Book #1 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
I originally received this book as a Secret Santa gift back in 2018 with a pair of socks and a few coloured biros. At first glance, the book seemed far too long, and the subject matter didn’t interest me at the time. I was only 17 so the only things on my mind at the time were girls, video games, and A-levels (in that order).
In the two years since then, I’ve developed a keen interest in global development within post-colonial contexts. Studying the history of various ex-colonies around the world and how their development was hindered as a result of European exploitation. However, I never stopped to think and ask the obvious question – the same question Yali posed to Diamond – why was it that Europe colonised Africa, Asia, America and Australia rather than the reverse?
And so recently, while going through some old stuff, I stumbled upon this book again. But instead of dismissing it as my 17-year-old self did, my interest was piqued. I then spent the next 5 weeks diving my nose between the pages of this fine depository of knowledge. Which brings us to today and my review of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
The entire premise of Guns, Germs, and Steel is to the answer Yali’s question:
Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people have little cargo of our own?
Diamond attempts to answer this fundamental question by giving his readers a multi-disciplinary crash course in history. I found the chapters dedicated to evolutionary biology and linguistics to be incredibly exhilarating. Diamond doesn’t hang about and cuts straight to the ultimate cause of global disparities in development: geography.
People that were lucky enough to find themselves in the ideal geographical location for development would be the ones that rose to prominence. By virtue of their location, they would develop the most Guns (weapons), Germs (diseases), and Steel (technology). Those unlucky enough to draw the short straw would be doomed to be conquered by the lucky ones. Thereby undermining the archaic belief that Europeans came to dominate the world because of some inherent superiority in the European people themselves but rather by luck of the draw.
I expect that if the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene, the original Aboriginal Australians would be the ones occupying most of the Americas and Australia, as well as Eurasia, while the original Aboriginal Eurasians would be the ones now reduced to downtrodden population fragments in Australia.
Diamond does an excellent job explaining complicated concepts in simple terms so that a layman like me can understand. After finishing his book, I really feel that my knowledge of global history has been broadened. I now have a bunch of new facts that I can bore family and friends with. For instance: did you know that of the 148 species of mammal weighing over 100 pounds, only 14 have been domesticated – 13 of which were domesticated in Eurasia alone! This undoubtedly gave Eurasians a considerable advantage over people in other continents. On the whole, Eurasia was the best continent for human development for a myriad of reasons that Diamond explains in his book.
One critique often cited against Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it overgeneralises. However, I would argue that this is an inevitability for a book which aims to pack 13,000 years of human history into around 400 pages. This book seeks to outline the overall trends in human history. Not give an in-depth study of every little detail of every single decision made by humans across the world. That would be near impossible. Instead, Guns, Germs, and Steel serves as a great entry point for people interested in studying history. Part Four: Around the World in Six Chapters acts as a great stepping stone for this very purpose. Furthermore, Diamond also includes nearly 30 pages of recommended further reading.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the social sciences. Its multi-disciplinary approach makes it useful for almost any field. No matter your intellectual background or goal, you will find something new and exciting in this book, which will add to your future discoveries.