Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Dec 1, 2005

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My mother recommended this book by Jared Diamond to me emphatically and repeatedly, so on my Thanksgiving trip to visit my grandmother I swiped it from her. Well, no, I just noticed it on the endtable by the couch where I slept and I was unable to resist opening it and having a look. (Never mind that I didn't try to resist, heh.) My grandmother is a lovely lady who, upon seeing you admire something, insists on giving it to you. I am not yet certain whether I am borrowing this book or if it's just mine now.

My initial impression was not very good; the introduction is, I think, the worst part of the book, but once he gets into the facts he is presenting Mr. Diamond proposes some interesting theories.

The general idea of the book is that different societies have been variably successful not because of the apparent proximate causes, i.e. Guns, Germs, and Steel, but because of the ultimate causes that make the acquisition of those proximate causes possible. The major, underlying one is success in getting enough surplus food.

That success, however, is dependant upon a number of factors that Mr. Diamond details in his book, but most of them appear to be environmental in nature, such as, say, the existence of local large mammals that can be domesticated.

Overall, I'd say that the book is good and certainly worth reading, but I offer a few caveats about it. Mr. Diamond is not a fantastic writer; he repeats himself too much (as though he were explaining to a particularly slow and forgetful child), he uses too many personal anecdotes for a scholarly work, and he lets his personal biases show too much.

My favorite example of that last is his frequent use of what appears to be his favorite sneer: the "so-called" something. He uses the term to disparage several ideas, from Western "civilization" to "empires", but the general trend is clear; he thinks Westerners (and only Westerners, other "civilizations" seem exempt from this approbation) drew the lucky number.

Well, speaking of pre-history and looking at his book, it certainly seems that we did, but I don't think we need to apologize for it or that we owe anything to anyone who wasn't lucky. Apart from respecting their rights, of course, which until recently no one on the planet was any great shakes at doing, so I don't think Western civilization deserves a lot of complaints for being very good at doing what everyone was doing. It's the only civilization that's been any good at putting a stop to the practice even briefly and incompletely.

Mr. Diamond makes several other irritating claims, such as the fact that all political systems other than that of the pre-tribal band can be classified as a "kleptocracy" (a term he fails to define), and that all differences between cultures or individuals are simply "idiosyncracies".

Oh well. The book definitely delivers some interesting things to ponder, and you can dismiss the errors. Just do yourself a service and don't ignore them.

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