Sunday, June 18, 2006

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel explores the topic of human history through a rarely seen and yet compelling lens. Diamond sees history as the interplay of evolution and accident (one in the same by some accounts, notably mine). First I'll explore what is meant by evolution and accident.

Evolution, in biology, is generally thought of as "survival of the fittest." We think of one species being better suited to a climate or food source and prospering while another is poorly suited and failing. In the short run this is a reasonably accurate view. However, evolution is not a short term process. We have to ask ourselves, how did these two species become different. This leads us to the true mechanism of evolution, accident.

In some sense, evolution might be thought of as "survival of the luckiest." By this I just mean that if one species happens to live in a particular place it will do well, while if it happens to live in another it will do poorly. The same species then is both fit and unfit, depending on the circumstances.

If we view human history as evolutionary then we can see that some cultures have flourished and others have failed. Why? Genetics? Well, yes, that is a factor (though only one), but only on the surface. We have to look beneath the surface to find the accidents that led to this and other factors.

The biggest factor that Diamond sees is geography. Where a people live, what resources are available, in terms of plants, animals, climate, and communication and migration routes are what makes for success or failure.

Diamond is sensitive to the fact that this makes him look like a historical determinist. That is, history is an inexorable march that can not be slowed, diverted, or changed. History is fixed. He defends himself by claiming that history is unpredictable because of it's accidental nature.

While he is partially right, we can't know what, exactly, will happen next, we can still make some predictions about how it will happen. He might not be a historical determinist, but he does seem to be a historical fatalist. There's not much we, as individuals, can do about it. We can't make the less fit culture predominate, because it would therefore be more fit.

Diamond makes much use of the somewhat controversial science of linguistic chronology in showing the various waves of migrations that have populated then displaced, assimilated, or destroyed those populations. In order to defend this science, much of the book is dedicated to giving evidence for it's usefulness in establishing dates and relationships among peoples. This topic is at least as fascinating as his main historical thesis and deserves (and probably has many) a book of it's own.

The only problem with Diamond's book is it's practical application. What exactly are we supposed to do about the bad things in history if history is fatalistic? Diamond mentions that this avoidance of the mistakes of history is the purpose of his book in the introduction, but only alludes to it vaguely in the main text. The book appears to be largely a curiosity for overeducated people such as myself.

If I had to draw a lesson from it, and this doesn't seem insignificant, it would be: don't take history too seriously. More specifically, don't be too proud of who you are or your homeland. We are all immigrants of some sort or another. Using historical lands as a guide to whose land is whose is a false way of deciding political arguments. Also, our genetics is an accident rather than a cause of history. Thinking of oneself as superior based on genes is wrong.

This review was hastily written and poorly edited so don't put too much stock in it. This book is a thought provoking and very readable. I recommend it and not just because you'll look intelligent to your friends.


Cellarrat said...

huuummm doesn't sound like a paperback I can leave on the bus =)

When I get back from the gdr i'll have to give that one a go.

the recyclist said...

Me look smart? Sweet! I'm buying a copy just to leave on my coffee table when people are coming over.

Matt Maxwell said...

Get some good sci-fi to read on the bus. I've done Asimov and Heinlein on busses. Sit next to somebody like flag guy for extra entertainment. You can find one on any bus.