Guns, Germs, and Steel

Posted by Brian Sun, 16 May 2010 03:29:44 GMT

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


I first heard about this book in spring 2005 when I took an American military history class in college and the professor showed the documentary based off of this book in class. It didn’t have much to do with the rest of the course, but he felt that Jared Diamond’s work was important enough to show anyways. The book lingered on my To Read list ever since, but I finally got to it. It was well worth it.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond sets out to explain why one culture dominates another without resorting to the usual racist arguments. The Wikipedia page goes into sufficient detail so I won’t dwell on the specifics. What I do want to discuss is the skills that Diamond possesses that allowed him to write such a wide ranging book and what can be extrapolated from that.

Most of the last century saw a dramatic increase in scientific specialization. The sheer amount of information coming in as scientific advancement progressed at an ever increasing rate simply requires it. For the most part, if you want to carve yourself a name among a scientific community you need to specialize. A biochemist specializing in a single bacteria is common in that field. This has come at the expense of being able to synthesize information across many different fields though. A towering figure the likes of Newton is impossible today. In Newton’s time it was possible for him to keep abreast of most scientific discoveries of the day, regardless of what field we would today categorize them in. The need for these figures has not diminished though. They are needed more than ever and that to me is what makes Diamond so special. During his career he has been active in Physiology, Biophysics, Ornithology, Environmentalism, Ecology, Geology, Evolutionary Biology, and Anthropology. For a researcher today to move across so many fields is incredible and it is this diversity that gives him the unique lens to write such a comprehensive book in such a convincing fashion.

A couple of other thoughts. I have heard some rumblings about the length of the book by those who feel it was a magazine article extended to 400 pages. While he can be repetitive, with a subject this large I would prefer the author to be repetitive and thorough, looking at the problem from many different angles, instead of glossing over too much. I felt that Diamond walked the line very well with regards to length. It would have been easy to have such a large topic grow to 1000 pages. In doing so he avoided many of the problems found in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, which devolves into an overwhelming catalog of facts.

Finally, it was hard for me to read this without thinking of Isaac Asimov’s *Foundation” series, specifically his concept of psychohistory, which he used to predict the collective actions of very large groups of people. Diamond does not go nearly that far, but reading anything about large sweeps of history that attempts to give an explanatory model makes me think of Asimov. And anything that makes me think of Asimov is a must read.


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