Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals, and the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government and communication - and increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China did not. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns and subjugate the New World.)
Diamond's book is complex and a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth — examining the "positive feedback loop" of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation, and on and on — makes sense.
Unfortunately, the author overplays his hand in several ways. This book explicitly aims to repudiate western civilization's claim to superiority. Much of the discussion is subordinated to this political aim, and as a result turns into a polemic against cultural arrogance, rather than attempting a balanced discussion of possible and likely effects. In the service of equalizing moral stature among all civilizations, we are told that western domination is only the result of incidental geographic circumstances. Western civilization is winning because the deck was stacked in its favor from the start, the author argues cogently - and therefore any superiority of its cultural institutions and traditions is only a "proximate cause" of success, and thus to be disregarded as secondary and unimportant. That last jump does not compute.
Still, this is a good book, and an enjoyable read. Jared Diamond may be ignoring half of the story of civilization - cultural institutions, religion, the role of doctrine and tradition - but he presents his half well, if a bit over-zealously. Try to take the facts without the political payload, and you will benefit as well enjoy yourself.
At first glance, Diamond's argument seems irrefutable. In fact when I was reading this book I was reminded of Darwin's Origins of Species. Indeed, he makes a good case for his position. However, further examination raises questions. For example, what of cultural influences? I find it interesting that the eventual "conquest" of the world is almost exclusively the result of European efforts - including the subjugation of Asia, which according to Diamond shares the same developmental axis of Europe. Why is it that only Europe "conquered" the globe and not both Europe and Asia? Or why was it not Asia who eventually conquered and subjugated the Americas and Africa? What about the role of religion? Certainly a driving factor in the explosive European colonization of the world was Christianity. What of other cultural factors like competition? In many cultures cooperation and group cohesiveness and unity is stressed rather than personal gain (in Asia as well as in the Americas.) Yet none of these cultural mores are even mentioned in the book.
Diamond's argument has its merits - certainly geography has played a role in the eventual conquest of one civilization over others. However, I believe the impact of culture, religion and weltanschauuing — one's world view — play a larger role than is given credit for. Guns, Germs and Steel is certainly an intriguing book, and is not without its strengths. However I cannot help but feel that the development of mankind is greater than mere geographic happenstance.
Dumb luck? Yes, dumb luck. Europeans came to New Guinea because they had a larger population which allowed them to develop "civilization" first. But why the larger population? Geography. Mr. Diamond believes geography is destiny. He argues that people everywhere will exploit their environment. The more resources a group of people have, the easier, and quicker, they will grow. On the other hand, the more barren a land, the slower the growth of any people found living there.
Europeans and Asians developed civilization earlier because their ancestors were lucky enough to be living in a place where there were more crops to grow. In the "Fertile Belt", a land region roughly occupying modern Turkey, Mr. Diamond states that there were, naturally occurring, (1) more types of edible plants (2) these plants had more nutritional value and (3) because Europe and Asia are on a more horizontal axis than Africa or the Americas, these plants could be planted over a larger expanse of land than crops in America, Africa, or Australia.
Now, were the people in the "Fertile Valley" really just lucky? Within his own book are arguments to undercut his theory. Strawberries were, to my surprise, not domesticated until the Middle Ages. This occurred after many years of experimentations by Monks. [Who also eventually came up with Champagne.] The point being that these Monks were actively attempting to develop them. Did the people in the "Fertile Valley" have their own "Monks" who developed these earlier crops? Did they have explorers searching the world for edible foods?
There are so many great examples of how the political structure of a society will predetermine its success, regardless of the environment, that Mr. Diamond's failure to adequately address this point detracted from his book. For example, Chinese explorers came to East Africa, and maybe America, hundreds of years before the Europeans. The Chinese stopped exploring based on a political decision. The land of paper, gunpowder and so much else began to stagnate.
Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin. These men's research was published after they died, or they recanted their observations, or they delayed publishing for many years; for fear of the Catholic Church. Today South Korea is one of the four economic "young tigers." North Koreans are starving. The same people, the same land, yet much different results. Politics can make a greater difference in the development of a country's life then environmental factors.
And that is the biggest problem with this book. It reeks of politics. Mr. Diamond detracts from the science of this book because he goes so far out of his way to be politically correct. There are many examples. Another reviewer here talks about the major race problems in this book. I agree.
In addition, let's examine Mr. Diamond's view on the mass extinctions which followed the colonization of America. These extinctions occurred from the period of 17,000 years to 12,000 years ago (p.46). These extinctions occurred over five thousand years. Mr. Diamond rejects a germ theory of extinction and states that hunters in America killed off most large animals during this time.
This lack of large animals later dramatically retarded later civilizations in America, and their ability to grow. In his words, "why did most of them pick the 23rd (ice age) to expire in concert, in the presence of all those harmless humans?" Why does it matter? His central point, lack of animals hurting development, can be made under either theory. The important fact was there were no large animals when farming became more common.
It only matters if you want to make a different point. Over and over and over and over, Mr. Diamond constantly discusses how the destruction of animals and the environment has adverse effects on society. Okay! I get it. I even agree, to a point. But when you keep talking about issues not directly connected to your thesis, it distracts from the book.
It also makes a 200-page book, twice as long. Guns, Germs, and Steel should have been a great book. Instead, in the final analysis, it is interesting but too long and too political. I still enjoyed, very much, many parts of it, but the sum total and the final answer to human history "dumb luck" is too contrived to strongly recommend.