Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared M. Diamond

My latest audio book has been “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, by Jared M. Diamond. It was recommended as a good source for authors looking to improve their world-building, and I do have to say it’s good for that. Diamond tackles the question of why different cultures develop at different rates and, more specifically, why Western culture came to dominate the world. Himself a bird biologist (ornithologist?) who has spent a lot of time in New Guinea, he set out to find the answerafter a conversation with a New Guinean political figure who asked that very question. The research led him across numerous disciplines and, ultimately, to write this book.

The scope of this book is quite broad. Covering the evolution of man from the Ice Age forward, spanning all habitable continents, and surveying disciplines from epidemiology and botany to geography and archeology, he attempts to pull all of it together to give a fact-based view of the history of peoples. He makes a very good case, too.

Ultimately, he concludes, cultural dominance came down to luck of the draw, so to speak. He identifies a number of key factors that must be present for cultures to truly thrive, which includes domesticable plants and animals, favorable climate, cultural interaction, social organization, language and communication, etc. For example, the Americas, while well-suited for many of the domesticated animals and plants brought from Europe, did not possess these in abundance prior to the arrival of Europeans. Few domesticable crop plants existed, few domesticable food animals, and not a single domesticable beast of burden suitable for both riding and carrying.

The shape of the Americas also orients it along a north-south axis, which makes the spread of crops and culture both more difficult. Compared with Eurasia, which is oriented along an east-west axis, crops that grew well at one latitude couldn’t spread very far within that same climate zone. In Eurasia, where a single latitude spans the entire land mass, a crop developed in the fertile crescent could easily spread from the Iberian penninsula to China.

Once a single culture began to get all these various pieces in place, the gap between them and other cultures only increased. By the time the Spanish began colonizing the New World they were far enough advanced to be able to take on entire native empires with a few hundred Conquistadors. Of course much of their work had already been accomplished for them by the germs they brought with them.

Today it’s easy to see the difference between, say, people of the United Kingdom and the Australian aboriginees. The former inherited all the benefits of a culture in a location well-suited for growth, while the latter remain largely primative due to the disadvantages of their own culture and region. The differences, Diamond insists, are not racially-based, but essentially a product of their environment. Had the Incas been located in Europe and the Spaniards in South America we’d likely have seen the Incas conquering the Spaniards, not the other way around.

That’s not to say that relatively small factors can’t also play a role. China, for example, was once the most advanced of all societies, and was poised to discover and exploit the Americas well before Colombus was born. Yet at a key moment political in-fighting brought a new faction into power, who then proceeded to undo everything their predecessors had done. Fleets were recalled and mothballed. Shipyards were closed. Exploration ceased. Within a few hundred years China not only stagnated, but lost ground, largely because, while vast, China was unified under a single government run by relatively few people. The decisions of a few men to turn their backs on technological advancement and exploration impacted an entire region of the world.

By contrast, Europe’s fractious nature proved to be an advantage in this regard. While individual countries might resist advancement or stifle exploration, there was always someone else nearby who embraced change. Countries that initially shunned gunpowder and cannons were forced to adopt them or perish when their neighbors began using them. Columbus had to try inĀ five different countries to get funding for his famous voyage, but there were well more than that he could have gone to with relatively little trouble. And Europe’s high population in a small area made it a breeding ground for numerous diseases which, while devastating to them as well, became an inadvertant weapon against other cultures when they began spreading out to colonize the world.

I found this to be an interesting book, though often the pace dragged. It might have been a shorter book and still conveyed much the same information. This is not entirely Diamond’s fault, as he’s trying to kill more than one bird with his stone. The epilogue of the book examines the lack of scientific rigor around history as a discipline, yet holds forward some ideas for transitioning the field more toward a hard science. Indeed, one can probably consider this book to be Diamond’s treatise on what that new discipline might look like. For that he makes an excellent case.

For the most part he does a commendable job of keeping his work “agenda-free”, but he’s not perfect. He does try to remain neutral in his survey, but on occasion his personal biases do come through. I’ve read much worse, so it’s by no means a reason to avoid the book. If you’re at all curious about how cultures develop and what factors play a hand, this is an ideal book for that. I would agree that this is a good reference for writers who want to add some depth and realism to their world-building.

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