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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's arguments?

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Diamond argues that the spread of farming around the world and the concomitant development of complex societies did not happen by chance but rather was the result of a series of environmental accidents that favored farming. For instance, plants native to Eurasia (the Fertile Crescent, China) were more productive than those elsewhere in the world. In effect, land had been "farmed" for millions of years before human beings began to do it on a regular basis. Similarly, Eurasia's large land mass meant that it had many different climates and ecological zones, which fostered diversity among its inhabitants.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel is a work of synthesis. Diamond tries to bring together the work of scholars in such disciplines as anthropology, evolutionary biology (his own field), and history in order to craft an argument. He is trying to explain why societies developed at different rates and the consequences...

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of this fact. It is the breadth of the book, along with the staggering amount of research it entails, that is its greatest strength, but it also opens Diamond to criticism from specialists. Many readers will struggle with hischaracterization of, for example, historical theories of social development. He does not engage, for example, with the historical theory of the "Great Divergence" developed by historian Kenneth Pomerzntz, which puts the Industrial Revolution at the forefront as opposed to the much earlier development of agriculture. This is related to another often-cited criticism of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Many critics found the book overly deterministic in its claims that biological and ecological factors essentially mapped out the future of societal and technological development. They think he understates the role of human action (called "agency" by scholars) in the development of societies. This is an especially pertinent critique because it seems to ignore the fact that imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation would then in some ways be natural and unavoidable consequences of the biologically determined process of human development. Diamond actually addresses this second critique directly in the next popular book he published, titled Collapse. Other critics argue that by focusing on the inequality between human societies, Diamond ignores the importance of the inequalities within them. They claim that he ignores the diversity of peoples that he categorizes into races. Still, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a rare example of a work of popular scholarship that prompted serious and important debate within the scholarly community, and even its critics have credited Diamond's ability to present complex scholarly debate in an accessible way. While very broad and sweeping, Guns, Germs and Steel is remarkably focused and "readable." Its rejection of the concept that one culture or society is inherently superior to others is one that all scholars, and hopefully a wider readership, can accept.

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Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, tries to answer Yali's question about why Europeans have so much more "cargo" (material goods) than  the natives of Papua New Guinea. The major strength of the book is the manner in which Diamond avoids racist and ethnocentric arguments. Arguing that people from all over the world are equally intelligent, work equally hard, and are equally creative, he suggests instead that geographical and environmental factors play a key role in the disparity of technology and development. His sensitivity to geographical factors, including the existence of specifically domesticable crops and animals in particular regions, is innovative and interesting as is his effort to discredit racism.

The major weaknesses of the book are twofold. First, covering such a broad sweep of history, he can overgeneralize and sometimes relies too much on striking anecdotes. Second, he has a degree of tunnel vision, focusing on geographical determinism and not looking at the effects of cultural and political factors. 

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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In the now-classic study Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond argues that some civilizations developed technology and power more quickly than others not because of any inherent genetic superiority but rather due to environmental differences. For instance, the east-west axis of the Eurasian continent, as well as the prevalence of plants and animals that could be domesticated, enabled civilizations to develop much more rapidly than in North America and South America, where the north-south axis hindered travel and there were less plants and animals suitable for domestication. In other words, the advancement of some civilizations rather than others is due to geographical differences rather than differences in intelligence, morality, or genes.

One of the strengths of Diamond's theory is in its anti-racist stance. According to Diamond, no race of humans is inherently superior or inferior. Instead, differences in development have to do with the surrounding environment. Another strength of the theory is its simplicity. Although Diamond gives examples from throughout the world to corroborate his theory, the essence of it is basic and easy to understand. Additionally, the evidence of human history as Diamond presents it corroborates his theory.

However, some critics point out that the simplicity of Diamond's theory is also one of its weaknesses, and they claim that it is in fact overly simplistic. In its emphasis on environmental determinism as an explanation for the rates of societal advancements, it leaves out or minimizes the roles of individual and cultural autonomy. Other critics point out that Diamond concentrates solely on centralized states and ignores cultures that do not have strong governments. Still others criticize how Diamond equates agriculture with advancement but ignores hunting and gathering as an alternative adaptive strategy, although Diamond in fact touches on this point several times in his book. There have been fervent academic arguments about whether Diamond promotes a Eurocentric vision in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

In conclusion, the majority of reviewers agree that though Diamond's theory is not perfect, it explains the historically uneven rates of human advancement better than other theories that have been presented. However, it continues to draw criticism from some historians, economists, geographers, and anthropologists.

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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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. 

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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. 

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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Jared Diamond's theory in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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.

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What are the strengths of Guns, Germs, and Steel?

The major strength of this book is that it uses a great deal of scientific evidence to set the foundation for its social argument.

Diamond brings out a great deal of scientific evidence in the book.  He looks at the distribution of grasses with large seeds.  He looks at the distribution of large animals.  He looks at the topography of various continents.  All of this is used to build a very good foundation that shows that certain areas of the world were more conducive than others to starting civilizations.

Once he has created this foundation, he makes the argument that these natural advantages caused the Europeans to become stronger than the people of the Americas, Australia, or Africa.  

The major strength of the book is that it sets up such a solid scientific foundation as a base for its more speculative social conclusions.

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