At the outset of the Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond is asked a simple question by a Papua New Guinean friend: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” What ensues is a 10,000 year walk through history seeking to explain how western civilization emerged as the dominant culture of our times. The answer: geographical dumb luck. Indeed, what mattered most it seems were the raw materials. With most of the domesticable plant species and animals native to Eurasia, fundamental geographic factors ensured global inequality from the outset by making certain that different societies around the world developed at different speeds.
The book is fascinating, convincing and has quite an original take on the most important forces of human history. Moreover, it makes a good case for sustainable development, i.e. if land, climate, and crops were the key drivers of Western success, the last thing one should want to do is mess with the lucky hand they were dealt.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the author may have remained too politically correct in explaining a rather politically incorrect history. To me, although geography and native crops have no doubt played a critical role in shaping our nations (which Diamond – as a biologist – explains overwhelmingly well), I cannot believe that rice and horses constitute the single most important factor. Others such as religion, race, culture, tradition, and/or military, etc. – which Diamond essentially steers clear of – have surely played just important a role in forming our societies, their conflicts and social cohesion.
In essence, my basic issue is that Diamond’s view is too deterministic. Although I do think that geographic luck must have been critical in human development, I cannot believe that people were destined to follow their ‘geographic destiny’ – good or bad -and that no amount of their own intervention and initiative could have changed that.
Another issue that pricked me throughout the book was the way in which the author brought everything back to his friend’s Papua New Guinean tribe, somehow explaining how this society was smarter/better than Westerners. True the New Guinean’s sustainable lifestyle is to be admired but I just don’t see how this tribal way of life ought to form the ultimate objective of all of today’s (albeit wasteful) societies. Surely another option exists that doesn’t entail me giving up my Jimmy Choos.
For more on Guns, Germs, and Steel, please see the author’s website.