their nomadic lifestyle early and settle in large groups that would allow them to develop the necessary guns, germs, and steel to conquer other people.
Although the main argument of 'Guns, germs, and steel' is convincing, I found that towards the end the book becomes repetitive. The last chapter is particularly disappointing because, instead of elaborating his initial argument of how to treat history in more scientific terms, Diamond ends up saying things he already mentioned throughout the book, and adds nothing to what other people (e.g., Ernst Mayr) have said on the subject. That chapter could have rounded up the book very nicely; instead, it exposes the book to very serious criticism. I also question the many plates with pictures of representatives of different human 'races' because they really don't add anything to what the book is talking about (those plates would have been more appropriate in his previous book, 'The third chimpanzee'). Despite this, however, I highly recommend this otherwise excellent book to anyone interested in human history and to those keen on battling racist views.