Top critical review
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Get out the red pencil
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*.