Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a book in its own league. Nothing confirms this more than the fact that it is a winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for non-fictional books and became a best seller in 1998. Diamond does a superb job at catching the attention of the reader by providing them with a fascinating and detailed account of about 13,000 years of societal development and human evolution. Although there have been a few points of controversy that the book has raised among scientists, the book has tasked itself with answering very many complex questions that had largely remained unanswered for decades. In its preface, Diamond first begins by recounting how he was initially intrigued when Yali, his New Guinean friend once asked him once; “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had a little cargo of our own?”(Diamond 14). The “cargo” mentioned so fondly by Yali is technology, and in particular simple tools such as axes, other accessories like umbrellas together with complex inventions such as cell phones, computers, and the Internet. Diamond notes that two centuries before his meeting with Yali, the communities native to New Guinea had already been using their own form of stone tools. It is this sudden realization that makes him interrogate the main factors that led to this stark gap in development between these two cultures.

At first, many would wrongly assume that Diamond could be writing the book to celebrate European conquest over other nations. Conversely, Diamond is not on a mission to glorify anything or anyone but simply tries his level best to describe what happened in history, and why events took the course that they did. He also clarifies that his is just a descriptive work of literature and does not, in any way, judge anyone. However, there are several occasions in the book where he voices his own opinion and in particular, his utter disgust for the racism that European colonialists harbored. For the most part of this meticulously written book, his tone is dispassionate and scientific. He searches for a conclusive answer to his question by first examining history over the millions of years that have passed, mapping out those first migrations of hominids from Africa to their destination in Eurasia and later from the Eastern Asia region towards the Pacific Ocean Islands, Siberia to the Americas. He follows the biological evolution of human beings and later focuses on certain representative societies which he uses to illustrate the truth that is there in his findings. While emphasizing the difference that exists between the developing cultures, he emphasizes on the writing, food production, government, technology, and religion. Using his opinions, he then demonstrates the reason why a difference among the cultures occurred.

From the onset, it is easy for one to misinterpret the rhetoric of the book as Diamond’s simple argument that the hunter-gatherer culture such as that of the aborigines and Native Americans as being inferior to that of the industrialized civilizations. In truth,  he doesn’t argue that one society is better than the other but surprisingly mentions that before contact, these hunter-gatherers were better off without the “development” that was brought. He shows how human beings learned how to effectively replace these practices with the onset of industrial and agricultural practices. He is also not saying that hunting and gathering are inferior to agriculture but simply stating that farming was more efficient in extracting food for certain areas. It is also important to note that throughout the book, Diamond seems to have written the book to refute persistent unscientific claims that Westerners were superior in comparison to people from other regions in the world. He makes specific mention to the racist’s attempts to twist science as seen in their use of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species to justify their subjugation of these people and their brutality towards them during the conquest. (Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond | Key Takeaways, Analysis & Review: The Fates of Human Societies 25). He is insistent on there is no scientific link between culture/race and the intelligence of a people. To bolster this point, he describes his personal experience working as an anthropologist in New Guinea. It was in this island nation that he met some of the most brilliant people. He even seems convinced that these people could be smarter than the Westerners. In this society, survival was determined by luck and health meaning that individuals did not die from infectious diseases such as smallpox and the plague. Survival was more of a product of intelligence and talent such as being able to avoid accidents and their ability to hunt food successfully(Diamond 21). Additionally, Diamond points out that the average New Guinean spent more time out exploring the world around them than the average Westerner who would spend more time watching TV.

In conclusion, the main argument in Diamond’s book is that that the differences that exist between different peoples and societies around the world are large as a result of the geographical differences present around the world. There are certain parts of the world where human beings decided to pursue agriculture due to the temperate climate and fertile soils while making good use of the time and resources available. These agricultural societies would, in turn, gain tremendous advantages over the other non-agricultural semi-sedentary societies as there was a subsequent increase in free leisure time to conquer other nations. The sheer depth of Diamonds argument makes for a smooth exposition that is used in combination with a didactic style during his narrations. Guns, Germs, and Steel is an impressive milestone of imagination that manages to succinctly describe the interaction between ‘primitive’ peoples and ‘civilized’ minds.

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