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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies ()

Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)

    History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples'
    environments, not because of differences among people themselves.
            -Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

No development of the 20th Century was more unfortunate than the politicization of practically everything.  Possibly the worst aspect of this catastrophe is the degree to which science has been corrupted.  Robert Bork and Tom Wolfe have written eloquently about the consequences of the politicization of the Law (see Orrin's review) and the Arts (see Orrin's review) respectively, but these are essentially human constructs, so some corruption is inevitable and probably natural.  But Science lays claim to a special status as a wholly impartial, rational and incorruptible system, independent of human influence, revealing certain immutable  "truths' about the world around us.  Since its right to this mantle has gone largely unchallenged, except by a few intrepid philosophers like Karl Popper and those who are easily dismissed as religious fanatics, the modern tendency of scientists to use scientific theories to prove that their own political views are "correct" is especially troubling.  Environmentalists and population doomsayers have been doing this for so long and have made so many inaccurate predictions that we are mostly wise to their shenanigans.  But there are other, more respected, folks who do much the same thing.  One example that comes to mind is Stephen Jay Gould's book, The Mismeasure of Man (see Orrin's review), which even made the Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century, wherein he essentially argues that since the validity of phrenology has been disproved, there is no scientific basis for believing there to be any differences between the human races.  Similarly, this book by Jared Diamond, which even won the Pulitzer Prize, uses scientific sleight of hand to argue that differences in the respective levels of development between human societies are purely a function of environment.  The book is fascinating, entertaining and eminently readable, but it is also either maddeningly obtuse or an exercise in utter intellectual dishonesty, for Diamond's argument is ultimately little more than a house of cards and the bottom card is especially weak.

Diamond, who is an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, has done extensive field work in New Guinea.  A native friend named Yali once asked him:

    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?

This book attempts to answer Yali's question.  But it seeks to answer it in a very specific and seemingly underhanded way, by trying to completely discount biological, intellectual and cultural differences and relying instead on environmental happenstance as the sole cause of this disparity.  In one of the strangest moments in the book, Diamond seems to recognize that different ethnic groupings might have genuinely differing intellectual capacities.  In fact, he argues that a native of New Guinea must be more intelligent than a contemporary western European because while we sit around watching TV and eating fast food, they are out trying to figure out how to put dinner on the table (or grass mat or whatever).  Let's ignore, for the moment, the question of who's smarter.  The bizarre thing, given the context of the rest of the book, is that after arguing here that there are such differences, Diamond never even acknowledges the possibility that such differences had any influence on the subsequent development of human societies.

Instead, he argues that societies developed almost exclusively according to their geographical setting and the ease of domestication of the flora and fauna located nearby.  At the end of the last Ice Age, some 11,000 or 13,000 years ago, virtually all human societies were at a similar hunter-gatherer stage of development, but from that point on they diverge drastically.  It is Diamond's contention that the Fertile Crescent in mesopotamia was endowed with a package of grains and animals which were especially easy to domesticate, along with an ideal climate for doing so.  Once humans can grow or raise their own food they settle down and form communities. These are gradually aggregated into nation-states with population densities that allow for divisions of labor and an elite class of intellectuals and so on.  These nations eventually became expansionist and began to encounter and conquer the less organized societies.  Living in close proximity to animals and grains, the developed societies were exposed to devastating diseases.  Their members acquired some level of resistance to such diseases, but when they came into contact with the undeveloped peoples, who had never been exposed to these germs, the diseases were particularly lethal.  And as the developed nations continued to progress they became more and more advanced until they had technologies like steam power and guns which gave them a prohibitive advantage in their encounters with the undeveloped world.  Thus, the ultimate differences in levels of development between societies are very real, and they allowed the "developed" nations to dominate the "undeveloped", but in Diamond's view the reasons for this all trace their way back to the fact that wheat and cows sprang full blown from Hera's head and dropped into our laps ready to be planted or milked.

Given A, no doubt B and C and D follow nicely.  So let's look at this initial point most carefully--what of the idea that certain grains and animals were just sitting there waiting to be used by man?  Diamond does a great job of demonstrating that most of the animals and foodstuffs that we have ever domesticated occurred in abundance in only those places where domestication occurred.  But wait, that's kind of circular isn't it?  At one point, when he's talking about human domestication of dogs, he marvels at the mechanics that allowed us to eventually breed the dachshund after starting with the wolf.  But then when he examines why horses were domesticated but zebras were not, he simply avows that it was because zebras are bad tempered.  Hello?  Are we to believe that the ancient ancestor of the modern horse was essentially tame before we ever put a halter around it's neck?  And is it really the case that we couldn't breed zebras for a few generations and get them to the point where they are more manageable?  Ditto the cow vs. the buffalo.  Diamond makes a huge production out of the fact that while a large variety of large herd animals occur in the Fertile Crescent and the rest of Eurasia, very few such animals occur in places like Australia and the Americas.  But what of the buffalo?  Shouldn't the fact that there were so few animals to choose from have given the Native Americans even more impetus to domesticate bison?  Suppose they are trickier than the Ur-cows that we tamed, shouldn't that superior intellect that Diamond maintains results from more challenging life circumstances have enabled them to tame a more difficult beast?  We don't know Diamond's answers to such questions because he necessarily ignores them.

In a letter to The New York Review of Books, refuting some points made in their review of his book, Diamond states that:

    Historians' failure to explain history's broadest pattern leaves us with a huge moral gap. In the
    absence of convincing explanations, many (most?) people resort, consciously or unconsciously, to
    racist assumptions: the conquerors supposedly had superior IQ or culture.  That prevalence of racist
    theories, as loathsome as they are unsupported, is the strongest reason for studying the long-term
    factors behind human history.

Okay, suppose that we grant him that most of us assume racial differences help explain the differing levels of development in different human societies.  Suppose we further grant that this supposition is unfounded and pernicious, that it is racist and not simply racialist--racism implies that the more successful culture is superior in some abstract sense, while racialism would merely notice a racial component to the relative success levels of these cultures.  Does any of this justify using  parlor tricks and shoddy reasoning to try and replace the arguably racist assumptions with totally dubious environmental ones?  I suppose you could argue that it is better in societal terms to have our faulty understanding rest on the dicey assumptions which are least hurtful to other people, but this is not science, it is social engineering.  We should not grant it the same implicit level of authenticity which we typically allow to scientific theory.

The book is truly fascinating and Diamond's grasp of 13,000 years of human history is really impressive.  But his argument is finally just so silly that you have to question either his motives or his own understanding of the material he presents.  I'll assume that his motives, though perhaps noble, lead him to propound a dubious scientific theory in order to undermine racially based theories that may or may not be equally weak.  This is a book to be read and enjoyed, but with a skeptical eye.


Grade: (C+)



Jared Diamond Links:

    The Ends of the World as We Know Them: The Unites States is seemingly at the height of its power, but how long will our ascendancy last? (Jared Diamond, 1/01/05, NY Times)
When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts. That's not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case.

    -ESSAY: The Erosion of Civilization: The Fertile Crescent's fall holds a message for today's troubled spots. (Jared Diamond, June 15, 2003, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Muskets and Nukes: the Patterns of Proliferation (Jared Diamond, March 16, 2003, LA Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -CV: CURRICULUM VITAE: Jared M. Diamond (UCLA)
    -PROFILE: The Man Who Knows Too Much: Pulitzer Prize-winning human mulitprocesor Jared Diamond has a lot on his mind (Catherine Seipp, UCLA Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW : ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS [10.31.01] Introduction by Jared Diamond (The Edge)
    -SPEECH: Faculty Research Lecture: Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years? (Jared Diamond, UCLA)
    -ESSAY: The Landscape of Destiny: To understand who's on top in the modern world, you have to look back to the last Ice Age and the inherent environmental advantages the conquerors had over history's less fortunate. (Jared Diamond, UCLA Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Easter's End (Jared Diamond, Discover)
    -ESSAY : Archaeology: Talk of cannibalism (JARED M. DIAMOND, Nature)
    -ESSAY ARCHIVE: to find more Essays by Diamond use the Article Archive to search for articles published in Discover Magazine
    -INTERVIEW :  (Randall Rothenberg, Strategy & Business)
    -REVIEW:  Jared Diamond: The Golden Phonebook, NY Review of Books
        Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
    -REVIEW: Jared Diamond: Outcasts of the Islands, NY Review of Books
        The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks
    -REVIEW:  Jared Diamond: The Roots of Radicalism, NY Review of Books
        Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives by Frank J. Sulloway
    -REVIEW:  Jared Diamond: Portrait of the Biologist as a Young Man, NY Review of Books
        Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
    -INTERVIEW: "GUNS, GERMS & STEEL"  (April 17, 1998, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript)
    -INTERVIEW: (Family Haven)
    -DISCUSSION: The Animals that Conquered the World
    -AWARDS: Lannan Foundation Literary Award
    -Edge 3rd Culture: Jared Diamond
    -ESSAY: Laying a foundation for human history (Bill Gates, MicroSoft)
    -REVIEW: William H. McNeill: History Upside Down, NY Review of Books
        Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
    -RESPONSE: Jared Diamond: 'GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL', NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: of GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL The Fates of Human Societies. By Jared Diamond (James Shreeve, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel Secrets of Success (Joel Mokyr, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel  (Laurence Hurst, New Scientist)
    -REVIEW:  of Guns, Germs and Steel  (Jonathan Cape, THE ECONOMIST REVIEW)
    -REVIEW: The Clash of Continents  (Steve Sailer, National Review)
    -REVIEW : Is Geography Destiny? :  "'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?' Jared Diamond begins his ambitious Guns, Germs, and Steel with this query from Yali, a New Guinean politician and acquaintance..." (Donald A. Yerxa, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel  (European Sociobiological Society Newsletter Reviewed by J. Philippe Rushton, Department of Psychology, University of Western Ontario)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel  (Michael Levin is in the Department of Philosophy of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, American Renaissance)
    -REVIEW: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel  (J. Bradford DeLong,
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel  (EH.NET by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel  (Danny Yee)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs and Steel (Mr. Hutchings, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, Kathmandu Post)
    -REVIEW: Steve Jones: Go Milk a Fruit Bat!, NY Review of Books
        Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond
    -REVIEW: of THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. By Jared Diamond (Frans B. M. de Waal, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Who are you calling civilised? : Western civilisation likes to see itself as the finest in history, but it ranks poorly against its predecessors (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Times of London)
    -Darwin & Darwinism
    -ESSAY: The Rise and Fall of 15th Century Chinese Seapower (Michael L. Bosworth)
    -ARTICLE : Mungo Man shows how Australia was a cradle of culture (Roger Highfield, Science Editor)
    -ESSAY : Endangered Species : 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are scheduled for extinction by the year 2100. (Preston Jones, Books & Culture)


I have not read "Guns, Germs and Steel" but I have watched Jared Diamond on film and listened to him explaining his theory.

As I listened, I thought of the same questions as the author of this review. So, Africans failed to domesticate zebras because they kick a lot? And wild horses don't? The American and African buffalo are mean animals, whereas those of Eurasia stem from a docile predecessor who enjoyed the company of humans? Diamond does not understand (or pretends he does not understand) the first thing about domestication. It is not about identifying docile species. It is about identifying docile individuals within a species and having them mate in order to enhance their docility. This was proven in experiments with polar foxes in Russia. By the way, in that film, Diamond admits that lions and tigers were not domesticated not because they are so ferocious, but because they are useless. Talk about a scholar who never contradicts himself!

I sent Jared Diamond links to websites which feature stories and show pictures of Europeans riding zebras, and even ostriches, and asked him to comment. Naturally, he did not answer.

The most interesting thing, however, is that by the definition of those who refuse to accept the existence of genetic differences at the group level, Diamond is a self-avowed racist and a staunch supporter of J. P. Rushton, and R. Lynn. Not only has he stated that the New Guineans are probably more intelligent than Europeans for genetic reasons, but he has also published an article in Nature (1986, vol. 320, pp. 488-499), entitled "Variation in human testis size". If you had read that article without knowing the name of the author, you would have betted that it is by Rushton. In that article, Diamond concedes that East Asians have smaller testes than Danes, and that East Asians have the lowest twinning rates, followed by Europeans, then by Africans (which is the backbone of Rushton's theory). The only difference between him and Rushton is that Diamond says there is no evidence that these traits predict copulation frequency. However, he does concur with Rushton, that African (Yoruba) women have higher sex-hormone levels (at least at the time of ovulation) than Japanese women, and says that these differences may contribute to the geographic distribution of the incidence of breast cancer. And this is how Diamond ends his article: "...variation in human sex organs and function warrants serious study." So, Diamond supports Rushton's work! Surely, me must think that variation in human cranial capacity and correlations with IQ also warrant serious research! Who knows, it might turn out that New Guineans have larger brains than Europeans. That would explain their superior intelligence very convincingly. Everybody would be happy: Diamond, Rushton, Jensen, and Lynn!

- misho

- Mar-22-2007, 10:04


I just happened to run across this review while googling, and I happen to agree with it. In fact, I would have been far more scathing in my review of it. While I generally agree with Mr. Diamond's thesis, his attempt to create a sort of environmental determinism in which things like random hapenstance and cultural/social decisions play absolutely no role in shaping society ultimately left me guffawing at his poltically correct silliness. I found it a shame that a man of Mr. Diamond's obvious intelligence couldn't address the subject dispassionately, because he really is making some important points.

In any event, I am primarily commenting because the other poster's first instinct was to shoot down your argument completely by means of an ad hominem attack. He says:

"Obviously the critical reviewer of Guns, Germs, and Steel has not carefully read this book."

To which he follows, "It is not a simple read. I had to read it twice to fully understand some of the points that he made. For instance, Dr. Diamond did not assert that the New Guinean people are more intelligent than the Western Europeans."

Now this is simply false, as the following passage makes abundently clear:

"My perspective on this controversy comes from 33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies. From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners. Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.

It's easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners may be correct. First, Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central governments, police, and judiciaries. In those societies, infectious epidemic diseases of dense populations (such as smallpox) were historically the major cause of death, while murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule. Most Europeans who escaped fatal infections also escaped other potential causes of death and proceeded to pass on their genes. Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections as well and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food.

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example, people with blood group B or O have a greater resistance to smallpox than do people with blood group A. That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent.

Besides this genetic reason, there is also a second reason why New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.

That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up. Certainly, there is no hint at all of any intellectual dissadvantage of New Guineans that could serve to answer Yali's question.

The same two genetic and childhood developmental factors are likely to distinguish not only New Guineans from Westerners, but also hunter-gatherers and other members of technologically primitive societies from members of technologically advanced societies in general. Thus, the usual racist assumption has to be turned on its head. Why is it that Europeans, despite their likely genetic disadvantage and (in modern times) their undoubted developmental disadvantage, ended up with much more of the cargo? Why did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?"

In short, while it might be easier to defend that Mr. Diamond was only saying that it was impossible to see any intellectual differences between the peoples of the world, that is not in fact what he said. He said that in his travels he'd been convinced that he could see intellectual differences in people. Paraphrasing the above only slightly, he in fact says that it is his opinion that Europeans are geneticly inferior to other peoples of the world, having reached their current genetic makeup as a result of evolutionary pressures that selected against intelligence rather than for it. That is of course a much less defensible position, but it is in fact what he said. What I find completely courious, is that if he had said the opposite, that he could recognize differences in intelligence and in his opinion European and Euroasian peoples were probably more intelligent than other people as the result of evolutionairy pressures which selected in favor of intelligence - which he could have just as easily done using the same spurious and shallow reasoning as the above passage has - that his 'scholarship' would have been rejected out of hand and with much passionate chorus of disapproval and disgust. Instead, we see people leaping to his defense to the point of twisting his words and calling people poor readers if in fact they point out that he said exactly what he clearly said.

And then there is, "This fundamental lapse of understanding the book eliminates the need to address any other issues brought up in the review." Ah yes, if debate becomes difficult then you can just dismiss your opponent entirely on the grounds of his lack of understanding. Why not simply say that everyone that disagrees with you is stupid and be done with it, rather than hiding behind a veneer of graciousness while all the while calling into question your opponent's intelligence rather than actually trying to defend your thesis.

"It's an excellent book and I higly recommend it to anyone that is sincerely interested in why humans with identical genetic makeup..."

As a person working in genetics, I can tell you that the claim that humans have identical genetic makeup is fundementally untrue. I have databases of human genetic information to prove it. The claim that different human cultures are because of supposed genetic inferiority incapable of producing genius is likewise easily disprovable, but holding one absolute or the other as an unquestionable moral certainty is not science. Science does not presuppose the answer and then look for the facts to fit it while ignoring those facts that don't. Diamond's book provides valuable insight, but it falls well short of a full answer.

- celebrim

- Jun-03-2005, 23:54


I wouldn't be at all surprised if you start to understand the book after your third read.

- oj

- May-20-2005, 10:43


Obviously the critical reviewer of Guns, Germs, and Steel has not carefully read this book. It is not a simple read. I had to read it twice to fully understand some of the points that he made.

For instance, Dr. Diamond did not assert that the New Guinean people are more intelligent than the Western Europeans. His point was that he did not see any intellectual differences among people anywhere in the world (as a group rather than on an individual basis). He said one could argue that New Guinean people are more intelligent than Western Europeans by observing lifestyle just like you could make the arguement that Western Europeans are more intelligent than New Guineans. The arguments end up being an arbitrary matter of what evidence you choose to use to make your determination, in this case the ability of the New Guineans to survive in terrible and challenging conditions or the possessions or cargo of the Western Europeans.

This fundamental lapse of understanding the book eliminates the need to address any other issues brought up in the review. It is an example how a complex subject is hard to comprehend, so the reader simply identifies something that stood out as shocking and wrote an untrue and inflammatory statement about an intelligent and inquisitive man. Sounds like the sufferings of all scientists.

It's an excellent book and I higly recommend it to anyone that is sincerely interested in why humans with identical genetic makeup, would develop societies as such different rates.

- Darrell Kinsley

- May-20-2005, 10:07