Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Jared Diamond attempted a rather ambitious undertaking when he decided to write Guns, Germs and Steel, an effort which was ultimately worth it as evidenced by it earning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. In this book, Jared Diamond traces the evolution and progress of numerous societies across the planet starting at 11,000 BC, in an attempt to explain why history took the specific course it did, rather than any other one.
Table of contents
Jared Diamond Attempts to Understand Humans
Familiarity with human history greatly varies from one individual to the next, but I think it’s safe to say the majority of people have similar views of its overarching currents and major key points. We’ve come to accept it as a given, as if no other course could have potentially been followed. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book titled Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond asks and attempts to answer the question of why humanity developed and shaped itself the way it did.
Without making any understatements, the task Diamond took upon himself is nothing if not enormous, attempting to provide a comprehensive overview and explanation which, theoretically, ought to be applicable to any point in human history. What’s more, he engages himself to lay this explanation out in a way any layman could understand.
As such, he begins his grandiose quest by taking us back before the end of the last ice age, giving a sweeping overview of how evolution shaped humans for millions of years while they lived and developed in Africa. Without taking too long on this section, he then moves to approximately 11,000 BC, where he begins a more in-depth exploration of the factors which forced the story of humanity down a certain path.
One by one, he examines the various factors which he has identified as the principal ones which allowed certain societies to rise and others to fall over time. A sizable portion of the book is dedicated to the tremendous importance of geographical and environmental factors, as well as agriculture and livestock-related techniques. Diamond goes to great lengths to illustrating the far-reaching and often unintended consequences of the roles they end up playing.
After establishing the base causes for the moulding of human history (there are others in addition to the ones mentioned above), he then explores various societies, individuals and events to show how his model applies and explains them. Ultimately, he seeks to answer the laughably basic and yet deceivingly complex question: why did certain people end up with so much more than others?
The Big Picture with Guns, Germs and Steel
With such an extensive book sweeping through so many topics at once, it’s a little difficult to decide where to start, what one ought to focus on first. There probably isn’t a correct answer to this, but I would like to begin our plunge into this work by explaining its actual purpose, at least the way it seemed to me when I read it.
Considering the subject matter, Guns, Germs and Steel is fairly short, with the hardcover edition having about five hundred pages of content. The author recognizes time and time again the complexity and large number of factors which come into play when explaining the fate of any human society on Earth, and he consistently seeks to boil them down into larger and simpler elements, so-to-speak.
In my opinion, the purpose of this book isn’t to explain each and every historical event mentioned inside of it, but rather, to show us the bigger picture. He tries to show us the recurrent pattern in history and how a handful of factors (mainly, the ones listed in the book’s title) have time and time again come to determine why certain societies thrived and conquered other, less fortunate ones.
Much of his argument centres around the idea that various societies throughout human history had as much as their geographical location permitted them. This includes not only terrain size, but also climate, soil fertility, the continental axis of distribution, the presence of domesticable plants and animals, just to name a few off the top of my head.
Much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots.― Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
While anyone can make any kind of argument, what sets Jared Diamond apart from most other history writers is how well he argues his point. Time and time again he painstakingly demonstrates how all of those factors played major roles in funnelling the course of human history in a specific direction, how they essentially led to the European expansion rather than any other way around.
Now, I feel it necessary to add a word of warning: archaeology and history are fields with a fair share of contested theories. In some cases, it’s largely a question of how well a proponent of an idea can argue in its favour, at least until further findings are made. Personally, I have no doubts about not only the depth of Diamond‘s research, but also the logic behind his chains of thought, and the high probability of his conclusions being correct.
Popular Science Done Right
The genre of popular science has been losing in popularity over the past few decades, with people having seemingly lost interest in educating themselves on topics which bear no immediate or tangible fruit. As a result, there are fewer and fewer authors around who really know how to approach the genre and how to treat their readers correctly.
In my opinion, Guns, Germs and Steel is a perfect example of how to do it correctly. To begin with, Jared Diamond doesn’t simply spend his time enumerating historical facts and events one after the other; he certainly knows he isn’t writing his PhD here.
Rather, his first order of business is to establish a bit of a narrative and to relay a relevant personal experience, the one which ultimately pushed him to write Guns, Germs and Steel. He tears down the formal barrier existing between reader and author early on, which, personally-speaking, made me feel a bit more at ease and interested, since I knew I wouldn’t be bombarded with non-stop facts.
While I wouldn’t say the book has a narrative in the classic sense of the term, we are following the author’s concrete line of thinking, which brings us to various times and places around the entire world. This non-chronological globetrotting actually works as an excellent mechanism which prevents the chapters from becoming stale and homogeneous, without ever losing sight of the string of thought uniting all the ideas and chapters together.
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There are a few passages in this book, especially towards the end, where it did feel like I was receiving a little too much information at once, but in the end I didn’t find it bothersome for two reasons: I still retained the big picture, and after all, I am allowed to read at any pace I need to. Considering the wealth of knowledge undoubtedly stored in Diamond‘s head, it’s quite commendable to see those passages are exceptions rather than the norm.
The Final Verdict
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is an exceptionally well-researched, powerfully-argued and eloquently-explained popular science and history book, realizing with great success one of the most ambitious ideas in literature: to explain the historical course of mankind.
If you have even the slightest passing interest in the history of humanity and are searching for answers to all of its “whys”, then I would say reading this book is an essential experience.
Jared Diamond is an American author, geographer, historian and ornithologist who has published a number of widely-acclaimed popular science books over a variety of fields. His works include The Third Chimpanzee, Collapse, The world Until Yesterday, Upheaval, without of course forgetting his 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel.