Sunday, December 16, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond

While very interesting, this was a difficult read. The style is that of a collegiate textbook written by the professor teaching the class requiring that it be read: stuffy, pretentious, and self-congratulatory. The topic, however, was intriguing enough that I slogged through the nearly 500 pages without (much) complaint. The basic tenet argued here is that the triumph of Eurasian culture is in large measure due to an accident of geography. Specifically, the horizontal orientation of Eurasia as opposed to the vertical orientation of Africa and the Americas: the climate changes in a north-south oriented geography are severe enough to prevent a widespread exchange of agricultural technologies, crops, and domesticated animals. Successful large-scale agriculture led to dense populations, innovative technology, and sophisticated trade; trade led to an exposure to a wide range of diseases for Eurasians resulting in an advanced immune system. So, when Europeans first made contact with America, the combination of disease and technology made it easier for relatively small numbers to overwhelm much larger Native American populations.

While interesting, there is one major flaw that seriously hurt the academic standing of this tome: a startling lack of references. Fact after fact is presented on virtually every page, but no indication of where these facts originate—not a footnote in sight. While I’m far from a scholar and don’t normally chase down citations when reading non-fiction, the complete lack of them I found unsettling. I’m guessing that the author’s intent was to create a popular history for the educated masses rather than a thesis targeted at academia. Seeing as the book won a Pulitzer, I suppose he succeeded!

First Sentence:
A suitable starting point from which to compare historical developments on the different continents is around 11,000 B.C.

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