Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, somewhat surprisingly, a national best-seller. At a time when other popular nonfiction topics centered on personal relationships and diets, Diamond caught the attention of the reading public with a fascinating account of more than 13,000 years of human evolution and societal development.
Although the book has raised a few points of controversy among scientists, it also has gained widespread praise. Some scientists argue against Diamond’s thesis that geography and environment are the most important factors in shaping the world as modern humans know it. But most critics praise Diamond for the task he successfully took upon himself, which was to answer a very complex question. In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts how he became intrigued when his New Guinean friend Yali asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” The cargo that Yali refers to is technology—tools as simple as axes; accessories such as umbrellas; and more complicated inventions such as computers, cell phones, and the Internet. After all, Diamond points out, a mere two centuries prior to his meeting Yali, New Guineans were still using stone tools. What factors caused this gap between the development of one culture and another?
Diamond searched for an answer by examining millions of years of history, mapping out the migrations of early humans from Africa to Eurasia, from eastern Asia to the Pacific Ocean islands, and from Siberia to the North and South American continents. He follows humans as they evolve biologically, and then he concentrates on specific representative societies to illustrate his findings.
To define the differences between developing cultures, Diamond emphasizes the effects of food production, writing, technology, government, and religion. Then he demonstrates, in his opinion, why the differences among various cultures occurred. More important (and one of the reasons for some of the controversy surrounding this book), Diamond concludes that it is ultimately geography, not biology or race as some other studies have tried to prove, that produced the cultural disparities his friend Yali had pointed out.