Monday, April 28, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Guns, Germs and Steel

Book two is a nonfiction book recommended to me by Sophie Ellis. This is a book I'd heard a bit about before, so was eager to catch up with.

I don't read a great deal of nonfiction. Its not that I hate non-fiction or find it dull, just that my primary enjoyment in reading tends to be in finding well told stories. That said, I do enjoy a good piece of non-fiction. Probably the last I read was the Selfish Gene, by the much less admired than he used to be Richard Dawkins. I would still recommend it, as it is purely Dawkin's writing on evolution, which is generally great.

This book shares some of the characteristics of the Selfish Gene, in that while it is a work of history, it is instead an argument for why the broad scope of history is as it is. Why were the Americas, Australia and Sub-Saharan Africa invaded by Europe, and not the other way round? Was it to do with the people, or something to do with the environment they inhabited?

Diamond constructs a careful theory with several points. As the title indicates, nations with guns germs and steel tend to triumph, where guns and steel represent a technological advantage, while germs cleared out some areas (particular the Americas) of their inhabitants, and sometimes made empires collapse. He argues that Eurasia (which he includes North Africa in, as it has a similar climate) not only has the largest land mass, but following from that the greatest number of domestable plants and animals. The former give rise to societies, while the latter gives rise to the germs that were transmitted from Europeans to Americans.

Its a well and carefully argued piece. It suffers slightly from the fact that the evidence there exists is somewhat sparse. For instance, his argument that there are less domestable plants in the US essentially hinges on the fact that since Europeans settled there, very few have been domesticated. He can hardly point to an exhaustive survey of plants and there ability to be domesticated on either continents, as it does not exist! That said, this is how science progresses. Someone makes a theory based on the evidence available to it, and then others can search for more evidence to either strengthen or falsify that theory. As such, this is a great and inspiring book, which presents a clear way to think about the broad scope of human history.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home