Guns, Germs and Steel by

10 June 2006

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A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 years – ISBN: 0099302780

This book attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. The question motivating the book is this: Why did history unfold differently on different continents?

As that opening sentence tells you, this is a book all about the history of humankind on earth. About why Europeans became the colonial powers and the Australian Aborigines didn’t. Or at least suggesting reasons why this is so.

It never occurred to me that such a question might be a racist one, or indeed that an explanation for why a certain group of people came to

Yet many (perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or subconsciously.

And I would have to disagree with him, at least on a personal note. Maybe it is because a former colony we Irish would be less willing to accept that the reason we were colonised and dominated by our neighbour is because of any genetic inferiority.

Personally I’ve always assumed that it was simply down to accidents of history, and Diamond points out that more than that, it was down to accidents of geography. In essence Europe and Asia, linked as they are, form a continent with the most natural resources that can be domesticated and developed. And because it is the largest land mass on the globe, Eurasia can hold more people, more people lead to more competition, and to technological advances.

There is a bit more to the book that this, but nevertheless that is in essence Diamond’s reason. And I’d agree with him. Accident of geography, rather than any inherited difference in intellect or ability.

Overall this is a very readable book, which important given that it is quite a large, non-fiction title. Occasionally Diamond repeats ideas and conclusions, but given that certain circumstances occur more than once this can be excused.

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3 Responses

  1. Mal says:

    That kind of demystifying history is the kind I hate the most…the kind that explains everything in terms of geography and technology and economics. And I hate it more if it's plausible. It reeks of determinism.

    Goddamit, I don't want history to be reduced to a science. I don't really care why history unfolded differently on different continents. I'm just glad it did, for the sake of human variety and diversity. Which isn't to celebrate oppression or colonialism.

    History is fascinating when it's viewed from the inside..what was living through the Blitz like? How did the first settlers in America make sense of their world? But taking the bird's eye view reduces humankind to worms. I'm sure there is a perfectly rational explanation for why everything happens; I'm sure human behaviour, en masse and over time, is as explicable and predictible as fluid mechanics. That's why history, as a po-faced discipline that dispenses with stories and emotions and sides, is dull and lifeless.

    I'd rather buy into the myths we weave about ourselves than look at humankind dispassionately and objectively, like a specimen in a laboratory. Give me G.M. Trevelyan over Fernard Braudel any old day.

  2. Mal says:

    Plus I think human beings are psychologically so pre-disposed to narratives that trying to step outside those stories is self-defeating. Our behaviour is conditioned by the script we are following, and they have a very real effect on history.

  3. Fence says:

    Diamond actually brings up a similar point in the book, and says that the "big men" of history did often change things. But in the end the reason for the technological advances was because of the geographical, and resulting biological, differences between the continenents.

    Which I think is a fair point when looking at an overview, and doesn't in the least take away from the drama of history that is focused on a more specific time or person.