book-reviews

Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jared Diamond

Rating: ★★★★

Something of a smash hit of popular anthropology, Guns, Germs and Steel is Diamond's attempt to derive the ultimate cause of Eurasian civilisations' dominance over the rest of the world. In doing so, he reviews a mass of topics from history, archaeology, linguistics, biology and ultimately his argument's core: geography. Diamond makes the book engaging enough to read, drawing on a clear style which only rarely becomes patronising and a wealth of personal and historical anecdotes which liven up his theory. While he several times annoyed me, in the end the majority of his thesis seems plausible.

The primary irritant in this is Diamond's poor presentation and refutation of opposing theories. The clearest of these comes directly at the start, where he attempts to dismiss the possibility of genetic predisposition to intelligence as an explanation for European dominance. In what seems to a be a tortured effort at proving himself not to be a racist, Diamond rejects the body of evidence on IQ differences between races as being culturally confounded [in itself a reasonable position] but then goes on to claim a genetic cause for superior New Guinean intelligence based on nothing more than personal impressions and a nonsensical just-so story which seems to somehow presume that Europeans have always lived in soft European civilisations. The contorted logic in this argument points at a deep unease affecting critical assessment, and misses much easier and direct refutations such as that the modern IQ evidence argument should actually predict East Asian dominance, or that intelligence disparities in populations are not in themselves an explanation, since the very next question -- why this disparity arose -- surely leads us back to Diamond's own area of argumentation.

The next major hiccup for me was Diamond's argument against the 'heroic' model of technological progress, wherein he fails to make clear its applicability to differing technological progress in different parts of the world and instead argues that no invention was ever the single product of one man, with each building upon the work of his predecessors. His examples of this are interesting, but entirely miss the point -- a major improvement in the efficiency, construction or utility of several existing artefacts may not sound quite the same as a list of inventions, but surely still constitutes a 'heroic' contribution to technological progress. Again he fails to make much simpler refutations about the lack of explanatory power here, but these would actually be unfair, since he never well explained the connection of the theory to the topic at hand.

One of the more general and less serious complaints about Diamond's argumentation include his tactic of piling up a multitude of questions -- most highly similar to each other -- and then beginning to address them in a roundabout manner, sometimes adding to the stack along the way. By the end of his presentation on the topic, I am never quite sure if he has actually addressed all the original queries with sufficient evidence, or merely framed several points with suggestion and moved along. Another such complaint is with his seeming bait-and-switch, where often he seems to talk mostly about Europe in his big questions, but frames all his answers as being about Eurasia. This isn't a universal trend, and he certainly uses non-Europeans in local examples. More to the point, he also directly addresses it in the Epilogue, but by that point I'd been hanging on to the criticism for so long that the answer seemed too brief.

The influence of available resources as a determining factor of societal development seems fairly intuitive for anyone who's played Empire Earth or similar games on a random map mode, but Diamond's presentation of the various causal mechanisms -- such a domesticatable wild animals -- makes for an interesting read, and his general presentation skills make up for the occasional irksome laziness. Those interested in history or anthropology will no doubt enjoy the book, as will others with more modern interests in the evolution of societies.