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Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Guns, Germs, and Steel is a fascinating perspective taken by Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA, Jared Diamond. Diamond’s purpose was to explain why Eurasian civilizations have had such immense success conquering people and land other than their own. Diamond’s aim is to answer Yali’s question: Why is that white people have developed materials and technology and brought it to New Guinea, but the black people have little of their own? (3). Diamond is successful in answering Yali’s question, but, his answer is one that I find to be not comprehensive enough for the magnitude of the subject.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond’s thesis is that “history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves. ” (12). What Diamond completely underestimates, is the influences of culture of and biology. Jared Diamond has a global reputation as one of America’s most celebrated scholars, who is famous for his impressive work in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Diamond was awarded a Pulitzer prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel in 2001, and since then this book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 25 different languages. The message I interpreted from Guns, Germs, and Steel is that learning about the world’s past should be prioritized to help all humans, now and in the future to make better decisions. Where I struggle with this message, is that as impressive as it is to say, Diamond is setting a poor example.

He has formatted his book in such a way that he is selectively presenting information to strengthen what seems to be a previously drawn conclusion. Diamond does not include footnotes, and makes general references to unknown theorists and scientists. One thing to keep in mind with Diamond’s references is that his target audience is individuals interested in popular science and environmental studies. He is not writing in an academic journal or for scholars. The organization and presentation of information in Guns, Germs, and Steel is remarkably effective.

The reason the title has guns and steel in it is beyond me, a remarkably small percentage of time is spent on those two topics. The book starts off with Yali’s question, then generally moves in chronological order from the spread of people across the world, the development of food production, domestication of plants and animals, and then a particularly intriguing idea on the success of the movements of people and ideas based on the east-west axis, compared to the less successful north-west access.

Diamond continues to the development of disease, social organization, than repeats most of what has already been said in the last fifty pages again. Who is Diamond arguing against? His work is structured as a general reply to someone, but it feels as though he is arguing against stubborn fundamentalists that are not respected in general society, and who would not be in any way convinced that their beliefs of “white power” are not correct by any book, no matter what style of writing or amount of facts.

One strength of Guns, Germs, and Steel is how it has created a discussion for individuals who are not directly involved in academically based environmental discourse. Guns, Germs, and Steel has been credited for creating a new train of thought in many people and has sold millions of copies, which is a testament to the writing style of Jared Diamond. Personally, I was expecting less out of Diamond. After reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, I have learned a lot pertaining to the development of agriculture, the domestication of plants and animals and the migration of peoples, not of European descent.

Diamond took on the impossible task of covering 10,000 years of human history and looking for the single reason that the world has turned out how it is now – which that arguably is not close to definable. In Chapter 4 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond tries to explain again his main argument that is the general theme of his book, that the environment is the sole reason for the differences between the people of today through an overly simplistic chart (p. 87).

It is structured to illustrate how ultimate causes (the east-west axis in this case) lead to proximate causes including guns, steel, technology, writing, transportation and diseases. This is an easy way to think of things, but there are contradictory theories, if not evidence, to go against what Diamond is saying. In Chapter 6 of Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond explains why there was a movement from the hunter – gatherer strategy to food producer strategy in Mesopotamia, which was influenced by the decline in available game.

However, in Borderlands of Science by Michael Shermer, he argues that there is proof that even though humans developed direct control over their food supply, they were nutritionally deprived when compared to still existing hunters and gatherers. For men, the average height went down six inches, but the social and cultural environment encouraged individuals to continue to participate in sedentary living groups. From a survival stand point, it is not logical that individuals would stay in sedentary food producing communities if it was more difficult than hunting and gathering for any other reasons than cultural or social.

The East – West axis diffusion of food production over Eurasia has been credited (by Diamond) to being successful because it presented similar climatic, geographic, and disease conditions to migrant people and had limited barriers. This is a large claim that loses its impressiveness with the quick look at a map. Eurasia is an incredibly large portion of land, and even though the movement of people East to West and vice versa was successful, it was not all the time, and migrants did not just move East or West, but North East or South East, etc.

The environments they were moving to would have more differences than Diamond credits them for. Guns, Germs, and Steel has taken large strides for environmental determinism. In this historiography, it is generally thought that the physical environment is the only factor that determines human culture. This model has a compelling belief that draws from the scientific theory of stimulus – response, where the stimulus is the environment and the response includes all aspects of human behaviour. What is fascinating about Diamond’s contribution to this discourse is that on average, other environmental determinists, such as Thomas G.

Taylor, Ellsworth Huntington, and Ellen Churchill Semple (who borrowed liberally from Friedrich Ratzel, a German credited with coining the term later to be a key factor in the Nazi political agenda – Lebensraum), usually imply that the reason European, or white people are more civilized and in general more intelligent is because of the environment. Diamond, on the other hand, that the New Guineans would have been smarter than the Europeans of the same time. This argument is both interesting and safe, partly due to his “reverse racism” stance, and partly because there is no way to prove that this theory is true.

To argue this point is to open a discussion in a highly sensitive subject – racial superiority. This is a question of Diamond’s objectivity in determining the role of the environment in shaping humanity. Diamond includes unscientific and subjective observations. These may make his writing more enjoyable for readers, but personally this makes myself more sceptical and wary of the rest of Diamond’s writing. Diamond seriously undervalues the importance of cultural and genetic differences in the people of the world for reasons of success of one group of people over another.

Two examples of this are the African people who are immune to malaria, and the movement of Christian missionaries. In Africa, there is a large percentage of Africans with sickle-cell anaemia. The development of this unique situation started and moved out of Africa independent of the people that brought these diseases to the continent. Christian missionaries, as well as the missionaries of other religions, have taken it upon themselves to spread their religion through education and assimilation.

They had a calling to spread the world of the kingdom, and many people had to die over the spread of this message. This did not happen because of environmental pressures, but rather cultural. It is possible, that these callings, or the need to spread their faith, has roots in the different biological compilation of individuals. All my criticism aside, I agree with most of what Diamond is saying, that the environment has had an incredibly gigantic influence on the power struggles between groups of people.

I would unquestionably recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel and as important as this work is, I think the combination of Diamonds work would mean more to an individual if it was combined with different articles, readings and opinions on the same topic that provide different explanations. I think it is important to go to the influential works on the subject of ecological determinism, and on writings in similar discourses, especially the work of Alfred. W. Crosby in Ecological Imperialism, which Diamond has borrowed a few concepts of.

The environment has had what I think to be the largest role on determining the success of one group of people when compared to another group, however; I think not giving credit, or at least entertaining the idea of the role of culture and biology is very ignorant. If Diamond’s theory is correct, how come it can not be used to answer my fundamental question after reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: would not different agricultural environments require different hereditary traits in people, making the success of people in that agricultural environment?

Cite this Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel. (2017, Mar 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/review-of-guns-germs-and-steel/

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