I finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and am leaving a review.
First, as a prewarning, this book is very interesting but it rambles on a lot. The author likes to take little details he finds interesting as a human historian and go on little tangents with each of them, leaving some of his less seriously academically inclined readers wondering, Why would I care about this…? Because none of it’s necessarily relevant to the central point of the book.
With that said, the sheer scope of the book is so amazing that the author can be forgiven for seeming a little rambling. He takes us across what we know from the evidence of tens of thousands of years of human history and condenses them all into a 400-page book. Simultaneously alongside this, he explains why although human creativity is important, it is our environments that shape how we use that creativity. It is thus our environments that decide how “complex” and “advanced” a society we grow into.
One thing I liked about this book was that — though it does take him a while — he explains what “complex” and “advanced” actually mean to him. He doesn’t just leave them as some undefined assumption that Eurasian society is somehow more advanced than other societies. To Diamond, “complex” and “advanced” refer to complex large-scale levels of political and social organization, writing abilities, how technologically advanced tools are, etc — and he shows how this all leads back to how much domestication and farming a society is capable of, which is why our environment is so important.
He also does not make any claims that Eurasian societies are smarter or happier than other kinds of societies, either, and he actually says that many cultures in New Guinea, for example, that he has encountered seem on the whole to produce smarter people than does our own society. Though obviously those people are not as “educated” by our standards, they have vast wells of information about things that are relevant to them and an innate curiosity and innovation for new tools and experiences.
This is a good example of how Diamond actually chooses to focus on the progress and growth of societies that are not Eurasian for most of the book. He seems to find the question of why societies did not produce global conquerors more interesting than the question of why they did. He also shows different levels of growth, technological innovation, and military capabilities between these differing societies, and compares them to each other to question why they each came to be the way they were. Again, environment plays a major role in his answers here.
I was a little dubious going into the book, because the general idea of it sounded kind of… prejudiced?… but it actually turned out to be just as interesting and informationally supported as his previous work that I read, Collapse, which is about how societies fail because of environmental reasons instead of how they succeed because of environmental reasons.
I think I see a trend here, yes?