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

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Seven million years of human history---L&M3

Dec 3, 2004 (Updated Dec 3, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A scholarly and interesting account of how human societies developed.

Cons:A politically correct explanation of cultural differences without racism.

The Bottom Line: An interesting and complete account of human history and how differences in human societies came about.


I first read and reviewed this book a couple of years ago---one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever encountered! Reposted for L&M3

Recorded history began about 10,000 years ago, but the human species has been around for several million years. This book covers it ALL, starting seven million years ago, when a population of African apes divided into three populations, leading respectively to gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. In a paragraph, Diamond takes us three million years to homo erectus---full-size, walking upright, but with only a half-size brain.

Homo erectus was the first pre-human to spread beyond Africa, about one or two million years ago, and fossils have been found in Europe that date to a half-million years ago. Fossils from that time indicate larger brains, and looking more like homo sapiens. About a hundred thousand years ago was the age of Neanderthals, still less than fully human.

Human history at last took off about fifty thousand years ago, with the advent of Cro-Magnons, who used tools, weapons, houses, sewn clothing, jewelry, burial rites, and sophisticated art work. Diamond calls this period the "Great Leap Forward." He is not so sure whether this leap occurred in one "Garden of Eden" or many places around the world concurrently. In Europe the evidence is that Cro-Magnons displaced Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago, with no interbreeding. (Cro-Magnons are so different from Neanderthals that it is something of a mystery how they actually originated, or whether they were really descendants of Neanderthals---hmmmmm----)

By 20,000 years ago there were humans throughout Europe and Asia, and by 12,000 years ago they crossed the Bering Straits to Alaska, and a thousand years later had reached much of South America. Diamond touches on many ambiguities in this scientific account of our origins.

The above is a summary of twenty pages devoted to this period, which sets the stage for Diamond's subsequent attempt to answer the question of why some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies, others nonliterate farming societies, and still others remained hunter-gatherers using stone tools.

Diamond takes us through the domestication of plants and animals, where and when it occurred with his explanations of why it first occurred in the Fertile Crescent starting about 11,000 years ago, thousands of years later in other places. He shows that environmental and geographic factors can fully account for the differences in how and when food production capability developed in different places, and the profound impact that had on subsequent development.

We then learn how the domestication of animals led to diseases and germs, to steel and weapons, and to some peoples having the capability to conquer or even exterminate other peoples. Major factors are the geographical axis of the continents (east-west versus north-south) and differences in the natural availability of plant and animal species suitable for domestication. These factors favored the Fertile Crescent, where the agricultural revolution had it's origins as well as the later spread of agricultural technology throughout Europe and Asia, and later in the Americas. Germs and diseases developed with origins in domesticated animals that affected humans, who then developed a degree of immunity or resistance to diseases like smallpox. Populations that lagged in animal domestication were lacking this immunity. Those with a head start were then able to conquer and sometimes eliminate more primitive cultures, often through the accidental or even intentional spread of diseases.

Diamond provides a compelling explanation for the differences in present day modern and primitive societies based totally on factors other than race or genetics. Some may say it is an elaborate and scholarly rationalization for a politically correct world view, or that many other important factors are neglected. Diamond discusses a few of these issues in an Epilogue.

This scholarly work has won a Pulitzer Prize as well as critical acclaim and LOTS of readers. The most ambitious account of the history of mankind and human societies I've encountered, and a compelling case against racist views of the differences between cultures. Highly recommended!!


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