Guns, Germs, and Steel (Magill Book Reviews)
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, wants to demonstrate that the differential development of human societies is not the result of differences among the intelligence of different people, but the dissimilarities in their environments. In GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES Diamond asserts that changing the environment of a society would change its evolutionary path.
Human history is the transformation of societies from hunter-gatherers to farmer-herders. Farming and herding, which Diamond calls food production, result in food surpluses, which in turn leads to all the characteristics of more advanced societies: large, densely populated, specialized members, technological, literate, and hosts for epidemic diseases.
Diamond argues that the area we call West Asia (the Fertile Crescent), Europe, and North Africa had an immense advantage over the rest of the world in the development of food production. Most of the large-seeded grass species are native to this region, as are thirteen of the fourteen species of large mammals domesticated before 1900. As a result, food productions in Eurasia occurred sooner than in other parts of the world.
Diamond appreciates that he will be accused of geographical or biological determinism. He argues that there is a significant distinction between determinacy and predictability. He introduces the concepts of “cultural idiosyncrasies” and “individual...
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Guns, Germs, and Steel (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Why did Christopher Columbus “discover” America rather than a Native American discovering Europe? In sixteenth century sub-Sahara Africa or nineteenth century Australia, why did the native peoples lack the technology that was commonplace in contemporary Europe? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia farm, herd animals, and build cities earlier or on a grander scale than the inhabitants of the other continents? For many centuries, the answers to these questions were usually cast in racial terms. Whether the cause was a purposeful Almighty or Darwinian evolution, Europeans were innately biologically “superior” to other races, cultures, or societies, had developed “civilization” faster than non-Europeans, and hence were able to conquer them. Such superiority was usually assumed to be in the form of higher intelligence manifested in more sophisticated technology, more complex political systems, and the creation of modern science.
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer who has worked extensively in New Guinea, rejects racially oriented explanations for differential human development. He agrees that the explication for European success is biological, but believes that intelligence had nothing to do with the differential development of societies. Geography had everything to do with it. Differences among environments resulted in dissimilarities among societies. Change its environment and a society would follow a very different...
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The journey of primitive humans began somewhere in Africa around 7 million B.C. Bands of what are called Homo erectus migrated throughout what is now southern Eurasia during 1 million B.C. Another group, Homo neanderthalis, migrated to what is now modern Europe somewhere around 500,000 B.C. Then, according to Diamond, the Great Leap Forward occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. The Great Leap Forward was signaled by the development of tools. Archeologists have found and dated primitive tools attributed to this time period, the age of the Cro-Magnons, the ancestors of modern humans. In their garbage heaps were found items such as needles and fishhooks, spears, and bows and arrows—signs that Cro-Magnons were improving their technology and as a result improving their diet because the new weapons allowed them to bring down larger animals. During this time period, our ancestors migrated across the sea and landed in places such as Australia and New Zealand. Only 18,000 years ago, there were people in northern Eurasia, near present-day Siberia. And some scientists believe that in 12,000 B.C., people referred to as the Clovis entered what is now North America, then spread south into South America, reaching what is now southern Chile. The latter part of that journey, the last 13,000 years, provides the timeline and the setting for the bulk of Diamond’s book.
One of the first places that Diamond stops to reflect on how societies formed is New Zealand. The country is home to two somewhat-related groups of people who live in very dissimilar settings. While the Maori settled in New Zealand, the Moriori colonized the nearby Chatham Islands. The hospitable environment in New Zealand allowed for the cultivation of crops. The soil was better; there was plenty of rain and fresh water; and the weather provided a profitable growing season. The Moriori on the Chatham Islands did not fare as well. They could not get the plants they were used to growing to produce a crop in the harsher environment and had to resort to hunting and gathering, a time-consuming task that did not provide a surplus of food. In the Moriori tribe, everyone had to work just to keep fed. In contrast, the Maori cultivated the land and had a surplus of food, allowing some members of the tribe the luxury of not having to work. This freedom from work and surplus of food is what led, Diamond argues, to the organization of an advanced culture. The people who did not have to...
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Anonymous. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Earth First 19 (4): 27. This article is more summation than critical response, but it provides an easy-to-follow review of the book.
Balaut, James M. 1999. “Environmentalism and Eurocentrism.” Geographical Review 89 (3): 431-48. This is a long article, and although it praises Diamond’s book, it also offers an argument against defining Diamond’s premise as being scientific. This argument has been stated in other reviews, so it is important to understand it.
Clark, Robert P. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Journal of World History 10 (1): 203-5. Arguments abound concerning this book, especially in the company of scientists. However, Clark found Diamond’s book well worth the read.
Ferguson, Brian. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” American Anthropologist 101 (4): 900-901. Ferguson praises Diamond’s book as an excellent resource for those interested in an introduction to anthropology.
Nobles, Gregory H. 1999. “Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Environmental History 4 (3): 431-33. In this detailed review, Nobles praises Diamond’s attempts to capture thousands of years of history in a very readable and enjoyable short text.
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