Guns, Germs, and Steel: Notes & Review

guns germs and steel book cover

One Sentence Summary: In Guns, Germs and Steel, anthropologist Jared Diamond explains that history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, and not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

Bullet Summary

  • What allowed certain societies to win over others is agriculture, which in turns led to:
    • Bigger populations
    • Centralized governments
    • Non-food workers such as scientists and soldiers
    • Germs
  • Lands with big domesticable animals provided a huge advantage (especially the horse)

Summary

About The Author: Jared Diamond is an American anthropologist, historian, and author.
He is the author of popular science books such as “The Third Chimpanzee” (1991) and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

The Maoris Prove It’s Environment, Not Genes

Jared Diamond tells the story of two Maori tribes, the Moriori and the Maori.

The Moriori and Maori history started diverging after separation, with the Maori picking up agriculture and the Moriori remaining hunter-gatherers.

Well, guess what happened?

The Maori eventually re-rediscovered the Moriori and exterminated them.

Diamond says that the Maori/Moriori is a small scale replica of what happened with the Europeans and the rest of the world.
And that proves that it’s all about the environment and not genes.

All Power Develops From Agriculture

In Diamond’s view, it’s agriculture that allows societies to grow in number and military prowess and, eventually, to take over neighboring land and people.

It’s the ability to stockpile food and feed more mouths that allow for the existence of new social classes like kings, scribes, government officers, scientists, and of course, professional soldiers.  

Political Fragmentation Is An Insurance Against Poor Decisions

Take a big country like China.

If the emperors stick to an initial bad mistake, like for example sea exploration, the whole population will not benefit from possible colonization of new territories.

But if the same happens in a European country, an area where numerous kingdoms existed, it’s likely that another European country will not make the same decision.

Which is exactly what happened with sea exploration and the American “discovery”.

Political Fragmentation Fosters Progress

Isolated society can only count on themselves to invent and develop.

Fragmented societies instead can take advantage of random developments from other neighboring societies.
The same is true in the case of warring kingdoms, as inventions spread equally well through conquests. 

As Diamond says:

All else being equal, technology develops faster in large productive regions with large population with many potential investors and many competing societies.

Which is exactly what happened in Europe.
Furthermore, having different societies all around also prevents nations from giving up technology like it could happen in isolated ones. 
Japan, for example, gave up guns.
But no European nation could have done the same or the gun-toting neighbors would have immediately invaded them.

More Wisdom

  • Germs need larger populations
  • Technology develops cumulatively rather than in isolated heroic acts
  • East-West diffusion of innovation works best because of climate similarities
    • Thus, large continents like Asia and Europe held an advantage over long continents like America and Africa
  • Geographical landscape can foster or suffocate diffusion of technology (think of Sahara’s desert, for example)
  • Geographical interconnectedness has positive effects, but it might become stifling if it’s so interconnected as to be under one single ruler

guns germs and steel book cover

Criticism

My main criticism is this:

I think that “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is driven by ideology more than a true search for wisdom.

Let me clarify.
This is what Jared Diamond writes:

From my very beginning of working with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.
(….)
That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligent has probably been far more ruthless in New Guineans than in more densely populated societies.
Besides this genetic reason, there is also a second reason why Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners

And then Jared Diamond proceeds to provide a cultural reason why Guineans might be smarter than Europeans.
That reason is the proliferation of smartphones and TVs in the West. Jared Diamond provides no evidence there, just his own personal feeling.
I wish he had mentioned that, which would have made him much more credible.
Yet, I can say that his hypothesis does make sense sense.

In any case, Jared Diamond provides genetic and cultural reasons why Guinenas are smarter than Europeans.

That might be (might).

But why then Diamond’s starting thesis is that it’s impossible for Europeans to have conquered the world for every possible reason except anything based on genetics, personality or disposition.
It must not be intelligence, of course. It could be drive, or ruthlessness. It could be anything. Or it could be nothing. But the crux of the matter here is that it should not be excluded a priori. 

And that’s exactly what Diamond does.
But that’s not how science works!

A little later indeed, Diamond says:

Until we have some convincing, agreed upon explanation for a broad pattern of history, most people would continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all. 
That seems to me, the strongest argument for writing this book.

So his reason to write “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is to prove that Europeans are not smarter than other populations.
Which is probably true! 
And yet, science does not work the way Jared Diamond approaches his research! 
Science is not about proving your thesis right. Science is about falsifying your thesis, and being ready to dump it at the drop of a hat. 

To me, any book built on the premise that you need to prove your theory or else is built on the wrong foundations.

And it might be a coincidence, but it’s a convenient coincidence that Diamond’s thesis vibes so well with the zeitgeist. 

Plus, it’s hard for me to reconcile how it “would not be OK” for Europeans to have conquered the world based on some genetic traits, but it’s OK for Guineans to be smarter.
Unless one takes into account our zeitgeist, where it’s not OK to say people can differ unless it’s the minority / historically oppressed which differs in some positive ways.

And again, I must reiterate here that this is not a critic of Diamond’s results or ideas. 
This is a criticism about the premises.
Jared Diamond’s thesis indeed is truly compelling.
He is probably right and I learned hugely from this book. Yet, “Guns, Germs and Steel” is a wonderful theoretical building developed on bad foundations.

Quotes

Talking about researchers who believe that American big animals die because of humans: 

The American big animals had already survived the ends of 22 previous ice ages, why did they pick the 23rd to expire in concert and in the presence of those supposedly harmless humans. 

LOL, I love a good and subtly ironic author :).

On the myth of “lone inventors” and progress developing organically, he says:

The question is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius had not been born at a particular place and time.
The answer is clear: there is never been such person.

CONS

On top of the main criticism above:

  • Causational links feel forced or very random at times

Diamond says that the Incas king Atahualpa fell for Pizarro’s trap because of Inca’s illiteracy and their consequent inability to gather good intel about the Spaniards.

Frankly, I find that to be a huge stretch.

What if the Atahualpa was simply naive, stupid or maybe had in mind his own gambit which spectacularly failed?
Diamond doesn’t even stop to consider other possibilities, he immediately jumps to conclusions.

And he does it several times over the course of the book.

  • Jumping to conclusions without considering other options

More than once I felt that Diamond jumps to conclusions without giving proper weight to other possible alternatives.

I prefer authors who more clearly state what’s speculation and what’s consensus, what’s an opinion and what’s a fact.

  • An author searching for a narrative

Luigi Pirandello wrote a novel called “6 characters looking for an author”.
It was an intelligent play that turned the table on the classical view of literary production: that the author searches for characters.

It feels like Diamond is doing the same. It’s as if reality was so neat and simple that the dots just connect by themselves.
Diamond was just there to watch the dots connect.

He says that historians should be scientists.
And that if you took Australians and moved them to Europe and then took Europeans and moved them to Australia, you could still “predict” who’d end up conquering who.

And that might certainly be the case.
But.. How can he be so sure?

Which is funny, because a little earlier, he says:

We tend to see easy, simple factors of explanations

I think that sometimes life might just be a bit more random than Diamond seems to be willing to admit.

  • Overstates the importance of germs

I don’t think germs even deserved to be up there at the same level of “guns” or even “agriculture”, which wasn’t even in the title.

As Diamonds also say or imply, germs accelerated the process and helped -or delayed- the invaders. 
But they didn’t truly change the course of history. Just think of the new germs awaiting Europeans in Africa: it didn’t stop them one bit.

  • Lacks political insight

Diamond asks:

Why do the commoners tolerate kleptocrats taking the fruits of their hard labor?

He then presents four ways kleptocrats stay in power. One of them is to redistribute wealth to make the masses happy.
Well, that’s just not true, is it. Or, at least, it’s just not how it usually goes.

To truly understand the power dynamics of repressive systems, check out “The Dictator’s Handbook“.

  • Geographically deterministic

Jared Diamond managed to achieve his goal: he convinced me that geography is possibly the single most important factor leading to one society developing quicker than another.

And yet, I still feel Diamond is too deterministic.

  • Anna Karenina principle

The author quotes the “Anna Karenina principle” from Tolstoj and as originally applied to relationships.
The principle says that happy families are all alike and unhappy families are all different.

Well, Diamond is not required to have expertise on relationship research and literature, but John Gottman explains that the opposite is true.

Review

“Guns, Germs, And Steal” is a wonderful, eye-opening book.

I learned hugely thanks to Jared Diamond and I now better understand the history of humans beings.
Most of all, I feel like I have a much better grasp of some of the most important drivers behind both civilizations’ development and the relentless war for dominance and control.

And I also learned a bit more about human nature.
But at the same time, it’s also a biased work.

Jared Diamonds correctly suggests that the environment is a major factor in the development of human societies. Of course it is. How could it not be.
But he dismisses all other factors, and he refuses to even consider anything related to genetics, characters and personalities out of personal preferences and ideology.
Finally, he fails to entertain the possibility of being wrong, he fails to challenge his own theories and presents personal suppositions and opinions as scientific truths. 
And that never fails to bother this critical reviewer.

This is no mystery.
The author clearly stated he was out to prove a point, and not to find out the truth.
Had he presented the book as “my take on history”, “Guns, Germs, And Steel” would have been a masterpiece. 
As it is, it’s an offense to scientists.

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