Norton, 1997, 480 pages, C$19.99 tpb, ISBN 0-393-31755-2
Regular readers of these reviews have probably notices a personal fondness for books that explain How Things Works. This explains a fascination with hard-Science-Fiction, techno-thrillers, scientific vulgarization and other documentary works. Hard sciences -physics, chemistry, biology, etc.- lend themselves particularly well to vulgarization given that they’re based on a set of fairly common theories and experimental body of proof.
The “softer” sciences -history, sociology, psychology, etc.- are decidedly harder to quantify. Everyone has their own pet theories and the nature itself of social sciences makes it much harder to prove theorems by practical experiment. One of the aims of Jared Diamond’s excessively ambitious Guns, Germs and Steel is to provide a solid foundation for “the future of human history as a science”.
It all starts with a very obvious question: Why was it that Europe conquered North America, and not vice-versa? Most high-school students can probably answer this question by pointing out the technological differences between the two civilizations. But that only brings up another question: Why was there such a significant difference? Was is because of Europe’s more numerous population? And why was that?
Like a patient parent answering the endless “Why” questions of an inquisitive child, Diamond peels away all the layers of questioning until he can start from the very foundations of civilization. And, as he states in his introduction, the answers he brings forth are a conscious attempt to dispel all racial theories of history by highlighting environmental differences. Europeans were not smarter than American-Indians; they just happened to grow up at the right place.
The best parts of Guns, Germs and Steel come early on, as Diamond lucidly explains how, for instance, the presence of large domesticable animals led to the rise of sedentary agriculture, of resistance to disease, of mass production. He explains the mechanisms of technological innovation. He shows that agriculture wasn’t necessarily an “obvious” choice to hunter-gatherers. His chapter on agriculture through enlightened selection (“How to make an Almond”) is, easily, one of the most mind-blowing vulgarization piece I’ve read in a long while. Also be sure to read his lucid explanation of how language is “invented”.
Most of the book is simply that; a whirlwind explanation of 13,000 years of human history. It’s unusually readable for such a scholarly work. This book is going to end up on many college reading lists—indeed, on many general-interest reading lists too.
Still, the book isn’t perfect. The fourth part (“Around the World in Five Chapters”) is crucial to Diamond’s thesis (It’s a set of practical applications to the theoretical instruments developed in the rest of the book) but is of such a specialized interest that it’s a noticeable notch below the interest sustained by the rest of the book. Also, in trying to dispel racial theories of civilization, Diamond doth protest too much, and ends up dangerously close to annoyance in overpraising non-western civilization. Finally -though a careful re-reading of the book might invalidate this criticism- Diamond’s praise of societies where innovation is encouraged (in “Necessity’s Mother”) might run counter to his central thesis of non-racial difference; at some point, equal societies make their choices (eg; democracy/totalitarism) and these choices take the environment out of the equation and brings back the debate on purely social grounds.
Guns, Germs and Steel is a unique book, a ground-breaking study of civilizations as entities that’s nevertheless as compelling as it is thorough. It has already won the Pulitzer prize, has figured prominently on bestseller lists and seems destined to a respected status in both popular and specialized fields. Indeed, its gets top recommendations from this reviewer; read it!