12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 3 August 1998
This a an excellent book and clarifies much of the reason why Europe and the West prevailed in history, rather than say Africa or N America. Basically Diamond argues eloquently that geography and luck of the draw food resources and animals explain much of the winners success in history. His is a well formed, well researched argument. However, I believe that he turns a blind eye to the major effects ( good and bad ) that different religions and cultures have had on the success of their people. His request for further study by Historians using more scientific means is welcomed . Perhaps someone's PHD thesis could use historical information to compare transplanted religions and cultures into dominant and non dominate societies and analyze the results. My guess is that cultural bias and religions had as much to do with history as did geography and food supply. All in all, a great book.. worthy of much thought, but as one reads it, do not forget to think.
130 of 139 people found the following review helpful
on 14 July 1999
I think some of the reviewers here didn't read the book closely enough to understand the context of some of Diamond's arguments. He never says that biogeographical effects are the ONLY causes history. His main purpose is the search for the ultimate, extremely general causes for the broadest of trends in human history and prehistory.
By the time the Mongols roared across Asia, or the Moguls invaded India, many cultures around the world already changed so much that bioregional factors, though seminal in the creation of these broadest trends, weren't nearly as important as the political, religious and economic ones. He is not ignoring religion and so on but, he states plainly several times that isn't his focus. He is looking for ultimate causes--before humans had extremely advanced mental concepts like religion.
He also wanted to point out the devastating influence of disease on history. It was surely the European germs that did most of the conquering of Native Americans. The guns and horses were almost incidental. Later on, once Europeans had established themselves, then we can focus on economic and political systems. But we can't ignore the effects of the diseases unleashed on the Americas. These plagues gave the Europeans a very lucky boost that catapulted them beyond the wealth and power of China, India or the Middle East--long before the Industrial Revolution made this gap obvious.
Another thing that some people seem to be having trouble with is his assertions about the native intelligence of tribal peoples around the world. (If you read the book, you notice that he is not just saying this about the New Guineans.)
He takes pains to point out what he means by this. He not talking about some mysterious genetic superiority of tribal peoples. It's all straight up culture. Tribal culture forces people to be better generalists than they'd have to be in literate civilizations. They can't rely on embedded support structures like books for memory or experts for obscure fields. They have to be pretty good at a lot things. Otherwise they die. They have to be better at memorizing things because they can't count on computers or books to remember things for them. Living in a dangerous, wild environment makes them cautious and aware of all that is going on around them. That was all he meant. The circumstance of tribal peoples force them, only in very broad ways and only on an individual basis, to be smarter and more curious than civilized people.
And in the end it does them no good. Because civilized societies are SMARTER than tribal societies. That is why tribal society has been steadily disappearing over the millenia. They just can't compete.
Finally, of course the book is repetitive. In fact he sums up his argument in the preface of the book. You needn't even read the rest if you don't want to. The rest of the book consists of him reiterating his points from different angles to point out the objections he has managed to answer and the many questions that still remain. He is just following scholarly practice and exposition--just to make things clear that he has thought about this.
He knows that his theory can't explain everything. In the epilog he points out that China, India and the Middle East are good counter examples to his idea. They each had an expansionist rise to great power--a time when they were unafraid to try new ideas and explore new ways of doing things. If the highly complex forces of economics, politics, religion had arrayed themselves differently. We might all be speaking Arabic now. Or Cantonese. Europe was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time for things to come together as they did.
101 of 109 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2001
In many ways, as the other reviewers have noted, this is a remarkably good book. It synthesizes aspects of archaeology, sociology, genetics, history and more to give a coherent account of the rise and fall of human cultures. There are very few howlers, most of the evidence is up-to-date and handled with due caution and he manages to provide a unifying thesis of human history that is comprehensible and almost convincing. More than this, he makes a good stab at trying to map out a research path for historians that aims to put their field on the same footing as other "historical sciences" such as evolutionary biology and cosmology. I don't suppose many historians will leap to follow the lead, but it was a laudable attempt. So why not give such an astounding work of breadth and insight the full five stars?
The answer is: sloppy repetition and over-playing his hand. Diamond's commissioning editor should have been firmer and used the red pencil more vigorously. Over and over again, Diamond repeats great chunks of his text almost verbatim. The effect on the reader, who has got half way through the book and is just getting interested in a new point Diamond is beginning to make, of running into the third or fourth reprise of an argument (complete with evidence and rhetorical touches) on another issue is incredibly frustrating. I can't believe Diamond thinks his readers need the repetition in order to understand his argument. The fact that many of the phrases are repeated exactly suggests to me that He has been just a little careless about proof reading and has failed to delete dozens of relicts of the word-processor's "copy and paste" function.
Second, as several of the other reviewers have noted, Diamond spectacularly fails to demonstrate that his hypothesis accounts for all the data in the case of China. It had the domesticable plants and animals, the population size and density, the climate, access to and East-West aligned continent and so on, just like Europe and the Near East. He acknowledges that the reason for the halting of "progress" in China from the middle ages was purely a cultural one but attempts to explain this by a geographically deterministic argument based on the shape of the two regions' coastlines. I think most readers will find this unconvincing, to say the least.
Finally, in my view, he holds too strongly to the rather discredited wave-of-advance and related models of the displacement of one culture by the movement and expansion of peoples of superior cultures. Until relatively recently, one was very swayed by an interpretation of the available evidence (language distribution, archaeological artefacts, blood group frequencies, racial appearance) to believe that cultural replacement inevitably involved mass migration and genocide. More recent evidence (see, for example, Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve") shows that is not always the case at all.
In summary. The second edition of this book, edited to 2/3 its present length, revised to include the latest genetic evidence and with a more honest appraisal of the accidents of cultural difference, will be well worth 5*.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 19 August 2001
Quite simply- I learned more about human history in this one book than in ten years of studying it at university (including a PhD). Naively called "deterministic" by scientifically illiterate historians, the book provides a very plausible account of the broad outlines of human demographic history over the past 13,000 years. True in many place Diamond betrays his ignorance of the subtleties and distinctions used in the social sciences, but I find that these are more than compensated for by the books impressive evidence and logical coherence. The only criticism I would make of the book is that it is quite often repetitive and there is no excuse for this in a book of this length. The points could have been made in more brevity- so the beginnings of chapters can be skimmed where Diamond repeats what he has argued at length in the previous chapters. In short- READ THIS BOOK! Take it seriously- and try to imagine our world as it once was- filled with exotic (now extinct) animals and full of regions capable of supporting human gathers/hunters. How did the human world get to be the way it is now? This book is the first step in understanding how.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 23 April 2003
A brilliant book. The style is clear and readable, and the author's evidence for his argument so powerfully marshalled that it firmly puts the ball in the court of anyone wishing to propose a cultural or genetic case for the economic and military dominance of Western culture.
One book which seeks to do so (in the specifically military sphere) is "Why the West has Won" by Victor Davis Hanson, who accuses Diamond of determinism and ignoring unique cultural variables. I think the latter has a political agenda, that capitalism and individualism are inherently superior to other cultural characteristics - but, to be fair, I am sure Diamond too, when he concludes that Caucasian Westerners have no inherent superiority to other races and cultures, is equally politically motivated.
Doesn't mean either of them is wrong, though. Read both books and see what you think.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2006
If you've developed a recent interest in history, but you're finding some difficulty fitting together all the pieces you're discovering, this book is for you. Jared Diamond quite simply, and with easily remembered logic, explains how the world was populated. This, of course, is the background to history.
This 'big picture' is something sadly missing in much teaching. Going straight into the detail of some era or event seems to me a bit like studying the pixels on a jigsaw piece in the wild hope you'll, in time, discover the picture. Read Jared Diamond instead. Once you've seen the big picture, the jigsaw puzzle of history is much easier to understand.
Within the book he does repeat himself. His editors should have picked that up, but for me, that loses the book one star. But my study of history has been given an enormous boost of confidence.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 April 1998
For students of the social sciences and teachers alike, it is rare to find a book so wide in breadth and so monumentally couragous in unearthing why our social world is how it is. With a mear few hundred pages, Diamond paints a complex picture of the past 15,000 years in a qualitative manner which draws strongly from holistic vantage point that ushers the reader into a new and exiting paradigm. Diamond is careful not to make sweeping, unqualified assumptions, while at the same time he is successful in bringing together a wide aray of information to prove his point. Both the general interest reader and the experts will enjoy this important book. In an age when the nature nurture debate continues to rage, this author has the ability to move beyond the quibbling to a new understanding of the human animal, and the world we inhabit.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2006
In 2002 I was talking to an American in Costa Rica about archaeology and stating that what puzzled me was why many areas of the globe had nothing much to excavate. He told me to read Guns, Germs and Steel. I have now done this and now the answer to my question seems to obvious when given the facts. I now want to explain to everyone the simple facts of the availability of animals capable of being domesticated, the plant life which could be cultivated for crops and the fact of numbers of people which could then be sustained which subsequently impacted upon inventions, language to result in the power of the people.
Definitely a book to read if you are interested in history and civilisations.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2014
The problem with Guns, Germs and Steel is that it is a fascinating subject explored in a repetitive and tedious manner. Jared Diamond may be a polymath and science populariser, but unlike Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski, his prose is a chore and a good third of the book is filler. You will learn a great deal about how geography has shaped civilisation (although Diamond has a hypersensitivity to Eurocentricism - putting inverted commas around superior and disovery when discussing the expansion of European empires - it makes the tone a bit too right-on). The trouble is that you will learn a lot about it again, and again. It is a popular science book, but I wish Diamond had credited the reader with greater powers of recall.
That said, I think it's worth reading to challenge your own subconsciously biased assumptions about how Europe came to be the first to reach what we call modern civilisation, although I would've liked more mention of the ideas scientific racism actually puts forth as to why biology matters, in comparison with the geographic stance, and why they are racist nonsense. It would be more interesting, instructive and support the central thesis of the book much better than banging on about the east-west axis and food production packages, which is enlightening the first time, but eventually grates with those who are trying to read it through properly.
Still, it is enlightening, and shapes one's perspective of history in a geographic and chronological sense, making the rise and fall of Rome seem relatively recent and local, and exploring the fundamentals of civilisation in depth. It would be nice if certain 'factual programming' channels could take a broader look at history and create programmes that explore the subjects discussed here.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book having been fascinated by the excellent The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? and having read the many glowing reviews here, but I must admit I was a little disappointed. This is much harder going for the general reader then the World Until Yesterday. The central point of this book is that some societies have reached preeminence at this point in history because of environmental and geographical factors - not, of course, because of some innate superiority of one group of people rather than another. Preeminence is shown to have been derived from the suitability of environments to facilitate and sustain settled communities. The key elements of settled communities are shown to be the availability of animals which can be domesticated, and of suitable land and crops to provide food production.
The author makes his points clearly and convincingly and draws on substantial evidence from various branches of science including archeology, anthropology, and linguistics to make his case. Much of the book is devoted to proving points already made earlier in the text
As a general reader i found the rather scientific approach taken in this book a little tedious at times - there is much repetition and summary of points already made, and most of the book is focused on the study of early groupings of people - the hunter gatherers, farmers, and small tribes who lived many thousands of years ago, but with little reference in the book to more modern times.
This is more hard science than it is sociology or history. A good book, but not as interesting for me as a general reader as I had hoped