“Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond (Norton, 1997)

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This is one of those books that takes you a while to read — it’s pretty heavy non-fiction — and yet at the end of it, you feel like Hippocrates, a Muslim scientist, or Leonardo Da Vinci must have felt at the realization of a great discovery. The Eureka! moment. This book is kind of like the movie Hotel Rwanda: the movie was life-altering for me, and just made every other movie that came out that year seem tawdry and unimportant; it was one of those movies that everyone should see (especially Americans and Western Europeans) just to understand the world and its history better. Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of those books that everyone should read to better comprehend their existence at this specific moment in time.

The premise of the book is revealed in the prologue in a conversation between the author and a New Guinea native who lives his very simple life in Stone Age conditions. The thesis that arises in their conversation is what specific events led to the fact that Europeans were the ones to reach New Guinea and interact with its people, and why it wasn’t the New Guinea people to develop the technology and abilities to travel the world and make first contact with the Europeans.

With the concept in place, Diamond sets about doing this in his conversational and, quite frankly, mind-blowing and ingenious way. As a professor, with studies in anthropology and biology, he has an astounding way of seeing things and being able to explain ideas in a simple manner that make so much sense and you’re left saying to yourself: “Oh, that’s how that happened,” or “that’s why it’s like that.” At times he can bog you down with details, mainly because he explains them in minutest and seemingly most insignificant level (such as different seeds around the world). And yet you are left with that adage of chaos theory: everything on this planet happens for a reason and has a knock-on effect.

One of Diamonds most astonishing explanations for the reason the continent of Eurasia was able to develop to a much more advanced level than the rest of the world, with its complex empires, cradles of civilizations, and large amount of farming and domesticated species was due to its latitude on a specific east-west axis. The other continents — North and South America, Africa, Australasia — are all on a north-south axis. What does this difference mean? For one, climate is greatly changed the further north or south ones goes, which has an effect on the migration of people, animals, and plants, as well as the spread of information, technology and culture. Because of this, Eurasia was able to develop more crops and have them spread around the continent through trade, as well as the spread of domesticated animals, culture and more importantly, technology. The other continents did not have this ease, which Diamond explains in clear detail with facts and dates.

Of course, I am vastly over-simplifying the book and it’s really necessary for one to peruse through its pages to get the full understanding. Another concept that I was very happy to be made so clear is the explanation of why white people conquered most of the world was not because they were a superior race in any way. And how is this simply explained? To use Jared Diamond’s example:

The Aboriginal people spent many thousands of years keeping to their simple ways due to the harsh conditions of Australia. When the Europeans arrived they were able to educate the Aborigines and share their technology and make it seem like these advanced whites were helping and “bettering” the Aboriginal people, and therefore making them civilized. And yet it was necessary for the Europeans to bring all their technology, culture and science with them for them to survive, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted a week in Australia. It had nothing to do with the Caucasians as a race, but everything to do with the specific parameters for living in Europe and developing the technology and culture under those conditions. This is made clear when Diamond talks about two European explorers from different backgrounds who set out, with all their technology and science, to cross the vast landmass of Australia. Neither of them made it to the other side; they both died under the severe conditions. However, the Aboriginal people frequently cross this landmass on their nomadic journeys and make it relatively unharmed.

Overall, what I get from this book is this: Why are we all fighting and killing and hating one another? After all the seemingly random events over the last two million years that led from the ape-like hominid to the homo sapiens sapiens of today, it seems all we should be doing is hugging each other and patting everyone on the back for getting through the whole mess and still being alive to tell about it. A lot of other animals and dinosaurs aren’t.

But don’t take my word for it: read and absorb the ideas of Jared Diamond and have your life and your ideas changed for the better.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 22nd 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

4 thoughts on ““Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond (Norton, 1997)

  1. *** Because of this, Eurasia was able to develop more crops and have them spread around the continent through trade, as well as the spread of domesticated animals, culture and more importantly, technology.***

    What Diamond doesn’t mention is that these differences lead to genetic changes too. Through natural selection groups adapt to their environments over time. More recent books like ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ by Harpending & Cocrhan, or ‘Before the Dawn’ by New York Times science writer Nick Wade build on Diamond’s work in this respect.

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