13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, eclectic panorama of the past 13,000 years
This intriguing and expansive book gathers knowledge from a number of fields (archaeology, anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, horticulture, and more). Its novelty is not in the details, any of which can be found in other books, but in the synthesis of 13,000 years' worth of human history. Diamond argues that many (but not all) of "the striking differences...
Published on Aug. 31 2003 by D. Cloyce Smith
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Story , But Not A Scientific Study of History
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton 1997), winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, is written by Jared Diamond, a professor of Physiology at UCLA School of Medicine, who also writes about ecology and evolutionary biology. Diamond supposedly wrote this book in response to a question posed by a New Guinea politician:
"Why is it that you white people...
Published on April 24 2002 by kellygirl1hawaii
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, eclectic panorama of the past 13,000 years,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)This intriguing and expansive book gathers knowledge from a number of fields (archaeology, anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, horticulture, and more). Its novelty is not in the details, any of which can be found in other books, but in the synthesis of 13,000 years' worth of human history. Diamond argues that many (but not all) of "the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environments."
Diamond covers so much material that any attempt at summary would be imprecise. The sections I found most compelling dealt with agriculture and animal husbandry--two topics that would have probably induced sleep if covered by another author. For example, he presents the fascinating background that the dominant five "large" domesticated mammals--sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses--originated in central Eurasia (and that no easily domesticated, large mammals were available, for example, to North Americans or Australians); that these animals include the world's only widespread "beasts of burden," giving their human handlers additional advantages in mobility and farming; and that most of the world's lethal diseases resulted from proximity to the barnyard, gradually providing Eurasians with immunity to illnesses that later wiped out entire societies upon first exposure. The minor mammals (camels, llamas, reindeer) were too limited by geography and climate to affect the course of history outside their confines. As for zebras, bears, giraffes, tigers, hippos--to this day, nobody has been able to domesticate them. While this seems intuitively obvious, no writer has so clearly and irrefutably connected the dots, showing how access to these animals gave early chiefdoms an insurmountable advantage over those human societies without them and allowed them to develop surpluses and commerce that supported the world's most enduring civilizations.
Comments made by the author's critics, while few in number, nearly prevented me from reading this book and need to be addressed so other readers won't be similarly discouraged. A few readers seem offended by Diamond's self-mocking and somewhat tongue-in-cheek assertion (in the Introduction) that the natives of New Guinea have certain advantages that make them arguably more "intelligent." Yet these commentators are willfully ignoring the context: Diamond admits that "New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood," yet he is quite aware of how "stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle." That is, if one defines "intelligence" not as the knowledge needed to use a computer or write a book review but, rather, as the ability to survive in the wild ("following a jungle trail" or identifying poisonous mushrooms, to cite two of the author's examples), then the New Guineans win hands down. To make a similarly lighthearted argument: when the house of cards we call "civilization" is threatened by the least misfortune (economic recession, power blackout, bad weather, the death of a British princess), a frightening number of otherwise "intelligent" people, instead of relying on their wits and survival skills, rush straight for their therapists.
Likewise, anyone who accuses Diamond of "geographic determinism" cannot have read the epilogue, in which he clearly rejects such an extreme position. He admits that individuals and cultures--and, for that matter, pure chance--can also influence history, but "that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, then do other environments." The author's argument is unambiguous: while culture, as well as individual inventors and rulers, certainly influence history on a microcosmic level (during spans of centuries or millennia), there are larger factors, such as geography and ecology, at play when human history is considered as a whole over the last 13,000 years. Diamond is looking at the forest rather than the trees; thus, to fault the author for ignoring such factors as religion and politics is off the mark, since such belief systems didn't exist in anything remotely resembling their present form for most of the period under discussion. Furthermore, to identify human advances in terms of culture still fails to explain how differing cultures arose in the first place.
Finally, and more easily dismissed, are those hecklers who howl "political correctness." Such critics seldom identify flaws in the author's arguments or even tell us what they insinuate by this increasingly meaningless term.
Since the book's span is so sweeping and since many of Diamond's hypotheses are offered tentatively (as suggestions for a new "science" of history), there are bound to be statements or implications that may eventually prove inaccurate or too simplistic. I strongly suspect, however, that his overarching thesis will withstand the test of time; at the very least, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" will inspire open-minded thinkers to consider human history--in its broadest sense--in a whole new light.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the Better Histories of Human Civilization,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)Historians generally have an inferiority complex: history is part of the humanities, and for centuries historians have tried to make their subject matter more scientific. This is the first book which actually succeeds. It is not your typical history book as it is based on the sciences of ethnobotany, ethnobiology and genetics. It attempts to address the question of *why* has Euroasian civilization been so successful. The book demolishes all racist arguments, i.e., that European civilization has reached its dominating position as a result of innate abilities of its citizens. Instead, Professor Diamond convincingly argues that it is the prevalence of domesticable plants and animals that are the core factors leading to the development of civilization, and from thence the guns, germs and steel of the title. The only reason I did not give this book five stars is because it bogs down a bit in the later chapters; Diamond tries too hard to support his theses which have already been adequately presented.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars everyone must read this book,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)compelling (and sometimes dense), an overall well structured argument and a very worthwhile read.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A history of humanity's past 13,000 years,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)-----------------------------------------------------------
How did the West grow rich and conquer the world? It
wasn't racial superiority, as the Victorians thought - indeed, Diamond
gives evidence that the average New Guinean may well be smarter
than the average Westerner. His own one-sentence summary of the
book is: "History followed different courses for different peoples
because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of
biological differences among the peoples themselves"[clunk]. Or, it's the
environment, stupid. Or, the West got lucky.
I'm uncomfortable with history-as-polemics, but Diamond (usually)
13,000 years ago, the most recent Ice Age was ending, and people
Where did these diseases come from, and why didn't the Indians
Diamond's history is wonderful, full of new science, strange facts, and
Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, is a frequent
-- Pete Tillman is a consulting geologist based in Arizona.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Story , But Not A Scientific Study of History,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton 1997), winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, is written by Jared Diamond, a professor of Physiology at UCLA School of Medicine, who also writes about ecology and evolutionary biology. Diamond supposedly wrote this book in response to a question posed by a New Guinea politician:
"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?" Or, put in another way, "why did Europe colonize New Guinea, and elsewhere, instead of the other way around?"
Diamond's theory is that the reasons have little, if anything, to do with biological differences, cultural systems or human effort; it has to do with the location of superior agriculture and domesticable animals. He attempts to prove his theory by examining the world, as it must have looked 13,000 years ago.
A. The shape of the continent;
The location that incorporated these three factors led to the earlier decline of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and encouraged farming. This, in turn, led to social stability, government, learning, and, eventually, armies and explorers.
According to Diamond, continents with a north-south axis (e.g., Africa, the Americas), was not conducive to the spread of agriculture as plants had to move through different climate zones. There is no discussion of the adaptability of plants, even though that is an essential element of domesticability. The ubiquitous potato now thrives in many areas foreign to its place of origination.
Diamond's theory based on the domestication of wild animals is a little stronger. The early domestication of animals in Eurasia eventually led to human resistance to certain diseases acquired from animals. European explorers had developed significant immunities to diseases to which the people in the New World had no resistance. Thus, smallpox wiped out an entire civilization, or at least rendered the people defenseless to invaders.
Diamond argues that the contiguous nature of the countries in the east-west axis, as well as their temperate environments, led to rapid dispersion of plants and the domestication of animals. Actually, there are many inhospitable barriers within Eurasia, which, under Diamond's theory would block diffusion. However, Diamond does not address this factor.
Diamond also fails to explain, adequately, why Australia, which has a climate similar to the mid-lateral region of Eurasia did not begin farming until much later.
Diamond concludes that Eurasia was fated to be the winner in the worldwide historical competition because of geographical and environmental advantages. Then approximately 500 years ago, Europe pulled ahead of China and assumed sole dominance. The lack of competition within homogeneous China was given as the reason Europe became sole victor in the end.
There are several major problems with Diamond's theory. The first is the absence of any provable, corroborating evidence. Under his theory if the New Guinean man and his descendants had switched places with the Europeans 10,000 years ago, those people would have become the colonizers, instead of the colonized.
The book also is heavily biased by the author's "reverse" racism views. In response to the question of whether there are any biological differences today between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans, Diamond states:
"The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong. Sound evidence for the existence of human differences in intelligence that parallel human differences in technology is lacking. In fact ... modern "Stone Age" peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples."
The author's choice of the word "loathsome," an emotionally loaded word, to describe racism sets the tone for this very politically correct book.
This reviewer's impression is that Diamond has a pre-determined conclusion, and he relies on certain theories to support it, but ignores those same theories when they don't support his conclusion. In the end, Diamond does not establish a credible response to the New Guinea man's questions. To the extent the book purports to be a scientific study of history, the author has made a very basic error: he attempts to explain a "fact" - that there are no biological differences among different groups of people - without first establishing that that indeed is a fact.
Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting, politically correct story of the evolution of civilization, but I would not recommend it as a scientific study of history. Though fairly easy to read, the book is very repetitive and unnecessarily long to make the author's point. One hundred or more pages easily could have been cut.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good for all types of readers.,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)I read this book purely for pleasure, unlike a lot of people I know who have read it for class or as part of an academic exercise. I simply like to pick a book that will challenge me in between fiction books. This book did not disappoint.
This is a rare work in that it can appeal to academics and pleasure readers. The knowledge and research behind the concepts in the book are complex and detailed, but Diamond does such an excellent job of explaining things, that you can easily sometimes forget the vast amount of information that he had to assimilate in order to put forth this hypothesis.
There are also two main points from the book that I took. One is the merely academic and scientific data that you learn from the book. I do not have a science, anthropologic, or linguistic background, so I learned a great deal from this book. But secondly, there is a very clear goal of this book to discount the foundations of racism. This is a lesson that every reader from this book can take with them and actually use in real life. I was struck at how this book can have such a dual purpose, and this makes it truly unique in my opinion.
Sure, there are vast generalizations that are made in a work such as this, just as there are in any history book, but this book has excellent points, is well researched, and makes solid arguments. I would definitely read another book by Jared Diamond and will definitely not forget the lessons I learned in this book.
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Educational and a Good Read!,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)I genuinely enjoyed reading Guns, Germs and Steel. I enjoyed not because of the readability but the concepts and facts that I learned while reading. I would recommend this book to everyone who wants to further their knowledge in human prehistory with a link to the present day. Diamond used extensive examples to back up his argument throughout the novel and did well to acknowledge his shortcomings in the epilogue. Well written!
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest Inquiry with some Inconvenient Truths,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)I first read this book fifteen years ago, and thought it was a great book. My thinking has changed a lot since then, but after reading it again, I still think it is a great book. This is what honest inquiry looks like, whether or not one agrees with his conclusions.
The first question about a book of this nature is what are the qualifications of the author, and are they relevant to the content of the book. To his credit, Jared Diamond explains why he thinks an evolutionary biologist can write a book about human history on pages 26-27. And I have observed that this book is well respected and referenced by other scientists. Next there is the question of bias. The goal of the book is to answer “Yali’s question” about why European society is so much richer than New Guinea. He is determined to find an answer that does not involve the intelligence of the people themselves, meaning racism. His conclusion is that geography plays an important role in human development. It determines what resources are available to a society, particularly crops and animals, and also affects how easily technologies can be moved between regions.
One type of criticism of this book is from people who seem to believe that indigenous people can do no wrong, and are just victims of imperialism. These comments amount to name calling, such as racist, Euro centrist, civilization chauvinist. This about a guy with much experience with and appreciation for aboriginal people, writing a book intended to dispel any racist explanations for disparities in development. His crime is to report all the facts as he sees them, rather than select material to support predetermined beliefs.
And he does report some rather inconvenient truths. Native peoples wiped out the large animals living in Australia and North America soon after they arrived. In particular, North Americans ate the horses they found rather than learn to ride them, and then later they were conquered by the horse-riding Spanish. Chinese and Black Africans conquered the territory they now live in, eliminating most of the people who used to live there. In fact, whenever native peoples gained a technical advantage they used it to dominate their neighbors. The European conquest of North America was exactly what everyone else did when they got the chance. The only unique thing about Europeans is they no longer think such behavior is a good thing. Accusing Europeans as being especially imperialistic is no different than saying that aboriginal people are poor because they are genetically stupid. That is the point of this book – the behavior of societies is determined by what resources are available to them, not some defect in intelligence or morals.
A more substantial criticism is that Diamond’s materialist interpretation of the driving force of history ignores the importance of political and technological ideas. Although he does call attention to this issue, he certainly plays it down. Perhaps he has a problem with the association of better ideas with more intelligent people. But a non-racist alternative is that some societies happened to be more open to innovation than others. Diamond points out that the rise of agriculture was an evolutionary process, with the people involved probably not even aware of the consequence of their actions. He points to groups of people who gave up agriculture and other technologies to become hunter-gatherers, after they moved to an island that did not support agriculture. I think ideas become relatively more important later in history. Looking for environmental reasons why Europe developed an industrial revolution instead of China is an example of extending a good idea well beyond its reasonable limits. So while the influence of ideas on history may be more important than the impression one might get from this book, this does not justify the total dismissal of the materialist approach by these critics. Again, a full picture of the course of history requires all the facts. There are no single causes.
I was rather intrigued by his chapter on the Future of Human History as a Science. I agree with him that history is (or should be) a science, not just “one damn thing after another”. The events of the past are objective facts; either they happened or they did not. While we can distort or invent the past, such as when history is written by the victors, that is the falsification, not creation of reality. But historians are well aware of that. Perhaps he feels he is trying to find explanations rather than just establish facts, which is what science is all about. But history also has a tradition of doing that. If that has fallen out of fashion, then there is good reason to bring it back. I came away with the impression that Diamond was being rather arrogant by telling historians how their profession should be practiced. That is not how to make friends and influence people. In spite of that, I think this book is a valuable contribution to understanding our history. I highly recommend it.
4.0 out of 5 stars pleased,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)this book was purchased for a neighbor.
i recently bumped into him ans he expressed his satisfaction with the book.
5.0 out of 5 stars A must!,
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)This book explains the evolution of humanity without any explanations about biologic inferiorities between humans. I'm reading it and everything is clear and popularized.
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Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (Paperback - April 1 1999)
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