am 1. Oktober 1999
I found the evidence used in this book is absolutely unconvincing. I recommmend instead a much better book (IMO), Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of the Nations.
am 7. Juli 2000
This book provides graphic illustration why academics write outside their field of expertise at their own peril. Of course, while one could argue persuasively that Jared Diamond has done so quite well, given the fact the book has become an overwhelming best-seller, some of us old enough to recognize that public success and popular recognition do not necessarily equal objective merit could poke a large number of painful holes in such an argument. There is precious little that is new, startling, or noteworthy about Diamond's thesis; indeed much of it has been argued by a number of historians for generations. The only real contribution I see in all this long-winded narrative is that he has succeeded in catching the elusive kernel of public imagination about the issues of history in general, and that is truly an admirable and noteworthy achievement.
Other than that, the book is actually quite pedestrian, predictable, and prosaic. Of course geography is an essential factor in determining any society's potential for survival and/or success in competition with other societies. Having natural and easy access to the sea and all its products, for example, can lessen the otherwise considerable load on the populace for hunting, food gathering, and other requirements for the society's continued subsistence. Likewise, more temperate climates (neither too hot nor too frigid) give a substantial natural advantage to human societies intent on expansion, trade, and war. Yet, while such geographic factors are salient and helpful, they provide critical but insufficient means to explain human history. This is as true of the other factors he argues on behalf.
To argue on behalf of demographics as an essential ingredient in the unfolding of human history is a commonplace. To do so is neither profound nor useful. Instead, it is the mark of an idiographic academic so insulated from and evidently ignorant of the established verities and scholarship of another discipline that he is unable to recognize his own logical errors. Here too it is highly reductionistic to suppose that demography plays a central role in the unfolding of history any more than does geography. In anticipation of the next idea, let me hastily add that the same is obviously true for biology. To argue otherwise is make Herr Hitler's fascist argument on behalf of racial eugenics and a super race. Gee, I thought all that nonsense about racial purity and destiny ended in the smoke and ruins of post-war Berlin.
In essence, the author's painfully stated "logical" theories of 'guns, germs and steel' are actually anything but logical, and are more likely merely graphic instances of biological reductionism, which attempt to oversimplify the actual verifiable recorded complexities of history over with the faint pastels of more consistent, coherent, and centrist notions of a theoretical academic. Were he better grounded in world history and less anxious to take us on a quick and global tour, he might find that beneath those clear deep waters he has sailed over so quickly are the murky and muddy truths of actual history, which is nowhere near as consistent or as singularly pointed in a particular progressive direction as he would have us believe. This book is entertaining, well written, and easy to read. If you bother to read it, do it for those reasons, and not for edification. In my opinion it falls far too short in that dimension to be useful or believable.
am 13. April 2000
I was very disappointed with "Guns,Germs and Steel"- there's nothing new in this book and alot of amateurish speculation trying to be "important and new". Jared Diamond is a New Guineaophile and this book is an answer to on of these "on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, etc." New Guinean's question of why white people have all the cargo (stuff). 425 pages later the answer- "thats how things worked out". This book is seriously flawed- there are no notes or references; the bulk of the middle part is incredibly boring; and his conclusion, while obvious (anyone occupying western Eurasia would have eventually ruled the world) , leaves out the very important factors of chance and CULTURE. I really can't do justice to all of the speculation, jumping to conclusions, disregarding of uncomfortable facts, "discovery" of already known facts, and denigration of accepted theories that goes on in this book. I took notes too lengthy to list here. Actual history (especially military history) seems to be one of the author's weak points, and he covers up his lack of knowledge with lawyeristic bluster. The crux of the book is the "collision at Cajamarca", when Pizarro kidnapped Atahualpa in front of a supposed 80,000 Inca warriors. No amount of fancy-pants theories about food production and crowd germs explains this incident if you leave out CULTURE. The Incas succumbed as if under a spell. Their cultural hallucination gave way to the brutal, reality-based culture of the Spanish. This book suffers from a smartypants attitude which is extremely annoying. If you read alot of history and ARCHAEOLOGY then you already know all this stuff. Mr. Diamond is no Daniel Goldhagen- there's nothing new here.
am 6. Januar 2000
With a growing body of scientific literature citing possible mental differences between the races, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to put the race-genie back in the bottle by offering a positive account for the disparate achievement of races in terms of geography. Thus, Diamond takes an immediate step in the wrong direction. Rather than trying to explain human culture in terms of human biology, he dismisses any such notion as "loathsome", and proceeds to tell us that geography is the one and only factor for the rise of the West in art, science, literature and the rest of the panoply of modernity. In other words, don't credit Shakespeare for King Lear or Newton for Calculus, credit the barley and oats, the fertile land and bountiful hills they lived in. Despite the implausibility of such a theory, Diamond's book is much more cogent than other egalitarian tracts like the Mismeasure of Man and the History and Geography of Human Genes since it has a definite thesis with clear and useful implications. Unfortunately for Diamond this is also his undoing, since the racialist worldview can account for much more of the empirical world than the geographic thesis can. In the final chapter of his book Diamond states, in no uncertain terms, that if any other group had been similarly situated in Europe they would have gone on to replicate the achievements of the Caucasoid race. It is my contention that this claim is untenable and should be abandoned in favor of the racialist thesis.
Refuting Diamond's thesis does not require pointing out any factual inaccuracies in the work, anymore than challenging the Marxian interpretation of history requires denying that the feudal system gave way to an industrial one. The hallmark of a scientific theory lies in its predictive value and to the extent Theory A explains less than Theory B puts Theory A into question. The scientific method follows the logic of Ockham's razor which impels us toward clarity and simplicity. In summing the idea of Ockham's razor Frederick Copleston offers a useful illustration: "That it is by experience that we come to know that one thing is the cause of another is, of course, a common-sense position. So, for the matter of that, is Ockham's idea of the test which should be applied in order to ascertain whether A, B, or C is the cause of D or whether we have to accept a plurality of causes. If we find that when A is present D always follows, even when B and C are absent, and that when B and C are present but A is absent D never follows, we must take it that A is the cause of D." Good. Now, let's make the example more concrete and assign values to the variables, so let A (genes), B (geography), C (political discrimination, and D (observed race differences). It is now a simple empirical test to see if observed race differences are due to A, B, or C. A few obsevations are in order: 1) Africa is the poorest part of the planet, has high infant mortality rates, loose pair-bonding and no history of intellectual achievement or sustainable civilization. Africans who live in the United States also have high infant mortality rates, loose pair-bonding, high poverty rates, and are virtually absent in jobs requiring technical knowledge. 2) Europeans who live in the United States are wealthy, tend to have stable marriages, commit few crimes, and constitute the bulk of intellectual achievement in the arts, sciences and literature. Since the United States does not have the geography of either Europe or Africa, why do the identical traits characteristic of Europeans and Africans persist? 3) During the late 18th century Haiti was one of the richest parts of the new world. The French had installed roads, bridges, an irrigation system and was one of the the principal trading partners in the Caribbean. After a mulatto led rebellion in 1804 Haiti has been ruled by blacks, and is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haiti is 95% black and has a life-expectancy of 53 years, similar to other African nations like Nigeria. If it is geography that determines the civilization of a people, why did Haiti change so drastically after it came under the management of Africans? Now, which theory has more explanatory power, Diamond's model which predicts that geography largely determines the characer of a people, or the racialist model which claims that biology plays a key role? It is obvious. Consider another realistic scenario: After South Africa continues its policy of bi-racial integration and white flight continues, what will be the result? It is clear what the racialist model predicts (it is happening now), but what does Diamond's model predict? And why? So why should anyone seriously consider Diamond's "scientific" theory when it has no predictive value. And why should anyone reject the racialist model when it retains its explanatory force across continents and time?
In accordance with Ockham's razor it is clear that an explanation that appeals to geography or political discrimination is illogical and unscientific. So until racial egalitarianism is observed or until supporting evidence is forthcoming I will continue to adopt the skeptics credo: I will believe it when I see it. The curtain is down, egalitarianism must rank as the greatest hoax of the 20th century. Somewhere out there Mr. Piltdown Man is laughing at us. :)
am 16. April 1999
So Diamond tells us that some societies (i.e., European) advanced further than others (i.e., Native American, Asian, African,etc.) because they, the Europeans, became involved in farming sooner and thereby developed cohesive societies sooner. What's more these European societies also defeated other peoples by bringing diseases with them. I think Diamond, a physiologist. is out of his depth. Why did Britain conquer India? Indians were certainly more resistant to diseases in India. And during the Indian Mutiny they had rifles and cannon just like the outnumbered British. The Spanish conquistadors defeated the Aztecs and Incas from the very first contact, long before disease played any role. Agriculture began in Mesopotamia long before it began in Europe. The Mongols conquered China and half of Europe and they were a nomadic, non-agricultural people. African tribal societies had farming and domesticated animals for centuries before the Europeans arrived. I could go on. Diamond's book is full of holes. Whether we should discuss colonial conquest on a moral plane is another matter, but Europeans and by extension the United States achieved dominance through other reasons than just having the right plants and grasses.
am 2. Mai 2000
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize usually recommends a book all by itself. Sadly however, this is not the case with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Making no effort to lure the casual or lay reader to the history and anthropology within, this scholarly work is inaccessible to anyone not already intimately interested in the subject matter. Where it is not inaccessible, it suffers an even worse fate, it is uninterestingly told.
The author compounds these problems by restating his points once they have been firmly made. For example, he builds the case that the domestication of large animals was responsible to a large degree for the propagation of disease (the "germs" of the title). He then makes a connection to the devastating effect these diseases had on unsuspecting Native Americans, who by the way, had not domesticated animals, and therefore had not developed any diseases of their own. Okay so far, but he retells these causal points every way imaginable, and misses no opportunity to do so. None of what he refers to as proximate or ultimate causes is exempt; plant propagation, population density, political organization, continental axis orientation, writing, language, and technology escape all suffer this fate.
With books like this it is no wonder we are losing interest in science.
am 28. Oktober 1999
I made myself read the book because I paid for it. Rife with generalizations, most of which can only be described as stating the obvious. The bias from which the book derives--that potential answers to questions of why the world is the way that it is today may only be drawn from an approved list of solutions--is palpable nearly from page one. True scientific reasoning does not discard alien/differing explanations out of hand, but Mr. Diamond has no problem limiting himself, and it shows. Truly a mass of myopic overgeneralization every bit as worthless as Mein Kampf and just as dangerous. Dont bother.
am 25. Juli 1998
Jared Diamond is a wordsmith -- that is the only reason I gave his latest revisionist effort any stars at all. Not to be trite, but the gushy liberal propaganda Diamond expounds on in Guns, Germs, and Steel is nothing more than the latest in a long line of assaults on "Euroasian" culture perpetrated by bleeding-heart academic types absurdly trying to apologize for some of humanity's greatest successes -- in this case civilization. What a load. According to Diamond, intelligence, the preponderant factor in most beings' success or failure, does not count for much where humans are concerned. Instead, our "progress" has hinged solely on where we built our campfires. Hard work had nothing to do with it. Who knew? By the way, Diamond's romantic notion (and secondary theme) that native New Guineans are "... on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European! or American ..." is obvious foolishness and a plain silly statement to make. Whatever happened to common sense? Who hired Diamond at UCLA? This joker is teaching our children for goodness sake!!! How on earth did this junk ever win the Pulitzer Prize? Diamond is our generation's Margaret Mead. I mean that in a bad way, for those of you who are still being indoctrinated with Mead's discredited-but-politically-correct, feel-good claptrap. Besides the remarkably similar flaws in their work, Diamond also characterizes anyone who diagrees with him as "racist," much in the same vein Mead & Co. characterized her detractors. For a far better read on the development of our world, check out Thomas Cahill's now-classic How the Irish Saved Civilization, or his most recent work, The Gifts of the Jews. Either one of these books contains more insights on a single page than all of Diamond's writings put together.
am 22. November 1999
OK Diamond has thought out his innovative theory and produced a rather serious book. But it is very clear to me that he completely fails in explaning "the fate of human societies". Many previous reviewers have already mentionned many important factors (culture, religion, etc.) he did not (or hardly) bother to consider, so I do not need to rehash this. I will however mention a very important factor that has not been so much mentionned in other reviews: the genetic, racial factor. For this I refer to Levin's book Why Race Matters (and alternatively to Duke's My Awakening. Duke is less scientific, but is book is cheaper and easier.)
Another aspect of the book, and the most disturbing for me, is that he chides the West and praises the alleged superiority of the aboriginal people (which Darwin used to call a "savage race.") But I will simply expose the falsity of his beliefs on this issue by pointing at Diamond's own life and at the migration flows. If the aboriginal civilization is superior, why didn't Diamond stay with them, why did he move back to the West? Because the West is far more superior. How is it that no westerners wants to emigrate to underdevelopped countries, but that the contrary is true? I think it clear that Diamond is wrong, but if he was right I know a nice job for him: let him work for the anti-immigration administration, and convince all those who came from the third world to go back to their countries, and let him preach to the people in the third world that they are better off than we are, and should not try to emigrate. But I doubt he would have much success.
Weapons, viruses and metal equipment managed the leadership of the European-American concept -- up to the year of 2000. However while one still is rubbing his hands, that China was taken off since the 14th century (Arabia since 15th), the tide can oppose nevertheless soon. At present, the technology and trade development of the Asian countries is enormously positive and the oil-possessing dominance of the Arabian states just increases her demand to a global (also ideological) con-design right. The threat factors "weapons, viruses and metal equipment," -- represented always into actor pose nicely by president George W. Bush, impressed with fight bomber pilot jacket, with legs apart and broad grinning on the deck of an US-aircraft-carrier -- this success conception perhaps really could gradually oppose her inventors: State armies get for example increasingly powerless against the guerilla unit tactics of the present global suicidal terrorism. Jared Diamond perhaps looks a little confused for the stability guarantee of the European-American success concept. The geographical situation alone is not a guarantor. As an advantage factor it does not suffice eternally. Jared Diamond looks to make believe for us that the capability to make innovations, the courage to accept competition, the openness for intermixing (causes biologically seen virus resistance, hello, bird flu) -- that these factors will safeguard the further dominance of the European-American concept. He does not like to argue racialistly, religion critically or militaristically, although: The Indians of North- and South-America felt actually quite good without the missionaries and swords, railways and colts of the white ones; in addition, we do not see Diamond's remarks on drunken and lazy workers of non-white skin color (but some Afro-American reviewers do). [The factor "genocide" Jared Diamond does not examine, but in his follow-up book "Collapse" he analyzes how the Hutus murdered the Tutsis in Rwanda - avoiding the own nest soiling examples of how the American Indians lost their lives]. As an environmentalist, doubts come to the professor at the university of California , however, because of ruthless practices (so he worries in "Collapse" about some elks turned ill in Montana, toxins of a mine seeped into the ground there). Jared Diamond is uncertain and broods. We perhaps too.