Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies

Posted on Jun 10, 2008
Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It attempts to answer the question: Why is it that Eurasian societies ended up dominating the world instead of Africans or Native Americans?

Diamond's introduction drew me in from the beginning with a revealing fact: Many people secretly believe the the reason for Eurasian dominance lies in some genetic superiority, but rarely admit this belief for fear of being labeled a racist. Sophisticated justifications have been developed to support such a belief, for example, the classic story about how living further North provided necessity which drove the invention of new technologies.

Jared Diamond instead argues that external factors were the cause of such disparity. Basically all his arguments relate to the fact that some areas of the world had much better plant/animal candidates for domestication. Domestication allowed agriculture, which allowed the production of food surpluses, which allowed cities and specialists (eg scientists).

In terms of writing style, Diamond has again managed to make non-fiction into an easy and interesting read. The way he uses anecdotes and personal stories to expose his points reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and The Tipping Point.

As immensely easy and interesting to read as it was, two things bothered me about the book:
1) Excessive use of repetition.
Diamond hammers certain ideas into your brain chapter after chapter. Believe me, I'm all for linking your ideas to your thesis, but parts of this book were so repetitious that I was tempted to skim past entire paragraphs. I forgive the author for wasting my time, as I suspect this use of repetition was on purpose - to make the book more readable over time. I suspect most people who read a book like this do so over a period of weeks, instead of reading it for an entire day as I did.

2) Mixed organization schemes.
The first part of the book is (quite logically) organized by idea. A chapter is devoted, for example, to the discussion of the development of animal domestication on different continents. Then in part 4 of the book, "Around the world in five chapters", Diamond departs from this effective organizational scheme in favour of throwing in a few extra random facts about the history of different parts of the world. I found this was also when the repetition started to get really annoying.

I would recommend this book for anyone to read.

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Mike at Chance Cove, NL - photo by Angelina Friskney,