Review: Guns, Germs And Steel

Posted on Aug 9, 2003

He’s very up front with the fact that such an account has to be, in some sense, oversimplified. He repeats it, as well as other ideas, in the book, many times. “We got it already!” you want to say. You might even do it, but he can’t hear you.

His points, however, don’t need the full body of knowledge from these topics to be applicable. It’s sufficient for him to capture their flavor, and he does well with that. By Chapter 17, when he describes a shoreline city on an Oceanic island featuring two story wood houses all along the beachfront, and he calls it “the equivalent of Downtown Manhattan,” I not only believed him, but marvelled at their construction.

The genesis of the book lies in a trip to New Guinea that the author took in 1972. He knew a fellow there named Yali, who was an engaging, bright fellow, involved in island politics. He had many discussions with the author and, during one of them, he asked why “your people” had so much “cargo” (i.e. trappings of society) and his people had almost none. The author was taken aback, since he had no real answer. His purpose in writing the book was to provide an answer to that question: why did human history follow the course it did?

What a question, right? But I was left with no doubt that the issues he presents in the book must play a factor in why, for example, Europe colonized the Americas, instead of the other way around.

The major answers have to do with the move of a populace from a hunter/gatherer existence to a food producing existence. The ability of a people to have specialists concentrating in areas besides food production allowed them obvious benefits, like increased militaristic might, and many others which he details. This step begins a chain of other steps that societies wordwide have independently taken, which is fascinating to me. Some are developed everywhere, most are developed only in certain areas.

He details the effects that certain environmental facts had on this process of development on different continents. As he progresses through each one, you’ll find that you’re hearing some ideas over and over. (Maybe I can repeat this idea one more time in this review, just to show I’m in the spirit!) I normally find this very annoying, but the amount of new content in the book was so refreshing that I found it easy to ignore.

What perhaps makes this book even more intriguing is that it claims to be the beginning of this kind of research. There are many unexplored avenues which he brings up. The most interesting to me only gets a couple of paragraphs worth of coverage in this book; why did Europe massively populate the Americas circa 1500 AD and not China? The author makes a hypothesis, which he admits needs work in his afterword.

I think you’ll find the book exciting to read, overall. Some of the stuff about what kinds of grains are native to which continent might be suitable for reading in bed (zzz—) but just few pages later you’re treated to images of elephants terrorizing their “masters” and zebras preferring death by collision to domestication. I give it a straight 9/10.