Review – Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is an excellent explanation of why the world is the way it is. Combined with William Easterly’s book reviewed earlier on this site, a reader can finally get his or her hands around the broad historical causes that have produced the world that we live in.

This is a broad brush of history and geography to explain the current state of societies in the world today. This is a partial answer to the question of why do some societies have wealth and power and why are others poor and constantly on the verge of a natural or man-made disaster.

There are some legitimate criticisms of Diamonds work at his peripheral points. However, his general thesis that geography including terrain, climate, native plants and animals of different regions has determined much of the course of human events. This is not always true in specific cases, where the criticism against this book sometimes becomes valid, but Diamond has shown it to be true when looking at the big picture.

One of Diamond’s main conclusions is that agriculture is the primary cause of the state of human civilizations. This is something that may be glossed over when reading other history books explaining the rise of civilization. Diamond makes it real and tangible explaining what a large difference is made by increases in agricultural productivity and the subsequent changes in society it causes. The scientific rationale for why certain plants and animals were domesticated combined with the study of the course of early civilizations is one of the great combinations that this work has to offer.

Beyond agriculture, Diamond explains the role of technology including why it arose in certain places and not in others, which as it turns out is not related as much to chance as it was to the nature of the societies formed by the earlier factors described above. As one of the objectives of this blog is to examine how technology and innovation move from one group to another and why they can be successful in one place but not another, this book provides some thoughts to consider.

In conclusion, while geography, agriculture, and resources explain how we arrived where we are today as a planet, those factors are becoming increasingly irrevelant. We control more and more of our environment, and can produce plants and livestock for most of them. World travel is becoming routine, and work is performed in a variety of fields of expertise over a global internet for customers that may reside far from the service providers. These factors and others may mean that we are no longer bound by the variables that Diamond describes in his book. It is up to us to decide how to proceed and progress with our newly realized technological freedom.