Guns, Germs and SteelListen, I’m not going to get in too deep discussing Jared Diamond’s facts and figures. Guns, Germs and Steel is a hefty, detailed book and I’m no expert. If you want to know more I highly recommend you just read it, which is actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Guns, Germs and Steel attempts to answer a question I’ve often pondered over myself – why did history unfold so differently on different continents? Why, for instance, did Europeans invade the Americas and not the other way around? It’s an incredibly complex question, encompassing all of human history. Using a synthesis of biology, geography, history, anthropology and botany Jared Diamond concentrates on the history of cultures, such as Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, and New Guineans, that were conquered by those more technologically advanced. It’s a scientific approach to human history.

A few basic ideas underpin the whole book. Some cultures or geographic entities ended up with the guns, germs and steel that allowed them to conquer others with relative ease. They ended up with that trinity of dominance because of two key developments – agriculture and animal domestication. And why did they move away from subsistence hunting and gathering earlier? Essentially, their region of the world had better plants and animals to work with. For instance, only a small number of animals are actually suitable for domestication. So, while it might seem that Africa had many large mammal species ready to be domesticated by some enterprising early humans, it turns out that lions aren’t as happy casually grazing in paddocks as sheep. Then the role of geography (the positioning of impenetrable mountains, deserts and oceans) in the transmission of human culture and technology comes into play. Very few parts of the world independently started food production or invented writing. After that, it comes down to how well these new practices can spread across landmasses, it comes down to geography.

Diamond’s central idea that environment (and following on from that, the ability to develop the guns, germs and steel) determined the development of the peoples of each continent makes perfect sense. The British took Australia and turned at least some of it into viable agricultural land, where Aborigines had remained hunter gatherers until British arrival – exactly the same continent but different people. But only incredibly lazy thinking would lead to the supposition that Europeans must be superior. If you think about it for even a second it’s obvious that the British didn’t simply bring themselves to Australia, they brought technology and domesticated plants and animals that Aborigines didn’t have because of the particular natural resources (un)available to them.

These ideas are repeated with examples from different continents and different historical periods allowing the central tenets to really be absorbed. Diamond has created an incredibly lucid rendering of an intricate subject. And he even manages to make the evolution of wild plants into crops fascinating and readable. The in-depth case studies at the end (including Australia and New Guinea) apply everything Diamond has written in previous chapters to the evolution of particular continents’ culture and technology, further solidifying everything you’ve learned.

There’s a case to be made that Guns, Germs and Steel is an over-simplification. If so, it’s not a case I would attempt to make. Like I said, I’m far from an expert, I’m just a person fascinated by the world. I will say it’s probably impossible not to oversimplify the whole of human history when trying to capture it in a single book. Diamond can’t possibly go through every act of warfare and conquering and trace back its origins to quirks of geography, so inevitably he focuses on examples that suit his thesis. I can’t say with any certainty that there aren’t interactions between civilisations that dispute his theory (likely there are) but I do think Diamond has written a thoroughly convincing argument. And I kept wanting to talk to people about Guns, Germs and Steel, while I was reading it, and well after I’d finished. Any time a conversation was remotely connected to Diamond’s book I felt compelled to share what I had read. And that’s what I want from a book.

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