Guns, germs & steel
I just finished reading Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Random House, 1997. Reprint, 1999 Norton paperback). I can see both why it is immensely popular on college campuses and why it is the exasperation of so many scholars -- mainly for the same two reasons.

If you haven't read it yet, here's the argument: The reasons why European whites acquired the "guns, germs and steel" with which they decimated and subdued all other peoples have nothing to do with their relative intelligence or other biological differences ("race") but entirely with accidental geographical advantages. The main ones were: a wide variety of minerals, including the rocks necessary for an efficient stone-age technology necessary as a first stage for using other minerals; the availability of easy-to domesticate, highly productive plants and animals enabling people in Mesopotamia to become farmers and produce enough of a surplus to build cities, long before anybody else; and the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent, with a wide swath in the same latitude with a long growing season and plenty of rain, so that crops developed in Mesopotamia could also be grown as far as western India, all across northern Africa and across southern Europe to its western edge; the absence of major physical barriers also facilitated transfers of inventions (whether in agriculture or devices such as the wheel, practices such as weaving, etc.).

The book's great success ("over 1 million copies sold," the cover proclaims) is mainly because Diamond weaves a coherent story through a huge subject, all human history, that is a plausible alternative to the naïve race theories still current. The problem for many scholars is that the coherence seems too facile, neglecting the complexities of many developments over the millennia and (according to some of those scholars) getting many particulars wrong.

The other reason for both the books popularity and many scholars' impatience is that Diamond repeats his essential points over and over. This makes it hard to miss them, which must be convenient for the distracted undergraduate, but is wearisome for the attentive reader, especially one who is already familiar with many of the arguments. And if you've read Hans Zinsser's 1935 book Rats, Lice and History, or much of Max Weber, or any of the other many books on human development, much of this will be familiar. And such repetition wastes word-space, making the book longer than necessary for its argument.

Still, if I were teaching such a course, I would assign the book as a terrific discussion-starter, because it takes on so much. And I think the basic arguments are correct. That is, I think they are the most useful hypotheses at present for organizing our thinking about development and undevelopment.

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