Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”: Book Review

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > History / Biography

Overall Rating: ★★★★ (4/7) (acceptable for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★ (4/7)

Readability: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Challenge Level: 3/5 (Intermediate) | 528 pages (official)

Blurb/Description: Highly touted by luminaries including Bill Gates, Guns, Germs, and Steel ambitiously analyzes major civilizations all the way back to the hunter-gatherer era to craft a narrative around geographical and environmental factors, rather than genetic or cultural differences or other factors, being the primary cause of why certain civilizations prospered (and others floundered).

Summary: with perhaps a little too much detail, Diamond lays out a case for the history of human development being predicated mainly on factors such as the availability of large-grained crops for staple food, and the availability of large domesticable mammals to aid in working the land.  

Highlights: the book advanced some unusual, thought-provoking arguments such as how the east-west vs. north-south axis of a continent can alter trade and development.  (For example, a crop that can grow well in the Andes probably can’t grow well in Mexico, so it won’t spread north and other societies won’t benefit from that development, but a crop that can grow well at a certain latitude in China can fairly easily spread west to Europe or vice versa.)  Diamond is definitely an original thinker.

Lowlights: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Diamond is a man-with-a-hammer: tonally, he mostly fails to admit the possibility that anything elsebesides environmental determinism played a role in shaping human history.  Similar to the problems with Robert Wright’s genetic determinism in The Moral Animal and any other analysis of human behavior that excludes agency, this undermines the credibility of the evidence Diamond presents, as the reader is perpetually left wondering whether he’s fitting facts to story rather than vice versa.

Also, the narrative completely falls apart after the year 1700 – even to the extent that it seems to compellingly describe progress up until that point, which I believe it does, it utterly fails to shed any light on development on the post-Renaissance, Industrial Revolution era (which, at least in a technological sense, represents the vast majority of human progress).  

For example, John Lewis Gaddis, in On Grand Strategy (OGS review + notes). does what Diamond does not: sheds light and insight on how the world came to be modern, as Greenblatt might put it in The Swerve.  

Gaddis notes that “the ruler of a microstate who macromanaged” (Queen Elizabeth) managed to best “the ruler of a microstate who micromanaged” – which, as Gaddis points out,

“made no sense in terms of geography, logistics, or communications.  But as a reflection of royal minds – and, through them, of contrasting philosophies… it made perfect sense, so much so that the future of the world Europe would soon rule pivoted on the distinction.”

This passage helped me clarify some previously-unrecognized interrelations. “ The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (InD review + notes).  Does there not appear to be at least the potential for correlation between how massive Spain, with (nearly) infinite resources, ceded ground to tiny England, with very constrained resources – and how retail giants like Wal-Mart ceded ground to upstarts like Amazon?

Guns, Germs, and Steel has its merits, but completely fails to address the human side of the story – and the modern world, as well as historical events like this, demonstrate that having more resources doesn’t always mean winning the war.  

Ultimately, then, while the book is thought-provoking and perhaps even directionally correct with regards to early human history, it fails to present a useful model for either analyzing the modern world or setting forth global policies.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: luck vs. skillagencystorytellingtrait adaptivity

You should buy a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel if: you, like me, are predisposed to very Westernized/individualistic thinking rather than the more European/Eastern focus on contextual factors, and need a lengthy counterpoint to fundamental attribution error.

Reading Tips: Don’t be afraid to skim.

Pairs Well With:

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt: A much more convincing, not to mention better-written, explanation of how the world became modern.

The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin (TSE review + notes).  A good book on the topics of luck and skill – similar to the points you’ll think about in GGS).

The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis (LandH review + notes).  A thoughtful exploration of the thought process of how historians can – and do – sift through evidence from the past to better understand it.

Reread Value:

More Detailed Notes: not available at this time, sorry! :’(

First Read: 2015

Last Read: 2015

Number of Times Read: 1

Review Date: summer 2017