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An Interesting Story , But Not A Scientific Study of History
on April 24, 2002
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.
Diamond examines three paramount factors:
A. The shape of the continent;
B. The distribution of domesticable wild plants and animals; and
C. The geographical barriers inhibiting diffusion of domesticated plants and animals.
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.
Diamond identifies Eurasia, which had the good fortune to be situated in an east-west orientation ("axis"), to be the perfect highway for agriculture to spread. The mid-latitude region of Eurasia, had the largest continuous zone of temperate climates and, therefore, was more conducive to the origination of superior and plentiful plants and animals. Thus, Eurasia was "fated" to be the center of farming and, indeed, became the birthplace of civilization.
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.