Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, Hardback Feature

What is History 9: Jared Diamond Guns, Germs & Steel Overview

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What is History 9: Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, 1997: Overview & Critique

1 Overview


I read Guns, Germs and Steel 1997 within a year of its publication and was strongly influenced. I had been looking for something about human history that was more scientific in its approach and that linked history to the evolution of humankind. It is now twenty years later.

I’ve mentioned before it is important that we start to look at history from a multidisciplinary view and certainly at least link it to our biological heritage. Jared Diamond says much the same thing in his introductory Prologue:

Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing, and political organization.

I would have added more categories at the time. In my 1995 Travel Journal in Pakistan inspired by the Taxila Museum, I wrote:

It is amazing how [our understanding of] history has improved in the past fifty years as the yoke of European ethnocentricity has been thrown off. Scholars knew some of these things before, but outside expert fields the knowledge was remote, and a belief in the superiority of Europeans masked enormous elements of human history. The contributions of science, anthropology, psychology and sociology have been enormous in the twentieth century…

Today I’d add economic history and ‘big data’ to the list.

The next article on Guns, Germs and Steel is 10 Polynesia a Natural Experiment of History. The other What is History? articles are 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their Facts, 6 Religion, 7: EH Carr Causation, 8 EH Carr History as Progress and 11 World Economic History.

Summary of Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997

Jared Diamond begins with a question from Yali, a New Guinea politician he meets on a trail in the highlands of New Guinea, about why white people like Diamond have so many goods while his people have so few. Or, Why do people of Eurasian origin dominate the world in wealth and power?

Diamond tries to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that European hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. (Wikipedia)

To do this he goes back to the last 13,000 years of human history. Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, as of opportunity and necessity (Wikipedia).

The beginnings of agriculture, animal husbandry and settled life were necessary for populations to increase above hunter-gatherer levels. Diamond argues that the suitability of domesticable animals and plants and suitable geographical conditions were more advantageous in Eurasia than other parts of the globe. He also argues that east-west axes (Eurasia) were more beneficial than north-south axes (Africa and the Americas). He provides a great deal of evidence on these and other issues.

Regarding germs, the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals and growing populations provided fertile grounds for the development of new diseases, as did the growth of trade and later trade between empires. Similarly, one needs the development of multilayered societies for the rapid development of new technologies (e.g. steel, gun powder, cannons).

When the Eurasian West invaded other parts of the world, old world germs did untold damage to naive human populations; as did steel weapons, guns and horses to societies that didn’t have them.

This is a cursory summary, necessary to make sense of the discussion for those not familiar with the book.

Generalist Overviews

Generalist books are always criticised, because painting a big picture means skating over details. Diamond’s book has been criticised more than most:

  1. Partly because of Diamond’s own hubris, outlined in his mini-biography in the Prologue, in thinking it was his own unique background that made his overview of history possible (always mentioned in his lectures around the world, as well);
  2. Partly from the unusual way that he approached the topic;
  3. But mostly because of the subject matter.

I should mention that some of his hubris is justified (I would have been proud to have conceived and written Diamond’s book) and that despite some minor but important criticisms below and in later articles, I am a huge admirer of Jared Diamond and I think he nailed many of the things he says in Guns, Germs and Steel.

I do not have the same respect for his other books The Third Chimpanzee, 1991 (which at the time I considered speculative) or Collapse, 2005 (which to my mind, while entertaining and with memorable word portraits, does not really get to grips with the collapse of societies that other books on the same topic, a difficult one, have).

Diamond’s own Summary of Guns, Germs and Steel

Diamond says that authors are frequently asked by journalists to summarise a long book in one sentence. (Einstein was perhaps the first in the twentieth century to be asked this type of question incessantly by journalists.) Diamond’s response is:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

This description explains why Diamond approached the topic in the way he did, and also why some people are outraged by the book.

Ethnocentrism and Racism

Although it is not my particular area of interest in Guns, Germs and Steel, I can understand why Diamond felt that he had to cover the topics of direct and indirect racism up-front. (Indirect racism: for example, European people became more civilised because those in temperate climes tend to work harder and be more innovative than those in hotter climates).

The topic of negro/white intelligence was one of the hottest topics in psychology in America in the decades following World War II. (I mentioned a paper previously by Sherwood & Nataupsky, 1968 that demonstrates the intransigence of the debate, see below). I also remember seeing a chart in a Time Life book on the descent of man published in 1965 that showed Africans descended from Australopithecines, Asians from Homo erectus and only white people from Cromagnon man or Homo sapiens.

Arthur Koestler wrote an important essay on the need to keep flogging dead horses (regarding Skinnerism; see further information below) and I think that Diamond was probably right to tackle these issues head on.

Determinism and Chance

Jared Diamond, University College London 2013, WikiCommons

Jared Diamond, University College London 2013, WikiCommons

I outlined my own views on external forces that shaped history in What is History: An Introduction. If you have been following the series, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I intend to devote the next few articles to Guns, Germs and Steel. There is as much to say here as there is about EH Carr: ignoring things such as biological heritage, geography, climate, environment, disease or food availability, as professional history has tended to is inexcusable.

In What is History 7 EH Carr Causation I said:

Jacques Monod a French biochemist in an essay, later published as a 1971 book entitled Chance and Necessity, argued regarding the origin of life on Earth and biology in general that one must give chance a central role in what is otherwise a mechanistic biology.

Determinism is as ‘dirty’ a word in biology as it is in history, but when one carefully looks at the origin of life one has to come around to the view that there had to be a mixture of chance and necessity in the development of life. Similarly, with history, given our biological origin from other animals, one must give chance and necessity a central role. For example, look at the development of a complex brain and society, one cannot ignore ‘so called’ extraneous factors like environment, climate and disease. These events took place on planet Earth and were defined by its climate, geography and habitats. Also, because agriculture, settlements, cities, societies, political structures and empires were developed from scratch, it is not unreasonable to ask whether there were patterns or commonalities in these developments in different parts of the planet.

Certainly in the move from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture, denser populations, the development of world trade not to mention the evolution of political structures and settlements, habitat, location, food systems, climate and disease had to have been influential.

With the rise of military forces, the history of military outcomes was influenced by disease almost as much as by technology. The solution of the disease problem had as much to do with success in modern warfare, as did the development of smokeless gunpowder.

It has been suggested that climate and drought in particular may have been a prime cause behind the invasions of pastoral peoples from the steppes of Asia into China and Europe (e.g. Huns, Mongols). The evidence for this is not directly available, but one would be foolish not to consider the possibility.

In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond asked these questions and came up with some good answers based on strong evidence.

2 Further Background to Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond The Third Chimpanzee, 1991

Jared Diamond The Third Chimpanzee, 1991

Wikipedia’s Overview

(I have been criticised for my use of Wikipedia as a general source reference. My view is that for all its faults (partly due to funding) Wikipedia has survived and will eventually (or some similar entity) I hope become the universal reference for human knowledge, reminiscent perhaps of Gordon R Dickson’s idea in science fiction of The Final Encyclopedia. I offer no apology!)

Wikipedia does quite a good effort on Guns, Germs And Steel. It mentions two sub-titles, the useful one is: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.

A 1997 transdisciplinary non-fiction book… won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, surprisingly, an international best-seller.

Wikipedia provides a synopsis and general outline of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which you may wish to read for an extended summary of the content. Wikipedia also gives a coverage of academic reviews both positive and negative. I’ll cover some of these in the next section.

Crosby, Fagan and Harris

In the See Also section Wikipedia mentions the following authors Alfred Crosby, James Burke, Malcolm Gladwell and Marvin Harris. I found this endearing but rather odd. All are generalist and ‘so called’, often negatively, populist authors. James Burke I’ve mentioned elsewhere (1984: The Way We Were) and I will probably mention Gladwell sometime. But, in this context the other two are worth commenting on.

Alfred Crosby and Brian Fagan

Alfred Crosby and Brian Fagan I mentioned in the first What is History?Introduction.

Alfred Crosby wrote The Columbian Exchange: the biological and cultural consequences of 1492 in 1972, which looks at the impact on human history of the meeting of the old and new worlds. Brian M Fagan wrote The Little Ice Age How Climate made History, 1300-1850 in 2000 and several other books on archaeology and climate.

Both Crosby and Fagan exemplify the stream of precursors to Jared Diamond in examining aspects of history hitherto ignored by mainstream historians. Crosby wrote on the collision between the old and new worlds brought about by Christopher Columbus and the exchange between the two — plants, animals, diseases and other things. Fagan pointed out how small changes in climate for brief periods had massive impacts. Jared Diamond in Collapse 2005 provides a case study of Greenland settled by Vikings in the medieval warm period, the settlers did not adapt when it became cold again and died out.

Marvin Harris

My Paperback Copy

My Paperback Copy

I became aware of Marvin Harris and his book Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures 1977 through Fred Emery in his book Systems Thinking Vol. 2 1981. Emery included Harris’s Chapter on Mother Cow. I never quite believed Harris’s theory on why Indians don’t kill cows but I admired his attempt. Nor from memory did I believe Harris’s attempts to determine fighting behaviour from kinship systems in Plains Indians. He didn’t quite get it right.

However, I do remember vividly a quotation from Harris on the stifling nature of village life, which has stayed with me (See Further Information).

Harris was a controversial American anthropologist and stirred up wild emotions in fellow academics. (I must outline my own views and experiences with anthropologists sometime.)

Marvin Harris is another precursor to Guns, Germs, and Steel but as much as I’ve enjoyed Harris and his theories, I’d have to label him as speculative, much as I’ve called Jared Diamond’s first book above. Yuval Harari discussed in What is History 6: Religion in his book Sapiens 2014 although more erudite than these two books, said (personal communication):

Yes, there is a lot to disagree about when it comes to the history of religion, and I certainly don’t expect everybody to agree with everything I say. I am not sure even I agree with everything I say. In most such cases, questions are more important than answers. If the book raises important questions to the awareness of readers, and readers then grapple with these questions and come up with alternative answers – I think the book has done its main job.

I don’t think that Harris would disagree with this viewpoint. In comparison, in Guns, Germs and Steel Diamond is trying very hard to be as precise and as scientific as he is able. I don’t think he quite succeeds in all areas, but it is not from want of trying.

3 Academic and Other Reviews of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Academic Reviews

Academic reviews are always a mixed bag — jealousies and personal agendas are rife, more so with a generalist best seller.

Wikipedia lists prominent academic reviews of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Tom Tomlison, JR McNeill, Stephen Walt and Brad DeLong are mainly positive. James Morris Blaut, John Brätland and Jason Antrosio are strongly negative. Brätland complains Guns, Germs, and Steel neglects individual actions and economic institutions. Jason Antrosio an anthropologist calls Guns, Germs, and Steel ‘academic porn’.

Blaut criticizes Diamond’s loose use of the terms “Eurasia” and “innovative”, which he believes misleads the reader into presuming that Western Europe is responsible for technological inventions that arose in the Middle East and Asia. (Wikipedia)

Blaut in this sense is probably correct but he uses Diamond for his own purposes in his book Eight Eurocentric Historians 2000, which is partly a rant. He criticises Diamond as Eurocentric and an environmental determinist. The first is unkind and the second over-stated. I think JR McNeill with stronger academic credentials in environmental science handles the matter more usefully.


Jared Diamond Collapse, 2005

Jared Diamond Collapse, 2005

I consulted Goodreads as usual for my non-academic reviews. I was underwhelmed. There weren’t any of the pithy insightful comments I usually find. Although in the main positive (average 4.01 stars) the reviews were all over the shop. The only real insight was how many people wilfully and wantonly misinterpreted what Diamond was trying to achieve and criticised him for not including the parts of history that he never had any intention of including. Nevertheless, some of the misinterpretations may have been contributed to by Diamond.

Siria gave the book one star…shoddily argued and riddled with factual errors. She also said:

When it comes to assessing the reliability of Diamond’s arguments, the fact that there are no footnotes and no full bibliography make that a somewhat difficult task…

I disagree with Siria entirely on this. One gets sick of dry as dust footnotes and standard bibliographies. Diamond’s book is well-indexed and instead of a bibliography he includes a section entitled Further Readings, which I found a breath of fresh air. In Further Readings Diamond provides his references in a lucid English description of his sources chapter-by-chapter, with complete formal citations. I found that it made his research very accessible. As someone who used his Further Readings over five years to delve into the literature he cited, I found his literature selections were of the highest quality as source material and that they backed his assertions. As one unfamiliar with the literature of many of the fields cited, I found the materials contained stimulating information and the text was most useful in deciding what to read and when.

I would recommend Diamond’s Further Readings as a style others should follow. This will also be an important part of my subsequent articles on Guns, Germs and Steel.

In the end I only found two reviews that were useful by Michael McGoodwin and John Robert McNeill.

McGoodwin and McNeill

Michael McGoodwin

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997 Indonesian

Indonesian version

Dr Michael McGoodwin MD (personal communication) is a physicist by training and was a radiologist, when he wrote a review and summary of Guns, Germs, and Steel in his blog in 2000.

He said:

This is an interesting book written by a physiologist and evolutionary biologist, very broad in its scope, thought-provoking and challenging, for the most part refreshing in its outlook (definitely not Eurocentric!), but marred by an excess of political correctness and almost oblivious to the role of cultural differences and individuals in the shaping of history.

I think Michael has captured the prime difficulty of the book in his phrase an excess of political correctness. In addition to his hubris, Diamond is attempting two parallel arguments in Guns, Germs and Steel that don’t always sit well together. They are:

  1. The racism or Eurocentrism argument, and
  2. The impact of environment and location on the human history of the last 13,000 years.

I have argued above why I understand and think that Diamond’s ‘racism’ argument is important (the need to flog dead horses) but it does make the book slightly weird, especially because of the photographic plates of ethnic portraits of various peoples from across the world. Although the latter are subliminally suggestive, they are included without any explanation, whatsoever. I think an excess of political correctness is the most concise but apt description.

Although true, I would not have included Michael’s phrase: almost oblivious to the role of cultural differences and individuals in the shaping of history, for reasons discussed under reviews above.

Similarly, whilst it probably makes the book more readable and perhaps bestseller material, I found the description of the massacre of the Moriori (by other Maoris) and the collision at Cajamarca (Pizarro and the Incas), while fascinating, detracted from the flow and argument of the rest of the text.

I also know some further details of the Moriori conquest that I’m surprised that Jared Diamond didn’t include. The coming of the Europeans to New Zealand provided guns to certain groups of Maori, which destabilised Maori culture and began the Musket Wars. The two tribes of Maori who embarked for the Chatham Islands had been forced out of their traditional lands by more powerful enemies and were sheltering landless in Wellington to avoid being killed. They had heard of the Chatham Islands from sealers and commandeered a British ship the Lord Rodney and forced it to take them there.

John Robert McNeill

Jared Diamond Collapse, 2005John Robert McNeill is an American professor of environmental history at Georgetown University. He is known for his pioneering studies in environmental history and in particular for his book Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World 2000. An amazing book. (I have mentioned and quoted from his book previously in What is history 1: An Introduction and in Large Dams 1: an introduction and in Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam.)

McNeill wrote what I believe is the definitive review and critique of Guns, Germs and Steel in 2001, five years after its publication. I think it is just as pertinent today and in my view it is a fine time to be revisiting Guns, Germs and Steel now twenty years after its publication. In my view the time gap and new information have reinforced the importance and impact of Guns, Germs and Steel not diminished it.

Mc Neill outlines the sales and awards success of Guns, Germs and Steel around publication, even President Clinton took it on vacation in 1999. Not bad for an amateur historian, he says and goes on to say:

…what clinches the standing of the book for me is that for three straight years it has been voted the most popular reading assignment by my freshmen and international relations graduate students alike. Not bad for a [long] 427-page book.

He summarises the book and reiterates his strong praise for its content, before saying that the remainder of the article will be a well-meant critique. He argues that the first nineteen chapters — excepting a few passages — merit the book’s success, but that the twentieth chapter carries the argument beyond breaking point.

This chapter is about the vexing question of why Europe became the dominant player in terms of wealth and power. He says and I agree that Diamond’s argument here is untenable. I think Diamond felt he had to extend the book to explain this, but he can’t. It is this last chapter that perhaps justifies to a limited degree Blaut’s unkind charge that Diamond is Eurocentric.

McNeill points out that Diamond’s argument that an east-west geographical axis is more beneficial than a north-south axis also does not withstand close scrutiny. I agree. McNeill goes on to say that the fact that Eurasia spawned the world’s most formidable societies does not pose a vexing question because for the last 3000 years Eurasia accounted for some eighty percent of humankind. This doesn’t deny Diamond’s arguments, but it places them in the context that there is an interplay between the environmental factors and population (e.g. inter-societal communication and a broader array of disease immunities).

McNeill turns around the charge of environmental determinism levelled against Diamond by stating that it is the best entry in the category that he has seen and that the arguments are compelling, even if the whole is somewhat oversold. (McNeill’s essay is well worth reading and a link is provided below.)

He says whilst Diamond’s arguments on geography are oversold his arguments on biogeography are new and important. I also agree with this and in the next two articles will be focusing mainly on the biogeography.

McNeill and I also agree with Diamond’s ideas that our understanding of history could be more scientific in approach in certain areas. I have mentioned this previously in the series on What is History? (particularly in What is History 7 & 8) and will also in the next few articles?

4 Why Europe?

Jared Diamond The Third Chimpanzee, 1991Let us return to this vexed and complex question. The answer is outside Diamond’s approach and I have no definitive answer either and don’t think that anyone does. But, I have two suggestions that do throw light on the problem.

Remember, that we are talking about the big picture and that the answer may cover a much larger period than the rise of Europe. In addition, the dominance of Europe that we perceive now, may not seem as prominent from an imagined distant future.

1 Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and a populist writer on evolution, often talked of a thought experiment about the idea of a tape of life’s history being replayed. If, for example, the large asteroid whose collision with Earth ended the Age of Dinosaurs did not happen. His point was that if life’s tape was replayed from any point in the history of life on Earth, the result would not be the same. For example, any replaying of the tape of life might not result in the evolution of humans. (Gould was an enthusiastic and sometimes mistaken rival of Richard Dawkins both of whom were popularisers of vexed issues in evolutionary theory and natural history, but this meant that while some of Gould’s ideas were wrong, others were exceptionally insightful.) In Gould’s idea the rise of Europe might not happen, if history’s tape were replayed.

2 Similarly, Felipe Fernández-Armesto a professional historian in his book Millenium: a history of our last thousand years 1995 talks of trying always to attempt to perceive history, as if in the eyes of a Galactic Museum Keeper in the remote future. (Mentioned previously in What is History: 1 & 2) In this context Felipe Fernández-Armesto wonders whether the rise of Christianity and the West may not be merely a blip in the trajectory of the Muslim world to a Galactic Museum Keeper.

Other examples are also possible, the Mongols had mounted perhaps the greatest strategic incursions in history into Europe in 1241 with further invasion in 1242, while much of Europe remained almost oblivious. Only the death of Ogedai in 1242 stopped a full-scale attempt to conquer Europe. Not so long after, Hulagu killed the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad in 1258, but the death of Monke Khan in 1259 and the subsequent succession struggle also meant that further incursions into the Muslim world were not realised as planned.

The Mongols were poised to destroy both the Muslim and Christian worlds but the Great Khans died and everyone returned home to dispute the succession. Here is an example where if life’s tape was replayed the Christian and Muslim worlds may have played a more minor part of history. Russia’s development was certainly curtailed by Mongol occupation.

5 Comment

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997

My Hardback Copy

Determinism shouldn’t be a dirty word if used appropriately. What we are doing is trying to define some over-riding patterns mainly environmental that have had a large influence on the development of human history. There is some element of determinism in this mixed with or confused by chance.

If one accepts that humankind evolved on planet Earth from other animals and that geographic and environmental conditions on the planet helped or hindered our development, then searching for important patterns and investigating them scientifically is a necessary part of the study of history.

I don’t think Jared Diamond is unaware of the importance of culture or individuals in history. He just didn’t choose to write about them, because his focus was elsewhere. His contention that some areas of history can be examined scientifically doesn’t mean that all areas can.

However, as I argue in this series there is no harm in attempting to be scientific in one’s approach wherever possible. Similarly, one cannot but applaud the focus of many historians on primary rather than secondary sources, where this is both feasible and useful.

The real advance in our historical understanding in the last fifty years or more has been the growth of multidisciplinary studies and input from disciplines other than mainstream history. In addition, the gradual globalisation of history and the realisation that the whole of the history of humankind is important have prompted further advances in our understanding.

The rise of the West happened but we must not assume that it was inevitable. We need to attempt to understand why the developments in the West happened, some of it was caused by the flow of knowledge from the Arab world, particularly some of the ancient Greek texts that had been lost to the West. We also need to consider that the rise of the West may merely be a blip when looked at from the perspective of a galactic Museum Keeper in the distant future.

The history of humankind is fascinating. Two small things that I’d like to know more about, nothing to do with these essays are: 1 Why did Jericho have fortifications thousands of years before city fortifications became common. This implies a huge gap in our understanding of the beginnings of warfare. 2 Why the ancient Greeks, in particular Athens? As classicists have always known, the Greeks achieved so much in such a small period of time that we’ve been playing catch-up ever since. It almost makes one believe in an alien intervention, but not quite.

Key Words: History, Jared Diamond, guns, germs, steel, environmental determinism, multidisciplinary, biogeography, world axes, genetics, beginnings of Agriculture, animal domestication, Eurasia, disease, ethnocentrism, racism, Eurocentrism, Arthur Koestler, Sherwood & Nataupsky, Alfred Crosby, Brian Fagan, Marvin Harris, John R McNeill, James Morris Blaut, John Brätland, Jason Antrosio, Stephen Jay Gould, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Mongols, Jericho, ancient Greeks, Wikipedia.

Further Information

Race and intelligence Sherwood & Nataupsky

From What is History 5: E H Carr Historians and their facts:

I remember a paper on Negro-White intelligence (a hugely controversial area in the USA in the mid-twentieth century) by Sherwood & Nataupsky Predicting the conclusions of Negro-white intelligence research from biographical characteristics of the investigator, 1968. The title says it all: they found that the findings of such studies were directly correlated to biographical characteristics of the researcher and little else. I think that Carr is referring to something similar, perhaps less obvious (racism tends to make things obvious).

Sherwood, J.J. & Nataupsky, M Predicting the conclusions of Negro-white intelligence research from biographical characteristics of the investigator. J Personality & Social Psychology 8 (1) 53-58, 1968.

A background to the controversy by Wikipedia

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler The Ghost in the Machine, 1968, Appendix II On Not Flogging Dead Horses. One goodreads reviewer thinks that the book is no longer worth reading but the Appendix is.

Here is a pdf of this essay because it should be more widely known.

Arthur Koestler, On Not Flogging Dead Horses, 1968

James Morris Blaut

James Morris Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians 2000.

Wikipedia on James Morris Blaut

James Morris Blaut outlines his concerns on Guns, Germs and Steel in Environmentalism and eurocentrism: a review essay available online.

Siria Goodreads

Siria’s review of Guns, Germs and Steel 

Michael McGoodwin

Michael McGoodwin downplays his efforts on commenting and providing a summary of Guns, Germs and Steel in 2000 (some time ago) but his overview helped me immensely. I was vexed about Guns, Germs and Steel on rereading it for these articles but could not quite put my finger on why. Michael’s comment: marred by an excess of political correctness suddenly clarified everything for me and made this overview much easier to write. I am in the same position as John McNeill I admire immensely Guns, Germs and Steel and think it was an important book in 1997 and still is equally today. Yet I have to critique it, by academic training I can’t gloss over its faults.

I also  admire the succinctness of Michael’s almost oblivious to the role of cultural differences and individuals in the shaping of history. I can’t disagree with it and while Diamond bent over backwards to flog the dead horse of racism. He didn’t really try to explain why he was ignoring the role of cultural differences and individuals, yet he felt that he had to justify the rise of the West.

John McNeill

I have relied so much on John McNeill’s 2001 review of Guns, Germs and Steel that I have downloaded it from the Net for easier access.

Guns, Germs and Steel Critique, J McNeill 2001

I’d also highly recommend McNeill’s book: JR McNeill Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World, 2000, which is a worthy entrant to multidisciplinary approach to history.

Alfred Crosby

Alfred Crosby The Columbian Exchange: the biological and cultural consequences of 1492, 1972.

Crosby wrote several books on similar themes.

Brian M Fagan

Brian M Fagan The Little Ice Age How Climate made History, 1300-1850, 2000.

Fagan also wrote other books on a similar theme of climate, including on the warm period preceding the little ice age. He is an archaeological generalist according to Wikipedia.

Marvin Harris

Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures 1977. The search for personal privacy is a pervasive theme in the life of people who live in small villages. Quote from Harris (~p 12):

As Thomas Gregor has shown in a study of the Mehinacu Indians of Brazil, the search for personal privacy is a pervasive theme in the daily life of people who live in small villages. The Mehinacu apparently know too much about each other’s business for their own good. They can tell from the print of a heel or a buttock where a couple stopped and had sexual relations off the path. Lost arrows give away the owner’s prize fishing spot; an ax[e] resting against a tree tells a story of interrupted work. No one leaves or enters the village without being noticed. One must whisper to secure privacy — with walls of thatch there are no closed doors. The village is filled with irritating gossip about men who are impotent or who ejaculate too quickly, and about women’s behaviour during coitus and the size, color, and odor of their genitalia.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, 1995.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote Millenium as we approached the second millenium. He is a British historian who has taught at university in Britain and the USA.

Neil Scott in TMC Quarterly 2004 has an interesting insight and interview with Felipe Fernández-Armesto which mentions Galactic Museum Keepers.

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Mongol incursions into Europe and the sacking of Baghdad

I found Bevin Alexander How Great Generals Win 1993 description of Mongol Campaigns in Central Asia and Eastern Europe 1219 to 1242 the best and clearest description of these events, which all came to an end with the death of the Great Khan Ogedei in 1242.

The New World Encyclopedia is a good online description on the Mongol invasion of Europe, whereas my usual source Wikipedia is  less coherent.

Great Courses Daily gives a fair coverage of the siege of Baghdad in 1258. Wikipedia is better on the siege of Baghdad but not great.

posted in Canberra




  1. brilliant! love it! your early reveiw of the book and other literature leads well into your own thoughts on this fascinating area. A useful and insightful look at a complex area.

    1. Author

      Thanks Peggy, Collapse is a great read! John McNeill is also someone you should consider reading a marvellous book! There are other Diamond books but I haven’t read them, except the one on sex, which is a bit lightweight.

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