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Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating book that purports to explain, in a very broad way, the development of civilization. It has several explanations for the development of Eurasian civilization rather than American civilization.

Domesticated Animals: In Eurasia, there were several large domesticated animals, including the cow and horse. This had advantage for animal-powered farming and transportation, as well as infecting the Eurasians with numerous diseases the Americans had no resistance to. Diamond places great importance on diseases in human development, and likens the results of making contact with a more diseased civilization to being digested.

Direction of Expansion It's easier for a civilization to expand in a roughly east-west direction than a north-south direction, since climate is more similar east-to-west (an example would be the lack of horses in South Africa until imported by sea, since they couldn't go by land through the tse-tse fly zone). Eurasia extends more east-west, and America more north-south, as does Africa.

Food Production Wheat is a better grain than corn, in terms of nutrition supplied per unit effort.

There are other factors, but it's at least a well-written book, and superficially plausible.

How accurate, well-supported, and well-regarded is this book?

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Nice question. The book seems to be turning up in several answers. –  apoorv020 Dec 30 '11 at 20:20
    
Re cattle, what about buffalo? People ranch them for meat today, and presumably they could have been bred intentionally for domestication. It seems like an accident of history that Northern Europeans figured out dairy farming and evolved lactose tolerance. I don't see why the same couldn't have happened in the Americas. –  Ben Crowell Aug 14 at 15:53

4 Answers 4

The book is well supported and well regarded. I want to add a caveat to the above answer, since the Wikipedia page doesn't emphasize this point. He is writing from a viewpoint of environmental determinism. This area of academics is having a bit of a revival right now, but environmental determinism has long been used to explain European (and according to Wikipedia other races as well, depending on the author) absurd and racist theories.
For example: "In the chapter "Water and Earth" (Shuidi 水地), we find statements like "Now the water of [the state of] Qi is forceful, swift and twisting. Therefore its people are greedy, uncouth, and warlike," and "The water of Chu is gentle, yielding, and pure. Therefore its people are lighthearted, resolute, and sure of themselves." Climate determinism is especially famous. "For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes and promiscuity, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes [Europe] led to more determined and driven work ethics."

It's therefore controversial to attempt to use the methodology at all when it may have such serious flaws. However, it is by no means useless, since there are real, quantifiable relationships between geography and development in the case of latitude, climate and access to rivers, ports and other features.

Diamond discusses the controversy on his website in detail here. He rejects the accusation that his theories are only based on geographical determinism.

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I have to admit I prefer books containing facts, rather than theories, because I am a good theorist, so I swiftly lose interest in authors who propose a lot of half-baked ideas. This Diamond guy is not a historian or even anthropologist, just a biologist with a very scattershot knowledge of human history. Nevertheless, a very smart person can make good theories from a small number of facts, if they are knowledgeable enough. The question is whether Diamond falls into that category.

Methodology

Having read some of this guy's theories and essays, I find that his method is not particularly scientific. He makes no effort to find or explain counter examples, nor does he make any effort to be comprehensive--an especially important factor for sweeping theories like this. When somebody formulates global theories based on anecdotes, it is a virtual certainty that the theory is incorrect.

Geography

For example, the vikings succeeded despite coming from longitudinal areas with sparse agriculture and lots of climate variability. So did the Japanese. Also, I see no trend. During the course of civilization you have one group sweeping around and destroying, then another. It's not like there are repeated successes from certain particular places that would indicate a pattern. Sometimes you have areas that are complete failures in one milennium, succeeding greatly in the next, or vice versa.

Animals

The idea that draft animals and wheat made the Eastern Hemisphere succeed seems naive and simplistic to me. The Eastern Hemisphere is more than twice the size of the Western. That alone gives it a big advantage.

Disease

Diamond's focus on disease is understandable, given his training, but as far as civilization is concerned, disease is not a big factor. Disease tends to kill off the weak. If anything, my experience and knowledge suggests that disease epidemics make civilizations stronger, not weaker. You can see this in herd animals. Predators kill off the weak and the herd becomes smaller, but stronger. Nietzche wrote, "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." (Twilight of the Idols) There is an element of truth to that basic idea.

Summary

Diamond's book has enough detail and interesting ideas to fascinate the average American, but I do not consider it to be a significant contribution to a new understanding about civilization, and for historical experts I would consider the book to be entirely superfluous, especially because its method and use of evidence is poor by scientific standards.

For a person who wants to understand the development of civilization I think there are many books that are far more systematic, information rich, and have higher quality theories. That would include Gibbon, the Durants, Toynbee and even Spengler. These four authors all have a knowledge of history that simply dwarfs Diamond and it shows in the quality of their work. You would be far better off reading their books than this book by Diamond.

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The book is well written and well explained; Jared Diamond actually takes real pain to explain that his theories are not implacable and must not be taken as a 100% reliable blueprint for predicting success or failure of any civilization (even if we could actually define what "failure" means for a civilization).

The book, though, attracted criticism because it seems to relate indirectly to notions of geographical determinism that were used in German Geopolitik and incorporated in the Nazi ideology. That's a knee jerk reflex; Diamond's book links in no way geography to notions of human races, and its themes do not really apply to industrialized societies. In that sense, the guns, germs and steel culminate in the great showdown of the Columbian Exchange; afterwards, worldwide transportation of people, goods, ideas, and (of course) germs tends to nullify the geographical-induced effects that Diamond expands upon. For instance, there now is cattle in America, and I can eat oranges in winter (I live in Canada...).

Some points developed in Diamond's book are still open to lively debate; while they do not invalidate the whole book's thesis, they are worth mentioning. For instance, after some discussion, Diamond confidently asserts that there was no human being in America before about 12000 BC; this is the "short chronology" of the settlement of the Americas and Diamond uses it as an argument to support the overkill hypothesis, by which most big animals in America were hunted to death in a short time by human hunters, of which animals had not evolved to be wary. In Diamond's book, overkill implies no suitable large animal for domestication and food production, and therefore no evolution of germs by transfer from cattle to humans. On that question of the settlement of America and of overkill, Charles Mann's 1491, another well known and well written book, takes a different path.

I encourage you to read both books, so as to get more viewpoints and then think for yourself. Generally speaking, this is how you should read all books: not as collections of Revealed Truths, but as food for personal thought.

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The Wikipedia entry on the book is pretty thorough. Guns, Germs, and Steel is definitely controversial, because Diamond is writing from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, and essentially is arguing that history is if not wholly determined by geography, at least heavily influenced by it.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Guns, Germs and Steel met with a wide range of response, ranging from generally favorable to rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, in recognition of its powerful synthesis of many disciplines, and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. The National Geographic Society produced a documentary by the same title based on the book, and it was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.

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Is Diamond an evolutionary biologist? –  Razie Mah Feb 17 at 23:47
    
It sounds like you want to phrase that question as a statement. Here's how his personal site puts it: "He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography." - –  Erik Schmidt Feb 18 at 0:15
    
It was a question? Polymaths are really rare. His site is really great for the subject of the controversy over environmental determinism. Totally stealing it! Strictly speaking his book isn't evolutionary biology, even though it is similar in outlook. So I did want to correct it if he wasn't one. –  Razie Mah Feb 18 at 0:40
    
I'm glad for your correction, especially coming from someone who is far more versed in the subject matter than I am. You ould have just said "Diamond isn't an evolutionary biologist." The direct approach is fine. –  Erik Schmidt Feb 18 at 4:03

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