Archive for February, 2013

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond: Book review

Monday, February 18th, 2013

iPhones screens are fine for reading Agatha Christies and Dan Browns and Stieg Larssons – page turners. They’re no good very bad for reading anything that demands actual attention. Anything that has long, dialogue-free paragraphs. Anything that has lots of charts and tables and diagrams. A book like, say, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

I tried reading this for the first time a couple of years ago, when I was travelling around Europe and reading books on my iPhone while stuck at airports and in trains and on tour groups. I got maybe a quarter of the way through before discovering that, no matter how high you jack up the font size or the line spacing, some books just aren’t made for reading on a 2.5 by 4.5-inch* screen.

(* I know those aren’t the exact technical specification dimensions of an iPhone screen. I don’t care.)

I vowed at the time I’d get back this (Pulitzer Prize-winning!) book. And you know when you want to look back and congratulate your past self for making a sensible decision? Like, “Nice work going to bed at a reasonable hour last night, past self, so I’m not inhumanly exhausted today!” “Nice work not binging on pizza and chocolate biscuits, past self, because I am looking super skinny right now!” This is also one of those times. Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most ambitious, convincing and accessible non-fiction books I ever read. Nice work buying it to read later, past self!

Diamond’s work focuses on resolving a simple question: Why do some humans from some parts of the world have so much more than other humans from other parts of the world? To put it less politely: Why did mostly white societies end up conquering non-white societies, and not the other way around? Diamond removes the racial element from the answer. White people dominated other races because they developed “guns, germs and steel”, and they developed those things because of (spoiler alert!) lucky geographical accidents – not because some races or societies are inherently more sophisticated. The course of human history boils down to chance. No shit, right?

I know academic-types who’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel, and enjoyed it, but objected to the flaws in the reasoning. You don’t have to be a genius to see Diamond’s thesis is packed with generalisations, and glosses over the exceptions. That’s kind of unavoidable when you’re a 500-page book examining tens of thousands of years of history. Read something else if you want careful detail and not broad brush strokes. If you’re a regular person seeking an entry point into anthropology, linguistics, biology, and a bunch of other scientific disciplines – read this book.