Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? This is a question seems too broad to be explained, but the answer is in fact unfolded in an ambitious, impressive nonfiction book called Guns, Germs, and Steel, covering over 13,000 years of human history.
In the book, Jared Diamond introduces his analysis by starting with his experience in New Guinea. He was inspired by his friend Yali, a local politician, when he asked Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” While most anthropologists would quickly relate this to racial differences, Diamond focuses on environmental differences surrounding different cultures. He then gives his thesis statement for the book: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves,” also known as geographic determinism.
Through the four parts, twenty chapters of the book, Diamond keeps emphasizing geographic determinism, one of his main theories; that it is geographical and environmental features, rather than human intellectual ability, which determines the path of history. For example, the Fertile Crescent was the site of the earliest human agriculture because it held the greatest number of different species of plants that could be domesticated and farmed efficiently—annual hermaphroditic crops. As population increases, agriculture provides the stable food supply that civilization requires, so these regions have the advantage of abundant domesticable plant resources.
In addition to Diamond’s theory, his analytical approach and writing style are also impressive. He aims for a scientific approach to the study of history, using experiments to figure which causes are related to certain effects. As history is a complex field, it is difficult to isolate the causes of historical events because there is no experiment that can be used to identify an independent variable’s effect on a dependent variable—there are so many causes to analyze. Nevertheless, Diamond believes that there are ways historians can make their approaches more scientific; for instance, they can compare two civilizations with similar environmental conditions, thereby doing better at examining the effects that longitude and altitude have on technology diffusion. Although this is a human history book, in general, and can seem daunting to read, Diamond does a great job at keeping his language straightforward and content clear. The in-text illustrations including figures, tables, charts, and pictures are cleverly used and well connected with text to help with comprehension. Besides, in every chapter different questions are thrown in to be analyzed, and they are truly interesting and mind-blowing. Have you thought about: “why did Europeans succeed in domesticating the horse while Africans never domesticated the zebra”, “why did the New Guineans near Australia develop agriculture and elaborate technologies while the aborigines did not?”, and “who came up with the idea to domesticate a crop?” …… These distinct differences of Guns, Germs, and Steel from a history textbook have worked to attract people to read and learn history.
In the epilogue, Diamond concludes that there are four underlying environmental factors that determine the course of human history: 1) availability of wild plants and animals for domestication, 2) barriers to diffusion and migration within a continent, 3) barriers to diffusion and migration between continents, and 4) population size and density. While some of Diamond’s arguments are beautifully constructed, some other facets are not thoroughly analyzed. However, just like Will Hamblet comments in his book review, Diamond should be praised for his attempt to bridge disciplinary fields to shed light on thousands of years of history.
Reviewed by Nina X ’18