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on December 28, 2003
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)
keeps his facts and interpretations pretty well separated. And this is a
wonderful one-volume history of the human race. It is unusual, and
refreshing, to read a history written by a distinguished and literate
biological scientist. History isn't generally considered to be science -
"it's just one damn thing after another." But then, you could say the
same for large parts of astronomy, biology & geology.
13,000 years ago, the most recent Ice Age was ending, and people
everywhere still made their living as hunter-gatherers. Diamond starts
his story at the dawn of civilization. By Chapter 3, he's recounting
Pizarro's conquest of the Inca empire in 1532. In an afternoon, 168
Spanish soldiers routed an army of 80,000, killed 7,000, and captured
the Inca emperor. It's not surprising that the Spaniards would feel
superior. But the conquistadores' invisible allies had been at work
since 1492 - smallpox from Spain had killed the previous Inca emperor
and his heir, setting off a war of succession that fatally weakened the
empire. Diseases from Europe would ultimately kill up to 95% of the
native peoples of the Americas, often before they saw their first
European. The old American cultures were doomed from first contact,
even if the Old World visitors had been peaceful explorers and traders.
12,000 years of isolation had left native Americans with no resistance to
the lethal European microbes.
Where did these diseases come from, and why didn't the Indians
return the favor by infecting Eurasia? Many came originally from
domestic animals (for example, measles and smallpox from cattle), and
required large, dense populations to evolve. The Indians had few
domestic animals - one reason why they were poorer than Eurasians,
and those (fortuitously) had no diseases that "made the jump" from
animals to humans - good evidence for Diamond's "history as luck"
Diamond's history is wonderful, full of new science, strange facts, and
great anecdotes. The polemics get repetitious and a bit defensive at
times, but can be safely skimmed. This would have been a better book
had it been written as straight history, letting the facts speak for
themselves - but it's still well worth reading. Recommended.
Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, is a frequent
contributor to Discover, Natural History, and Geo magazines.
-- Pete Tillman is a consulting geologist based in Arizona.
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on August 15, 2003
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.
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on May 10, 2008
A very informative, in-depth look at how environmental and geographical factors have affected world history. Despite the sometimes dull and methodical vocabulary used, Diamond succeeds in delivering insightful theories about world-wide phenomena most of us wouldn't have otherwise put any thought to. I learned a lot from this book; Diamond's confident and knowledgeable tone throughout is refreshing to readers who crave the satisfaction of learning something new.

My sole complaint is that I was unfamiliar with many of the terms used (for example, the names of some ancient countries, continents, or time periods), requiring some extra research on my part.
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on January 8, 2011
To start out with what I liked about the book, I really appreciate the breadth of Diamond's treatment. He draws in a variety of factors from different times and geographical regions. His final conclusions are extremely interesting, primarily because they are so simple. To attempt to draw together such a wide variety of events under such a simple explanatory scheme is a daring and impressive venture. It also seems to me that his explanations are largely successful in many cases. For example, his explanation of why North America is now inhabited mostly by people of white European descent, whereas Africa continues to be populated primarily by its original peoples, in terms of disease (devastating the native population in North America, and the European population in Africa) is interesting and enlightening.
My main criticism of the book is that it tries to do a little too much. In emphasizing environmental factors, Diamond tries to completely eliminate the human/cultural element in explaining why some peoples become richer and more powerful than others. In treating differences between wide regions (eg. Europe vs. the Pacific Islands) he seems to be largely successful. However, this ignores the distribution of power within these broader regions. For example, why did the Romans defeat the Carthaginians, rather than vice versa, with all the effects on the distribution of wealth and power in the region that this defeat entailed? Why were the Turks able to overrun southeastern Europe, but not Austria, with the great effects this had and continues to have on central and southeastern Europe? In the end, Diamond tries to do a little too much.
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on June 16, 2004
This 400 page summation of 13,000 years of history is hard to put down when it begins and hard to finish when you reach its final quarter. Diamond's friendly style draws the reader in immediately, making the book feel not only lively but vitally important as well. What could be more important or interesting than the reasons why the world has turned out the way that it has?
Without a doubt, this is an important book, and not because it won a Pulitzer. Diamond makes a convincing case as he argues against notions that were quite popular when he wrote this at the close of the 90s. He refutes the notions of The Bell Curve, which used pretend science to claim that blacks were destined by genetics to be less intelligent than whites and Asians. Instead, he shows that the reasons why Europeans ended up dominating most of the world instead of Africans or native Australians or Americans are myriad, but boil down to a reasonable set, including: Eurasia's size advantage; the fortunate combination of ancient plants and large animals available for domestication; its east-west axis, making the spread of plant and animal domesticates easier by keeping them in the same climate; and its relatively mild barriers, like the Urals, which posed less a division than rain forests, high mountains, and deserts in the Americas and Africa.
The thrilling opening and friendly style are eventually tempered by a repetition of these primary causes; Diamond explores numerous situations around the world, from New Guinea to the New World, and makes essentially the same arguments about each region, adding only nuances for the particulars of each place. It's the beginning of the book that's got the goods-the fourth part, especially, is a litany of details that are less captivating because the reader has learned enough to predict many of them.
Still, this is a very useful book for understanding the world, and it will arm you with facts to use against anyone who claims that a person's intellect can be predicted by his or her race. Diamond also shows how present conflicts on the world stage are very similar to ones that have been going on for 40,000 years, casting modernity in the same light as prehistory. And, while the fourth part is slower than the rest, the epilogue explains why Europe leapt ahead of Asia in the last millennium, an explanation that is both fascinating and worth learning from.
Why did Europe colonize America and not the other way around? If you'd like to know, read this book. It's weighty stuff, but it will reward you richly.
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on May 6, 2004
What processes enabled certain societies to become powerful and innovative? Why did Europeans come to dominate much of the world and the New World? Why did history unfold differently on different continents? These are the questions that this culturally significant work sets out to answer. For the most part the author does a good job. Without going into detail some of the reasons are; the east-west axis orientation of Eurasia as compared to the north-south axis orientation found on other contients like Africa and the Americas, Eurasia's abundance of plants and animals available for domestication as contrasted to the scarcity of them elsewhere, Europeans resistance to germs that were never encountered till modern times by native american peoples, and agriculturally producing societies with dense populations that could support a sedentary lifestyle where people were able to innovate and create new technologies. These explanations for why certain peoples displaced others or why certain peoples such as European colonists who settled Australia were able to form literate agriculturally producing societies in contrast to Aborginies who had been there for 1000s of years and never managed to do it are much better than previous outdated ones. The causes and reasons leading to different histories of different peoples have much more to do with geography and environment as opposed to being caused by innate differences in the peoples themselves. The author has obviously researched the subject in-depth (as far as possible upon him) and presented his findings in several chapters. The chapters take these reasons and expound upon them while offering evidence and showing different chains of causation. I found the book mostly interesting and lively although it read somewhat slow because of the statistics and facts contained throughout. By the time you get to the end of the book you will definitely have the themes of it pounded into your head as the author details them over and over. In my opinion it would have been better to condense redundant details but still a fantastic book that's definitely worth a read. Sometimes I found myself getting a little dulled because in the latter part of the book the author focuses on the expansion of languages and the conclusions we can draw from them as to whom settled where and when. Some of the other parts of the book were a little techincal as well but there were also some fascinating chapters that kept your attention like the ones talking about the Spanish invasion of Incan lands. I recommend this book for its ability to change racist (and incorrect) views of human history and also its ability to enlighten and hopefully educate humans to the point of understanding causes of events and outcomes better. Good read.
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on April 30, 2004
This book is the beginning of a long and necessary effort to answer the question: Why did Spaniards destroy and/or enslave people in South America --- and not the other way around? It makes sense to generalize and ask, Why did ANY particular group of people consistently dominate another in history?
There has already been a lot of research into this topic that centered around intelligence: The Spaniards were smarter, that's why they dominated. But Jared Diamond rejects this conclusion immediately. Based on his experience, he doesn't think the colonizers have bigger or better brains, or higher IQs. So he goes looking for a materialist explanation, searching for the way that climate, crops, and animal domestication led to better immune systems and superior technology.
This theoretical stuff isn't a large part of the book. Diamond makes his case briefly and then spends 90% of the book on facts to back it up. And the facts are impressive. Diamond knows a lot about agriculture and animal domestication. He writes about it clearly. The information is important and interesting, which makes the bulk of the book very easy to read.
But does he prove his case? Well, obviously you'll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I think he came to his conclusions too quickly. The evidence is very good, but it's simply not enough. That leads me back to the beginning of this review --- this book is the START of a long research project, not the end. Reading this book is very easy, and it's likely to inspire you to read more on the topic. Jared Diamond might not convince you 100% that materialistic factors decided who dominated who, but you can't help but be impressed with the amount of information he's collected to back up his theory. My guess is that the IQ approach will wither away as this book begins to dominate the debate.
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on March 29, 2004
I really enjoyed reading Jarel Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. No doubt that the topic proposed by this book is fascinating, and the first pages very promising. Maybe because of that, as you go through you may feel some disappointment.
For people who, like me, might be not familiarized with History and Anthropology, the book is full of interesting anecdotes and stories. But, since the scope of the book is very broad, and J. Diamond himself is not a historian, it is likely that the book must contain many imprecisions that might irritate to some people familiarized with some of the topics. That should not concern to the reader. The important thing of this book is the methodology (an approach similar to the Natural History, based on ecological and evolutionary concepts) that he emplys to explain the course of the human history during the last 13000 years, and the generalizations that he provides to explain the outcomes of it. No doubt that some of the explanations provided by Diamond to some issues, for example for the flourish of European societies over China, or India, during the last centuries are clear oversimplifications, which are to be improved by other authors. In that sense, I also think that the reader should not worry too much about it, since this book must be regarded as a pioneer work, more than as a finished conclusion.
Among the main drawbacks, besides the oversimplifications (and omission of spiny problems), I would point that the book is too long, what seems unnecessary. The author wants to prove that were differences in the geographical features of the different continents what determined the different paces in "development"�Eamong them. His idea is rapidly understood, but he repeats it too much. That's why you feel that the book is somehow loosing interest as you read. I also felt that his reasoning was deterministic in excess, not conceding the enough importance to random events (even with the same forces driving the course of the events, and starting from the same point 13000 years ago, our world today is just one of the many possible outcomes).
Overall, I think it is a very good book, and I recommend reading it to anybody who wants to spend some time thinking about the past and present of human societies. Even if you disagree with the author opinions, I am sure that it will be interesting for you.
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on March 6, 2004
Wow- it seems like all of the reviewers of this book have been completely polarized. I guess I would rather take the work for what it is worth. What is it worth...?

Well many of the chapters are truly fascinating reads! Almost on the same-page turning numbness as you will find in a good crime novel. However, other chapters are brutally slow, and you can't help but let you mind wander.
Religon is virtually ignored for any of his analysis, except that certain religons helped to provide a social framework, which allowed for more structured societies. I guess from an anthroplogist perspective the views of religon are irrelevant in the rise and fall of societies.
Don't get me wrong... this is a thought provoking book. And I feel important in having a basic understanding of why we are what we are. Does it mean everything is completely factually correct? No.... I'd be willing to bet there are some errors (although it is far beyond my ability to point individual flaws). My best guess at an "Error" is his analysis that geography as the main predictor of technological break throughs(as other reviewers have pointed out). However, I think that the Catholic Church proved to be pretty adept at bottling up technology (at least that was the case about 600 years ago!)
And yes, it does seem like Mr. Diamond has a bit of an agenda. However, despite what agenda he made of had (what author writes without ANY agenda?) I feel that he tried to be sincere. Through his effort we have a very realistic analysis of how we may have gotten from the Garden of Eden (my words and not his) to New York City.

So there you have it! All tied up into four stars (not 5 because of the occassional dullness factor). Certainly not a read for everyone, but one that history buffs may enjoy!
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on February 5, 2004
Diamond's book on world history is fortunate--it survives its main thesis, which is incoherent and makes no sense as theory. Still, you can hop on for the ride in a wealth of interesting detail, beginning with its charming opening answering the query of the author's Borneo friend: the puzzle of modernity. In fact the book provides no answer, and we should distinguish modernity, which is global, from the 'rise of the West', which is tribal. The field of theories trying to explain the rise of the modern world is littered with failures, witness the rites administered by Jim Blaut to eight such, in Eight Eurocentric Historians.
The plain and obvious problem with Diamond's approach is that while it makes beginning students of geography and history feel better, it suddenly suffers a burst bubble effect as it becomes obvious geographical determinism fails completely to explain what is happening. And the result ends up being a concealed 'take it or leave it' form of Eurocentrism. Perhaps the good will and overall tenor of the book make the vacuum of explanation seem of secondary importance. Certainly the mainline of the account is filled with fascinating bits. But I think this kind of explanatory apparatus is a casualty of Darwinian assumptions and the failure of an age of science to produce the kind of philosophy of history that could address the issue properly.
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