What are the strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel?
The biggest strength of Diamond's theory is that it draws on a wide range of work in history, anthropology, biology, and other disciplines. This multi-disciplinary approach leads him to his conclusion, which rejects old notions (abandoned by academic professionals) of European cultural and racial superiority. Essentially, the fact that Eurasians developed the "guns, germs, and steel" that gave them such an advantage over other peoples was a chance result of geography. Another strength of Diamond's thesis is its elegance. It is simple, observable (and therefore testable) in any society, and has enormous explanatory power. But it is actually in the simplicity of the thesis that we can see a major flaw. In downplaying the role of culture, there is a sense in which Diamond inadvertently gives Europeans a sort of "free pass" for centuries of global domination that had catastrophic effects for peoples around the world. As one critic puts it, "just because you have guns and steel does not mean you should use them for colonial and imperial purposes." To cite one example from the book, Diamond is very interested in showing how Pizarro and his followers were able to conquer the Inca. He does not, however, explain why they thought it acceptable to do so. Moreover, his work also seems to ignore a great deal of recent scholarship that points to the technological sophistication of Native societies, which, in his telling, are portrayed as sitting ducks for European conquest. According to many historians, conquest was not as inevitable as Diamond suggests.
Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is an extremely long and complex book. His overarching claim is that differences in the degrees of material wealth and technological development between regions are grounded in geography more than in innate disparities in intellect or diligence or in cultural factors.
The first major strength of this claim is its ethical and political consequences. It provides a solid substrate for invalidating many forms of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. On these very general lines, it is also supported by our intuitions and personal experiences. Most of us who travel widely or know people from many different cultures have met smart, hardworking, decent people (and the opposite) from many different cultures, regions, and ethnic backgrounds. The next strength of the theory is that it provides and simple and coherent account of widely observable phenomena.
The major weakness of the theory is, in a sense, also a consequence of its major strength. It attempts to make a sweeping generalization about many very different cultural groups and many different periods, and tends to be selective in the episodes it treats. Due to its broad sweep, it tends not to engage in fine-grained analysis of the episodes it describes, and tends to paint historical and cultural issues rather broadly, often ignoring extensive research by specialists.
The major strength of Diamond's theory is that it seems to make a lot of sense. It seems to explain why European countries have, in general, been stronger than those from other continents. Diamond's theory is quite convincing. He does a good job of showing why Eurasia was better able to produce early civilizations and why those civilizations were able to grow and become strong.
The real weakness of Diamond's theory is that it cannot be proven or disproven. Aspects of Diamond's theory can be falsified. We can prove whether he is right or wrong about the number of domesticable plants in a certain area, for example. However, we can never actually prove that cultural or racial explanations have nothing to do with the dominance of European countries. We just have to take his theory (like most in the social sciences) on faith.