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Well, I am back again, (this time a week early due to Brecht's generosity and my own conflation of dates), and I'm again doing something a little different. In fact, for me, this project was something completely different, (please read that in full Monty Python style), a review of a book on human history and development. I've never posted such a work before, or intentionally wrote one not for school but to blog about here on DailyKos and what other scattered sites I sometimes put stuff on. It's something different, and I'm again pushing the envelope of Brecht's project, but in a good way I think. Increasingly large numbers of non-fiction books are being published, and readers seem to flock more and more to non-fiction for some reason (it's an American cultural facet), so I think discussing "scholarly" books, and non-fiction books has a big place in any book group, while these works carry ever-greater weight and influence.

Now, excuse the following review. It is, in a style after my own mind and personality, bursting out of its seams. Rereading it assuaged me a little more that the narrative of the essay flows in a logical manner, but there are still my trademark digressions, and I choose to abandon the more academic tone I would normally write something like this with, in favor of a more engaged one, as I thought that's the best way to deal not only with this work, but the medium I intended to speak about this work through (internet and DailyKos). I hope what follows is both entertaining and informative.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by: Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond is a UCLA Professor of Geography with a formal educational background in physiology who has become famous for his popular science books, of which 1997’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is the most famous. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and even received its own documentary version courtesy of PBS. To this day, it sits on many college-reading lists, particularly for freshman courses, and also has a place on the recommended reading list of the U.S. State Department. Diamond’s work has reached a level of prominence that few in his field ever imagine of, and even people as diverse as Mitt Romney (whom Diamond castigated for a misappropriation) have quoted his theories.

Upon procuring the book, the first thought a reader might have is that here is a truly impressive project—an ambitious 425-page book that proclaims it will outline a grand theory for all of human history and development. What sort of multifaceted theories and balanced approach of a riveting academic research might it contain? The answer is, as may or may not be surprising, none at all. Guns, Germs and Steel possesses but one argument: environmental determinism and it is repeated ad nauseum as the answer to every development in human history.

Diamond begins his book with an anecdote—anecdotes fill the pages of the book even where they are not relevant in the slightest, other than as affectation, displaying the author’s realm of experiences in “exotic” locales that supposedly establish his position as an expert. The first anecdote provides the raison d’être for the entire project; a question posed to Diamond by a New Guinean politician named Yali in 1972, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (pg. 14). Subsequently Diamond engages in a long pedantic spiel that qualifies as a prologue, even though it, like most of the book, has no real point of focus. The prologue does outline the form of the history Diamond intends to build, as there he poses all the great questions about why history moved in certain directions and assumes the mantle of a combatant of racist readings of history, i.e. some people were better than others.

Before finishing his prologue, Diamond of course establishes his chops as a self-respecting, aging, serious academic by declaring that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners because they don’t spend as much time watching TV and radio. This of course, is a frivolous bit of social commentary on Diamond’s part, but one so typical among many would-be intellectuals that it falls to cliché, and somehow fails to understand that television is not necessarily a “passive entertainment”, but can be an exceedingly stimulating preoccupation that inspires much imagination. The problem I had with it in specifically referencing this out of many other topics of the prologue, is that Diamond implies that television leads to reduced intelligence, which is a recurring tick of his—to subtly imply unsubstantiated bits of personal opinion as facts. Diamond’s issue is, to put it simply, he has no postmodern ethos—Diamond does not question his biases, does not outline his ideology for the reader or try to separate it from the facts, but rather takes an at times exceedingly arrogant approach of attaching his ideology, the sums of biases that form a perspective, to a universal positivist model of knowledge that simply can’t exist. Indeed, modern sociologists and anthropologists rarely use Diamond’s kind of language and there is a substantial reaction in the fields of human studies against Diamond’s kind of big, oversimplified “theorizing” (for reasons that should become clear as I discuss the book), and needless to say, none of Diamond’s environmental determinism is at all new.

Stepping away from the critical aspects, Guns, Germs, and Steel has its strengths; Diamond is a readable and convincing writer, and he also possesses a rare talent among academics and that is the ability to make clear, concise arguments. Certain central points that Diamond makes in the book are a piece of any more nuanced understanding of history. The greater barriers that a north-south continental axis provides to agriculture as opposed to an east-west axis is one such point (due to changes in climate on latitudinal ranges), but Diamond adds other interesting elements such as the number of naturally occurring useful crops and large pack animals as a source of early labor. Not every area of the globe had such resources available to facilitate early agriculture and it is on this subject that Diamond is an overflowing repository of knowledge and insight, being closer to his main research fields of physiology and evolutionary biology. What’s more is that Diamond creates a compelling narrative, outlining how natural barriers impact the expansion of civilizations and certain forms of progress, while showcasing how isolation of small human groups tends to cause the loss of culture and technology. Diamond even construes a plausible rationale for the development of human societies from hunter-gatherers into larger and newer forms of social organization and government.

Environment is important. The presence of certain environmental factors that allow for permanent settlement of large, dense human populations and for agriculture to provide surpluses of a balanced diet, enables governments to be formed and specialists and genius inventers to use their abilities for solving ever greater problems. However, Diamond’s large disregard of everything else in his argument is a problem, and a reason why few academics in the field he is writing on embrace theorizing. As such, Diamond’s argument has come under wide criticism from other intellectuals, and the most damning criticism is that which points out the flaws in Diamond’s basic framing of environment causation. For instance. J.M. Blaut notes in his review of the book that:

The world's largest continuous zone of "temperate" climates lies in a belt stretching across Eurasia from southern Europe in the west to China in the east. Rather persistently neglecting the fact that much of this zone is inhospitable desert and high mountains, Diamond describes this east-west-trending midlatitude zone of Eurasia as the world region that possessed the very best environment for the invention and development of agriculture and, consequently, for historical dynamism.
Much of Diamond’s narrative is intensely Eurocentric and merely picks up environmental determinism as a way to, in positivist fashion, provide an absolute reasoning for such an outlook. Blaut makes further criticisms about the central assumptions of Diamond’s theory, mainly that “He [Diamond] uses an old and discredited theory to claim that root crops and the like (yams, taro, etc.) are not nutritious and so could not have underlain important historical development.” Diamond furthermore, ignores crops such as sorghum and gives little attention to rice and the far from clear evidence that the Fertile Crescent saw the world’s first agricultural production. Furthermore, Blaut notes that “Diamond's error here is to treat natural determinants of plant ecology as somehow determinants of human ecology. That is not good science.” And Diamond’s science isn’t good.  Blaut is an especially eloquent source of criticism—to summate the issues of accuracy and reasoning found by Blaut in Diamond’s work: Diamond misrepresents environments, and frequently uses discredited theories where it suits him, uses inaccurate representations of east-west and north-south diffusion of crops and technology and all in order to buttress a grand theory for how Europe was destined to arise as the center of economic and military power.

An opinion Blaut and I also share, is that a recurring tenet of Diamond’s postulation is its dependence on assumptions or specific speculations, which lack solid evidentiary grounding, but which Diamond’s theories require to be true in order to work, and as such are presented as true. Equally problematic is Diamond’s history—if I had to describe it, the words that come to mind are: utter conventional wisdom. For those not familiar with my usage of the term conventional wisdom in this sense, bloggers use it to decry the apathetic and often outdated or inaccurate, generalized form of knowledge taken as casual fact by a privileged center (normally for bloggers this is the “D.C. Beltway”). Diamond’s Eurocentric explanations are as standard as they are old, and he completely ignores decades of invigorating scholarship that has dismantled what he states are Europe’s proximate factors for its rise, and indeed I was floored to read Diamond write (the same passage Blaut makes note of for its egregiousness) in his epilogue, “One can, of course, point to proximate factors behind Europe’s rise: its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition of critical inquiry” (pg. 410).

A further examples comes from what is among Diamond’s most troubling sections—his section on the conquest of the Americas. Observe the following little statement that Diamond makes utterly without substantiation “[…] the Spaniards superior weapons would have assured an ultimate Spanish victory in any case” (pg. 68). This is in conjunction with an earlier statement to the effect that the Spanish possessed superior metal armor compared to the cloth armor of the Incans, and a general exaggeration of the importance of horses in the initial conquest of the Incan empire. The history for this is simply all wrong, and all one has to do is glance at Diamond’s sources, listed under his “further readings” to understand why; the bulk of his referenced texts either come from the 1920s or 1960s, with significant weight placed on William Prescott’s work in the 1840s, none of which covers much of the more recent scholarship.

Charles Mann for instance, in his book 1491 dismantles the Eurocentric idea of European technological superiority. The truth of the matter is that guns during the conquest and throughout the early periods of conquest in the Americas were almost useless; they were lethal for a range no better than a good bow and arrow and less accurate, and only had shock value as noise makers the first few times they were used. The conquistadors quickly abandoned what Diamond calls their superior metal armor for the Incan cloth armor, which was actually quite sophisticated, made from tightly wound cloth capable of blocking arrows, and which was much lighter, cooler, and more maneuverable than the heavy European armor. If one has read Mann, one also knows that Diamond’s argument about horses being a deciding factor (that goes back to the environment of course), in the conquest is absolute baloney—the Incans came up with effective anti-horse weaponry and the animals did not fare well on the steep, unsteady slopes of the Andes, where local llamas quickly superseded them in use by the conquistadors.

Diamond’s entire section dealing with Pre-Columbian societies is problematic, and he fails to point out issues that make his environmental deterministic theories unworkable (north-south axis and slow diffusion as limiters to civilization). Namely that Mesoamerican societies had some of the greatest feats of agriculture—unlike in the Fertile Crescent where edible wild ancestors to wheat existed, Mesoamericans literally bred a useful and edible plant into existence with maize. The Incan empire had a length equivalent to the distance from St. Petersburg to Cairo, and with that expanse, a complex system of governance, a binary like form of mathematics, detailed oral traditions and histories, and an intricate network of infrastructure. When the Spanish discovered Potosi, the most productive single source of a precious metal ever found, they had to resort to using local Incan methods of metallurgy, as Spanish methods couldn’t deal with silver ore as pure as that which they found. In essence, the primitive-sophisticate, advanced-backwards dichotomies that emerged in the historical narrative of the Spanish conquests post-facto as part of racist histories, are unsurprisingly wrong.

Diamond rightly places some emphasis on the presence of smallpox as a reason for the European conquest of the Incans, and their civil war that had occurred just prior to the Spanish arrival. But both of these take a backseat in the end to his claims of technological superiority based on his environmental determinist ideas about the origins of agriculture and his diffusion explanations of convenience. Diamond even quotes the accounts of Pizarro’s brothers and companions sans any sort of corrective commentary on the exaggerations, racism, and generally biased nature of these accounts, and he does this to say that Pizarro’s small group of Europeans singlehandedly killed thousands and thousands of Incans in their first encounter and through this Diamond implies that the Spanish simply wiped out the Incan empire because of their technological and military superiority. The fact of the matter is that demographic research into the effects of later smallpox outbreaks among Incan populations, alongside records of Incan accounts of that initial outbreak, suggests that the fatality rate was likely over fifty percent.

What would have happened had Europe been invaded in the immediate aftermath of the Black Plague? This is the equivalent. Smallpox killed the reigning Inca, his chosen successor, and a broad swath of the Incan military and political elite. The effects of social deterioration after this kind of plague are monumental, and because of the sudden death of much of the leadership, a bloody and divisive civil war spawned that had literally just ended upon the Spanish arrival. And it wasn’t really over; the Spanish manipulated political divisions among claimants and clans vying for the position of Inca. This is all ignoring that the Incan empire consisted of numerous ethnic groups, many of which joined the Spanish and played a crucial role in toppling the empire, just as Cortes was saved by the military aid of other native Mesoamerican peoples in fighting the Aztecs. General babbling about the history of the Americas and the Spanish conquests aside, the Spanish conquest had next to nothing to do with technological superiority or with horses, and Diamond does tremendous disservice to the thriving cultures of much of the Americas, many of which had engineering and technology as sophisticated as anything commonplace in Europe at the time (and Tenochtitlan was among the most populous and most densely populated cities in the entire 15th Century world), simply because he seems unaware of modern scholarship on the matter and/or it fails to comply with his over-simplified narrative of human history. As Blaut concludes, “he [Diamond] claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and he resolutely ignores the findings of social science while advancing old and discredited theories of environmental determinism. That is bad science.”

After a time, Guns, Germs, and Steel becomes tedious reading, because, as one anthropology blog notes, “It’s a one-note riff.” The total absence of individual agency and interpretation of culture in history is disheartening. Essentially, Diamond proves to be another one of those physical scientists, who because of their education and trade, attempt to show all of human history through a positivist, scientific angle—that it has a single explanation. Reading the book, I could sense that Diamond had his environmental theories down to such a tee that he could almost set formulas onto them (x amount of longitudinal variation multiplied by the population, then divide by total land area, etc, etc). For no other reason than this am I always imminently skeptical of scientists who try to write about human history and society, pigeonholing everything to fit their argument of “its all genes” or “its all environment” and missing an enormous amount of truth, diversity, and the immense role simple chance plays in all of this.

Furthermore, Diamond displays a stunning lack of regard in choosing his historical arguments. There is no greater irony in the book than Diamond’s use of racist and Eurocentric histories when his stated goal is to fight racist models of history! Diamond’s goals in writing Guns, Germs, and Steel were admirable, and his book overflows with interesting factoids about ancient societies and human development, and even his commentary has its moments. As Diamond, however, does not realize that the use of hegemonic narratives of history undermines his intrinsic reason for writing on the subject (combating racism), his resulting book perpetuates such hegemonic and flawed models, and this is, again, a form of racism itself in the guise of a symbolic domination that implies other prejudiced views of the world, and subsequently, all the book has to offer is an intellectual argument for one academic’s Eurocentric doxa.

For further reading:

Real History Versus Guns, Germs, and Steel

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND EUROCENTRISM: A REVIEW ESSAY

P.S. While DKos does have reader gauges, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership, and always get an idea of what my readership looks like; how familiar they are with my topic; how I may have influenced them, etc. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall, that is why every diary I've ever written contains a poll.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri May 31, 2013 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

Poll

What do you think of Jared Diamond's theories?

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| 195 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar + (39+ / 0-)

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    "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

    by ArkDem14 on Thu May 30, 2013 at 12:45:08 PM PDT

  •  I read it quite a while ago (19+ / 0-)

    My take was a bit different than yours.  What I recall is that he theorized that germs decimated the native populations.  Sometimes this occurred years before the Europeans arrived in an area.

    Guns may not have been very effective in actually killing very many people, but they were incredible at making lots of noise and scaring the crap out of people unfamiliar with them.

    Steel made all the difference in the world in combat.

    That's what I recall about his basic tenets.  Maybe I'm wrong....

    •  The fright factor (6+ / 0-)

      lasted only the first few conflicts, and as the conquests wore on, most of the European guns broke.

      Diamond talks a little bit about disease, and makes a good point about the crossover of animal diseases to humans with domesticated animals in dense populations, but he puts more emphasis on diffusion, military prowess, technological superiority, and literacy in the case of the Spanish Conquest and does so in ways that are both disingenuous and simply wrong. He makes some similar kinds of discomforting statements (including value judgments on syllabaries as superior forms of language), basic misstatements (Diamond laughably says that the vast majority of Chinese dialects are mutually intelligible, which is absurd; native Mandarin speakers can't understand spoken Cantonese or Szechuan dialects, which have different numbers of tones even!), and other misrepresentations of history and geography that make Diamond questionable even at his best moments.

      His explanations for Europe's rise are hegemonic, Eurocentric and again, just not that correct; they haven't held up in modern scholarship. Diamond even goes out of his way to defend himself in his prologue, well to defend the fact that he has no particular experience in the subject he was writing about; none. He was basically like, "I studied some history as an undergraduate, and linguistics too, and my mom was a linguist, so, yeah, I can totally write about anthropology."  

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:31:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

        •  Well, I just read the book last week (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, No Exit, YucatanMan

          So I can only say that we probably read the same book?

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:29:15 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  From the book I read... (12+ / 0-)

            "The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans' conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords."

            •  Indeed, I remember that passage well (6+ / 0-)

              Diamond doesn't say all that much more on the subject, and the way he presents the Spanish conquest manages to consistently downplay or overlook that factor.

              Look I'm sorry if I've come off the wrong way to any of Diamond's fans. I'm just not quite sure how to deal with people pointing out that Diamond got something right that I never said he got wrong. Just because Diamond is correct on the fundamentals of agriculture developing early civilization, and right on the spread of rise of certain germs, doesn't mean all his theories or history, or applications of his theories are right or acceptable. I'm just trying to point out that I'm criticizing him for other reasons.

              I mean, I didn't say Diamond writes nothing about germs, (and he also calls kuru a viral disease when it is actually caused by prions, another incorrect statement he makes), I said that he failed to incorporate them thoroughly in applying his theories. Smallpox and disease were noted in the section on the Spanish Conquest, as you note above, but they were downplayed or lost in the dredges of Diamond's greater argument, which included his environmental theories, his diffusion theories, and his comments about technological superiority, horses, military prowess and even literacy. Again, I'd simply note that Mann incorporates smallpox into a narrative of European conquest much more thoroughly and extensively than does Diamond, and Mann also deconstructs the bulk of the other, old arguments Diamond makes about technological superiority, horses, and the like.

              "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

              by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:09:01 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  No reason to be sorry (11+ / 0-)

                No hard feelings, I promise, and I respect your thoughts about the book.  I disagree.  You say he doesn't say all that much more about germs.  To me it was an overriding theme.

                •  I'm thinking that the impact (3+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Brecht, poco, YucatanMan

                  of Diamond's writing about germs comes down to whether you have read Mann and other scholarship on it beforehand, in which case you are expecting a certain, more comprehensive and consistent treatment of that factor than you get from Diamond and when Diamond does introduce it has less of a seminal impact that keeps it feeling more important present in his argument.

                  "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                  by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:34:37 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  His title is his thesis: 'Guns, Germs and Steel' (10+ / 0-)

                    Yeah, he's aiming for a theory of everything, so he weaves in all the other factors you mention - but he fully recognizes the centrality of the three in the title. With the one proviso, that geography is his meta-category, transcending all.

                    Here he is in a 2005 National Geographic interview, balancing his three title-factors:

                    NG - The Spaniards certainly used weapons technology to their advantage in defeating the Incas.

                    JD - In the battle of Cajamarca [in 1532, in what is now Peru], 169 Spaniards faced an army of 80,000 Inca soldiers. In the first ten minutes, there were 7,000 Incas dead. When the dust settled, not a single Spaniard was dead. [Spanish conquistador] Francisco Pizarro got a slight wound. That's because the Spaniards have the steel sword and the Incas have wooden clubs. It really showed the power of military technology.

                    NG - In a way, the Spaniards also unwittingly deployed powerful biological weapons, including smallpox.

                    JD - It is estimated that 95 percent of Native American casualties throughout North and South America were due to disease rather than military conquest. Smallpox killed about 50 percent of the Incas in the first epidemic.

                    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                    by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:30:27 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

      •  2/3rds (4+ / 0-)

        2/3rds of your diary was meaningless mumbling. The other third was dividing between straw-men, false equivalency and non-sequiters, and fabrications.

        For example the Euro area compared to the rest of the world is significantly the most connected, agriculture/climate friendly, etc.

        We only think nothing goes without saying.

        by Hamtree on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:12:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  You exaggerate considerably. (6+ / 0-)

          If you read on, you'll find me contesting ArkDem14 on several points. But there was very little that was either meaningless or mumbling in this diary.

          ArkDem14 makes clear assertions, he backs them up, he acknowledges strengths in Diamond's work: The diary is aiming for a more multi-faceted understanding, it's not just a smear job.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:50:15 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Please, I love breaking down stuff like this (7+ / 0-)

          So give examples of what you thought was flase equivalency, non-sequiter or fabrication and I will break down how it wasn't, even if I have to go digging through old piles of academic essays to find other sources I was referencing. I'm more than capable of defending myself on this.

          I assume you're referring to the term environmental determinism as a straw-man, but to again clear this up:
          http://en.wikipedia.org/...

          This doesn't quite cover how its used in anthropology but does a good job. There's a separate ideology called environmental possibilism, which is a bit of milder more nuanced approach to environmental impact.

          Diamond's problem has more to do with simple factual errors and misrepresentations, but his bias is clear when close examinations are made and one reaches his final conclusive argument about Europe, taken together with his approach to Asia and the Americas.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:00:34 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Your last part is correct (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          And I've not contested that played a big role in Europe rising as long repository of advances as a result of this.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:01:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  But apart from that ... (5+ / 0-)

          ... you quite liked it?

          I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
          but I fear we will remain Democrats.

          Who is twigg?

          by twigg on Fri May 31, 2013 at 11:16:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I recall that as well. (7+ / 0-)

      The diseases the Europeans brought really laid waste to the indigenous peoples. One reason why people like Pizzaro and Cortes were so successful. Their germs traveled faster than their armies.

      Character is what you are in the dark. Emilio Lizardo in Buckaroo Bonzai

      by Temmoku on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:38:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Brings up an interesting thought.... (0+ / 0-)

        In 1311, Abubakar II of Mali led an expedition of a thousand ships in the direction of the Americas, after receiving a report that there was something out there from a smaller expedition he had previously sent to explore the western oceans. Neither he nor any of his ships were ever seen again.

        One wonders how history would have been changed if the expedition had made a safe passage and introduced a selection of the common Eurasian epidemic diseases to the Americas. (This might also have been done by the Vikings if they had been more successful.) The immediate death toll would have been hideous, of course, but there would have been no European invaders around to exploit it, and by the time Columbus arrived, the indigenous population would have recovered its numbers and gained resistance against whatever it had been exposed to.

        It's even more interesting to think what might have happened if the expedition had succeeded in introducing Islam to the Americas....

        "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

        by sagesource on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 11:10:10 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting! (9+ / 0-)

    Thank you.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Fri May 31, 2013 at 03:54:04 PM PDT

  •  Diamond "a would be intellectual"? He's brilliant (25+ / 0-)

    Diamond describes GS&S as his contribution to undermining the intellectual foundations of racism. Absolutely correct and, to repeat myself, brilliantly accomplished.

    Another contribution in a very similar vein is Alfred Crosby's Germs, Seeds and Animals. Both works exhaustively and convincingly ascribe European success in wiping out and/or dominating non-white populations to accidents of immune system biology, history, and environmental conditions as opposed to racial superiority.

    The frog jumped/ into the old pond/ plop! (Basho)

    by Wolf10 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:02:47 PM PDT

    •  And yet another... (9+ / 0-)

      "New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles C. Mann.

      •  Thanks. I'll check it out. eom (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest

        The frog jumped/ into the old pond/ plop! (Basho)

        by Wolf10 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:44:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's a bit different (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, Wolf10, RiveroftheWest

          Mann doesn't focus as much on the "conquest" as Diamond does.  Rather, he focuses on describing the conditions prior to European arrival.

          I got into an argument with a friend who read Mann before Diamond.  His position was that germs made all the difference.  I, on the other hand, having read Diamond before Mann, formed the opinion that guns and steel contributed to the genocide.

          The ink of history is made of prejudice.  :-)

      •  I linked a link to a (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, poco, YucatanMan

        review of Diamond that specifically uses Mann to criticize Diamond's portrayal of the history of America. I also used Mann as well, in my review.

        "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

        by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:32:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  If you enjoyed 1491 - (6+ / 0-)

        New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, you'll probably like the follow-up 1493::Uncovering the New World Columbus Created as well. Published in 2011.

        1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

        “1493” picks up where Mann’s best seller, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” left off. In 1491, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were almost impassable barriers. America might as well have been on another planet from Europe and Asia. But Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean the following year changed everything. Plants, animals, microbes and cultures began washing around the world, taking tomatoes to Massachusetts, corn to the Philippines and slaves, markets and malaria almost everywhere. It was one world, ready or not.

        Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you're always afraid. You step out of line, the man come and take you away. - S. Stills

        by ask on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 04:48:13 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've read parts of it, (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco

          That's where Mann discusses how Spanish silver from the New World caused the Ming Dynasty to collapse in China.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 11:54:24 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Diamond is problematic (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, angry marmot, YucatanMan

      for more reasons than I've even gone into here. Germs are his only accurate focus really in the book, as even his plant ecology exagerates natural barriers to cultivating better strains of wild plants. But we'll have to agree to disagree. On this and on whether Diamond actually does much to combat racism underneath his frequently patronizing tone.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:34:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  That's also a misappropriation of my (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, YucatanMan, RiveroftheWest

      quote.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:34:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  in a sense, his thesis is very Marxist (7+ / 0-)

    Marxism bases itself on what is mistakenly called "economic determinism", but economics itself is very much a product of the local environment. The Industrial Revolution and the capitalist factory system flowered in 19th century England, for instance, largely because England had large native sources of coal.  One of the reasons why the US became an economic and military power in the first decades of the 20th century was because we had large native sources of oil.

    •  And germs coupled with genocidal practices (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ImpactAv, Portlaw, Hamtree, RiveroftheWest

      is the reason that Native Americans aren't running the New World. Indeed, genocidal practices would not have been ultimately successful without the devastating effects of novel diseases.

      The frog jumped/ into the old pond/ plop! (Basho)

      by Wolf10 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:09:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think you've nailed Diamond's main idea (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Wolf10, Hamtree, RiveroftheWest

        I don't recall much "economic determinism" in the book.  Except maybe as it relates to the European technology.

        But as I commented above, it's been a while since I read it.

      •  Again, Diamond does not (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco

        spend nearly as much space talking about Germs as he does other factors. I think you are selectively remembering parts of his thesis.

        "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

        by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:35:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Maybe... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ArkDem14, Hamtree

          At a minimum you have piqued my interest enough to go back and read it again, but my recollection is simply very different from your analysis.

          •  Mann for instance deals with the topic of (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            poco, YucatanMan

            small pox and germs much better than does Diamond.

            "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

            by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:26:28 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  OK, I've skimmed for a few minutes (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, Hamtree, jakedog42

          Yes he does talk about other factors, everything from writing to methods of food production.

          However, in my hard cover edition, from Chapter 11, beginning on page 195, through Chapter 14, ending on page 292, he explains how a lot of different factors led to germs decimating native populations.

          I'm not going to attempt to compute the exact amount of "space" devoted to the different causes/factors.  Obviously we found different parts important.

          •  I wish I hadn't returned the (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Brecht, poco

            book to the library already, so that I could go to this section, as it seems absurdly overlengthened, seeing as how his subject chapters tended to lengths around 20-30 pages. Unless you are putting the one chapter on germs together with other chapters that might briefly touch on the matter.

            "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

            by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:11:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  In a way yes, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht

      both interpretative feelings are quite similar.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:36:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hmmm. (20+ / 0-)

    I got the idea you don't like this book.

    I on the other hand can say that I liked- and read- this book- in 1997 before it became popular. I was about 13 at the time, and admittedly at a quite impressionable stage in my life. For several years it was quite obscure; I never expected to meet another reader in my lifetime. And then some time in the early 2000s it became really popular. Still, in all the years since then I have never read quite a book like it.

    I was fated to like this book because Yali's question was my question, even (and especially) at 13. To me the study of history was like sitting at a table of  people trying to restrict gay marriage talk about what strategies they were going to use and how things were going in each state. It was all very interesting-- but no one had bothered to ask why restricting gay marriage is an important goal? I read plenty of histories about the battles that Napoleon won, or on World War II and so on, but the big, grand questions, the truly important ones that you needed to know (or so I thought) before anything else mattered like-- why did some societies come to dominate others so unevenly? Why did Europe become so powerful? No one seemed to try to answer. To me, the silence on that question was the true Eurocentrism, because I was like does anyone else wonder about this besides me? Why aren't more people asking this question? To not ask the question seemed to imply that European dominance did not need questioning, it was just the natural state of affairs. But to me it did call for questioning. Even now, no one has bothered to even make the attempt to answer the question on such a grand scale as Diamond. So even if his work has problems, merely by acknowledging the question, "Yali's Question", and showing me that many people were indeed interested in it, I will forever be grateful to him.

    Diamond actually spends remarkably little of the book talking about Europe, as opposed to Europe and Asia together. Compared to the majority of history books, which focus on some aspect of European history or the history of a European offshoot (such as the U.S.) there is actually less attention given to Europe and more time spent on truly global concerns. The chapter on the clash at Cajamarca, the musings on Papua New Guinea, and epilogue were the most peripheral parts of the book and not at all important to the central argument. Still, Blaut's counterargument about Diamond's statement about Europe's political divisions benefiting it, if it consists of nothing more than that land in northwest Europe is flat, is not very convincing.

    It is also strange to rail against "environmental determinism" and then suggest that the plague should have been given greater weight in explaining the Spanish victory over the Incas, because Diamond sets up the plague itself, as an environmentally determined factor. The reason the Incas did not transmit horribly devastating diseases to the Europeans, instead of vice versa, is supposedly because of Eurasia's larger size, which meant that there was more space for deadly bacteria and viruses to developed (and the natives to develop immunities from them).

    All in all, Diamond's environmentally deterministic arguments are very satisfying from an anti-racist perspective. All other arguments for European / Eurasian superiority, to the extent that they shy from outright racism, suggest some sort of moral superiority on the part of the victors. Western European had Judeo Christian values, or a Protestant work ethic, or good Institutions, or Rule of Law, or Capital Markets. Even if they were not biologically superior, they were in some way superior as people- they had a superior culture, habits, were in some way deserving of their success. The environmentally deterministic arguments give that no credence whatsoever. From the perspective of equality of cultures, and peoples, to explain unequal results, there still seems to be no superior.

    "It is, it seems, politically impossible to organize expenditure on the scale necessary to prove my case -- except in war conditions."--JM Keynes, 1940

    by randomfacts on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:08:30 PM PDT

    •  Maybe "evironmental dialectism" would be a (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ImpactAv, Brecht, ferg, jakedog42

      more palatable and accurate term. To dismiss Diamond's great work with a two-word label of unspecified and dubious meaning is rather silly.

      The frog jumped/ into the old pond/ plop! (Basho)

      by Wolf10 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:13:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  You're certainly entitled to your opinion (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, poco, randomfacts, YucatanMan, Ahianne

      on the book, and the fact you read it at such a young age likely influences you as well. I'll just say I have spent 4 years of college reading sociology texts, histories, some linguistics, and especially anthropology, and I could see where Diamond was wrong as I read this book, and it made me skeptical. Further research made me feel my skepticism and critical view wasn't misplaced as it sometimes is, as Diamond's work has been pretty widely attacked by social scientists, particularly anthropologists.

      Diamond questions the rise of Europe, certainly. And then eventually comes up with a theory that presents Europe's rise as a destined feature of geography, and his geographical theories for this are convoluted nonsense that haven't held up in scholarship. My point is and was that there are much more complicated and multifaceted explanations for the things that Diamond pigeonholes under environmental causation.

      And to Wolf below, environmental determinism is simply the name of this kind of theoretical outlook, at least its the name I've always seen used in conjunction with it in anthropology texts and associated with Diamond.

      And randomfacts, you seem to be missing the point that Blaut is attacking Diamond's very argument for being misleading and inaccurate. Diamond claims that naturally divided landscape provided a (to use Blaut's sardonic phrase) "Goldilocks" state of just enough diffusion and that this was what gave rise to Europe's rise in technology and economic production. Blaut just notes that the area of Europe where such technology and economic production arose in the late 18th and through the 19th century second wave colonialism, is a broad flat area with no significant natural barriers in the geography; it doesn't even fit with Diamond's own basic theory.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:45:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You can't see the forest for the trees (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ferg, Keninoakland, Slaw, Brecht

        I mean this is ONE book among how many thousands of histories?  And any ONE book is going to get every detail "correct"?   For me it was a great book because it showed me history from a different perspective. I think any book that makes you take another look at how you've understood something has done something that 99% of them don't do.  

    •  That's another thing to dislike (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco

      how Diamond spends most of his time talking about "Eurasia" and associates much of the developments of the near East and north Africa with the European sphere throughout his book.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:49:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Germs spread across this whole super continent (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        melo

        and germs as a major thesis of the book - the parallel movement of people in waves of migration in both directions across Eurasia and trade and ideas and disease as well means that in a longer wider sense peoples who never directly interacted were closely linked just the same and thinking of the landmass as a larger super entity for it all to play out on is hardly illogical.

        This geographical fact does not somehow trivialize the eastern part and the peoples there or somehow elevate and overemphasize people in the more westerly parts...

        The crops and livestock that originated in the fertile  crescent changed the middle east, North Africa, Europe and India in fundamental ways and bred the super germs that spread everywhere too... China and all of the far east absorbed some of the crops from other parts of the landmass but of course evolved their own entire rice based economy along with locally evolved or adapted livestock.

        But regardless of all that, every local area was the center of its own universe for most of human history unaware of how the actions and decisions, discoveries etc elsewhere changed their worlds. That Europe was the first area to drive and benefit from the first wave of globalization is an historical fact and there is plenty of just blind chance in being ready at the right place and time to do that....

        So just do not see that somehow there is a serious problem of Euro-centrism spoiling things in the book... Unless bothering to mention the existence of European sea trade, empires and the industrial revolution at all means being far too Eurocentric by definition... how to bring all that into the mix without triggering the usual response from those who are overly expectant of creeping Eurocentrism everywhere that needs to be countered?...

        The world has moved on a bit from the era where notions of White Northern European supremacy in all things were unquestioned within the bubble it inhabited because of not understanding all the reasons for the good fortune and success... so probably the sensitivity of the detector matrix of those who are hyper sensitized to it needs to be dialed back to compensate for changed awareness... there is still plenty of local-ism and ethnocentrism in all parts of the world, so if anyone is subconsciously picking one brand of that to focus on while minimizing, overlooking or just being blind to all the others is sort of pointless... effectively trying to be a cure or counterbalance for earlier thinking and ends up being too much.

        Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

        by IreGyre on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:36:41 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  This was my favorite comment so far: (10+ / 0-)

      I liked your full explanation of your reactions to reading the book, and the way you addressed multiple points from the diary's critique.

      I also read the book long ago, and was very impressed by the large questions and brave theorizing - it really made me think.

      One addendum to what you say:

      The reason the Incas did not transmit horribly devastating diseases to the Europeans, instead of vice versa, is supposedly because of Eurasia's larger size, which meant that there was more space for deadly bacteria and viruses to developed (and the natives to develop immunities from them).
      Diamond pointed out how much less the Americans travelled, with pack-animals and wheels (but not in the same place). All the trade routes in the Old World enabled diseases to spread much further, so that the Spaniards carried many more germs and many more anti-bodies than the Indians had been exposed to.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:04:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I also note that I never (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, RiveroftheWest, poco, YucatanMan

        criticized that perspective. But let's be honest, that was one chapter in the book, and something he makes only cursory note of when talking again about the Conquest of the Americas. This is an 18 chapter, 425 page book, there was a lot more to it than germs. That was one of the few areas he was correct on, especially the fact that the Darien gap split Andean civilizations off from Mesoamerican ones (for the most part, it wasn't an insurmountable barrier). And I did not criticize this (to reiterate).

        I criticized the subdued role smallpox plays in Diamond's later discussion of the Spanish conquest, which is separated from his discussion of the rise of Germs.  And I criticized Diamond's overall portrayal of this issue, and the exaggerated importance he occasional places on certain environmental factors for which there is no compelling body of evidence. But yes, Germs are one of the few things in this book that Diamond presents a mostly correct argument on.

        "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

        by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:15:29 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I can see that you raise several salient points, (13+ / 0-)

          and your diary both made me think and taught me things.

          There are many ways scientists develop new theories. Let's look at two of them.

          Darwin was somewhat OCD, and spent decades marshaling the evidence and sharpening the prose that went into Origin of Species. Thank god he did, because he produced a theory and a work that were close to watertight. And Evolution needed a sturdy craft to set sail on the stormy waters of controversy. It was also appropriate for such a revolutionary theory, in such an empirical field as biology, that Darwin back his vision up with an army of hard evidence.

          Freud was a bold visionary. It's just as well that he started in hard medicine, because he needed that solid ground or he'd have drifted into the ether, like Swedenborg. He produced far more theory than Darwin in his life. His theories got larger and more speculative as he grew older. Many of his ideas have turned out to be either flat-out wrong, or blown out of proportion.

          But he exploded the field, and cleared the way for 20th century psychology. He got a lot of brilliant psychologists thinking, and they ran off in many directions and started fields of their own. His evidence isn't remotely as solid as Darwin's. But, unless you want to confine yourself to the extremely limited scope of Behaviorism as Skinner saw it, Freud's was the best way to invent 20th century psychology. The Victorian era needed that dynamite.

          Diamond is somewhere between biology and psychology. I think he's done a great job of getting many people to think about questions that weren't previously even on the horizon - certainly for the reading public, and I'd guess within his fields too. Like Freud, he has bent a lot of noses out of joint, and he has made some bad guesses. But people are pushing back, and examining his ideas with microscopes, and figuring out what actually works out of his whole contraption.

          It seems to me that we're a lot further along than we were before he wrote Guns, Germs and Steel: we're looking down new avenues, and finding new facts.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:15:46 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Henry Wallace (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest, poco

            initiated much of Darwin's theories and also coined the term natural selection, but that's beside the point.

            I just also want to make clear that Diamond isn't being groundbreaking like Freud or Darwin (though again, Darwin depended on the work of a lot of natural scientists in coming to his conclusions, diffusion!). Diamond is mostly summarizing other theories and putting them into one narrative written for public consumption. And expanding the public's assumptions and questioning impulses on these issues is far from a bad thing. But that doesn't mean Diamond shouldn't be critiqued for the areas where he could have done better, even in the mid-1990s, and that his overarching theory of environmental impacts being king should remain unchallenged.

            Big theories just don't work. Even Levi-Straus's theories have limited application and aren't universal explanations for anything, and Levi-Straus is vastly more cerebral and complex than Diamond (and almost impossible to understand sometimes).

            "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

            by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:40:13 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  This argument is like cavalry fighting infantry (10+ / 0-)

              Most of us commenters are coming to it as readers who have scant background in these fields, so to us Diamond presents a whole new cosmos of ideas; you come from inside the academy, so you're steeped in facts and angles we're unaware of. But just as Diamond is caught up in certain fashionable assumptions, I believe you're caught up in certain more recently fashionable counter-assumptions.

              I found this a useful catching-up: 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' Reconsidered. It appears that Guns, Germs and Steel was generally lauded for eight years after it appeared. I know it was well-reviewed when it came out, including by some pretty sharp scientific minds - it won the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. Then, as I learned at the link above, a blog war erupted over it in 2005.

              Diamond is mostly summarizing other theories and putting them into one narrative written for public consumption.
              That was how Freud started, with his Interpretation of Dreams.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:08:54 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  It was generally lauded (not entirely) (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                poco, angry marmot, YucatanMan

                but there's been a huge makeover in the field over the last decade.

                But I mean, my point was still that Diamond is doing things, perhaps new things, with a lot of older theories. But  you also have a point here and I hope that I'm not coming off the wrong way.

                "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:23:21 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  You're making clear, civil arguments, and you're (4+ / 0-)

                  listening to your commenters. It's just that a lot of people disagree with you, and you are standing on a lot of reading and thought that we can't see clearly. So you're having to explain yourself a lot.

                  Funnily enough, you're doing just what Diamond did: you're taking ideas that are common currency within academia and trying to make them clear and accessible to lay people.

                  "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                  by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:32:37 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Indeed, I won't criticize him for that (5+ / 0-)

                    I am not an academic purist, and in truth, not much cut out for academic writing because I find it stifling and boring. I've always wanted to do more what Diamond tries to do, and that is discuss these big issues of social science culture and the like with a broad audience, like Krugman does as well, for instance. I like the relevance and engagement of that kind of work more than scholarship confined to parochial elements of academia, even though that too is important and someone has to do it (just not me, I think).

                    "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                    by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:35:56 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                  •  I don't agree with your comparison of Diamond with (5+ / 0-)

                    ArkDem14, Brecht, simply because Diamond panders to his audience of mostly Euro-Americans and Arkdem14 so far has refused to do so.

                    It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

                    by poco on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:04:24 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Are you certain that Diamond panders? (7+ / 0-)

                      It seemed to me that he was boldly pursuing honest answers.

                      Diamond has a knack for story-telling, and for catchy ideas. It's a rare specialist who can take complicated knowledge and turn it into a clear and compelling tale (I'd say Dawkins and Kearns Goodwin do). Isn't that what both Diamond and ArkDem14 are aiming for?

                      I just don't have the raw array of facts to hand that I'd need to assert that Diamond deliberately distorted them.

                      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                      by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:41:30 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  I agree completely that Diamond has a knack (5+ / 0-)

                        for story telling and for catchy ideas, as you say.  And for that he has to be commended.

                        The problem is, what are these "catchy ideas" that his audiences love so much? The greatness of Euro American civilization lies in its luck not in its genetics. The question of the "greatness" or "dominance" is never submitted to a critical inquiry, it is just taken for granted and asserted even when there is no historical evidence of it.

                        And therein I find evidence of pandering.

                        It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

                        by poco on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:02:03 PM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

                        •  Well, you've read more Diamond than I have. (5+ / 0-)

                          But I've seen Diamond, in a few places, carefully refute any implications of racism. That doesn't mean he doesn't have racist or Euro-centric assumptions, but if he does they may be entirely unconscious. There are damn few people in our culture with 0% racism built into their worldview.

                          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                          by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:21:09 PM PDT

                          [ Parent ]

                          •  Oh, I don't doubt that Diamond's biases may be (5+ / 0-)

                            entirely unconscious. And what I see as pandering may be equally unconscious as well. Also, wrenching the theory against a genetics based explanation is a good thing. We still have Andrew Sullivan supporting Richwine to this day--so the spectrum is pretty wide here.

                            But, as you also say, it is impossible not to let cultural influences affect you, none of us live in a vacuum sealed world after all, so these biases will out, one way or another.

                            I guess I am not so upset at the fact that Diamond wrote what he did, as much as how his audience loved it so much, when all the experts were pointing out how flawed it was.

                            It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

                            by poco on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:32:39 PM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  "upset at . . how his audience loved it so much" (5+ / 0-)

                            It was crack for intellectual egos. It made us all feel smart and deep.

                            Malcolm Gladwell makes a living selling the same feeling - at least Diamond has the scientific and writing chops to put a book between his covers.

                            And Friedman and Brooks write "books" too. Though those are just for people who want to be intellectuals, but wouldn't recognize an original thought if they randomly produced one.

                            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                            by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 11:03:58 PM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  Okay, Brecht, you have to read this: (4+ / 0-)

                            http://www.nytimes.com/...

                            PS. We all require crack, and yes it comes in different grades, but the above mentioned article should take some shine off this particular grade.

                            It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

                            by poco on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:03:20 AM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  I know it's the weekend. That's no excuse for (6+ / 0-)

                            cutting my crack with PCP.

                            Actually, the first 16 paragraphs of that piece were infected with corporate propaganda, but the last 16 paragraphs were intellectually sound. So once I got to the crack that didn't have PCP in it, it was all rush and relief. Now I'll be up all night. I kid.

                            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                            by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 01:07:43 AM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                        •  Pandering to European superiority is the opposite (8+ / 0-)

                          of what Diamond was doing. He was utterly debunking such notions, attributing European success in subjugating other peoples to accidents of geography, climate, available plants and animals and immune system differences among human populations.

                          The frog jumped/ into the old pond/ plop! (Basho)

                          by Wolf10 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 11:01:13 PM PDT

                          [ Parent ]

                        •  this is the opposite of what I read in the book (2+ / 0-)
                          Recommended by:
                          IreGyre, Keninoakland

                          I didn't read Diamond as claiming that Euro American civilization was great and to be lauded. He was merely pointing out why conflicts turned out the way they did--there was nothing special about the people who conquered...they just happened to have the luck of geography on their side.

            •  Neither Henry Wallace nor Alfred Russel Wallace (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              maracucho, Monsieur Georges

              "initiated Darwin's theories."  Henry Wallace was born in 1888, six years after Darwin's death.

              A.R. Wallace in the 1850s independently came up with a very similar theory to the theory Darwin had been developing (but not publishing) since the 1830s.  Indeed, Wallace corresponded with Darwin in the mid-1850s, which led to the simultaneous publication by Lyell and Hooker of Wallace's 1858 essay together with excerpts of an essay Darwin had shown Hooker in 1847.

              Someone who says "Diamond's science is not good" ought to be more careful.  

              There's no such thing as a free market!

              by Albanius on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:06:00 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  This is a case of me mixing up names (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                poco, angry marmot, RiveroftheWest

                when making cursory statements, and this is something I am notorious for doing. I recall, actually, when I was reading a book about Krakotoa and Wallace was discussed, that Darwin (and saw this in a later documentary too), rushed to complete his book because he did not want to be beat by Wallace, and that yes, they had a mutually beneficial correspondence.

                My point was about the role in difussion even in the great theories that we give renown to certain individuals for crafting. I may be wrong (as I'm not well-versed in the history of biology), but did Darwin not also borrow a lot from plant ecologists in thinking of his theory and mechanisms of selection?

                "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:49:29 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

      •  "It really made me think" (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, RiveroftheWest

        That's exactly why I think it was a great book.  

  •  You can develop an appreciation for Diamond... (6+ / 0-)

    If you've ever read enough alternate history fiction. So much of history turns on little things, chance events, and the interaction of humans with the universe. Asking "What If..." can be a useful tool in unraveling "What Is".

    James Burke's TV series Connections is another. By tracing out the interactions that mesh together to produce the Long Result Of Time, Burke demonstrates time and again that using a single event or a single theory to try to understand history can give only limited answers.

    Mind you, I've only read Collapse, so my opinions on GG&S should be taken with a large grain of salt.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:10:52 PM PDT

    •  That was my faulting on Diamond; (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, RiveroftheWest, poco, YucatanMan

      that he uses only a single theory, when to understand history it requires a pluralism of theories and a postmodern acceptance that there is no ultimate understanding.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 05:46:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  hypothesis! (0+ / 0-)

        If Diamond is using a theory, then it's well established. Evolution, gravity, and atoms are theories, and few people dispute them.

        •  In science-speak, your distinction is essential - (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, YucatanMan, RiveroftheWest

          But in the vernacular, we rarely use "hypothesis", we just let "theory" cover both meanings.

          In the context, the diary has already made clear that Diamond's theory isn't established science.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:42:03 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I get that (0+ / 0-)

            But this use of theory is like fingernails on a chalkboard, and it is so very hard for me to not respond. I should have done so with a little more grace.

            But the interesting discussion here is far from the vernacular. If we're going to be criticizing an author for speaking down to his audience, then I don't think it's asking too much for those criticizing to avoid vernacular language.

            •  I disagree - but I'm perfectly happy to listen to (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              YucatanMan, RiveroftheWest

              your alternative view. Precision trumps grace.

              I think one of the largest meta-issues at stake here is, how do you fit esoteric scientific ideas into easily graspable vernacular prose. This is Diamond's most salable strength; it is the hurdle that ArkDem14 has partly stumbled on.

              "But the interesting discussion here is far from the vernacular." Then we are failing to bring this conversation to the larger public who are wandering through this diary.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:11:08 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I'm tilting at windmills (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RiveroftheWest, Brecht

                I'd prefer to use the proper terminology to educate the public so that we have less scientific illiteracy due to the "it's only a theory!" crowd. That's why I argue with the word choice here. But I recognize that the difficulty with the general understanding of things like the theory of evolution is a tangent to the discussion here.

      •  But he isn't asking you to read only ONE book (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        melo

        No history is going to give you the whole story for any number of reasons.  He's giving you a perspective and for me it was a perspective I didn't have so it was useful.  I certainly didn't expect it would explain everything.  I didn't discard everything else I know.  I just added his perspective to the rest.  So I figure I learned something.  

    •  Collapse is an even more troubling book (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, angry marmot, YucatanMan, Ahianne

      than Guns, Germs, and Steel, particularly taking into account that book. Diamond simply has very little expertise to talk on this field.

      Because with Collapse suddenly you have cultures that decide to fail. Diamond has given humans enough agency to choose failure (but success is still environmentally determined), which opens a lot more problems to implications ("blaming the have-nots of history").

      http://www.amazon.com/...

      I would recommend this book especially in that. There seem to have been quite a few trolls giving the book 1 star reviews, lowering it's over all rating, but I assure you, it is a splendid book and reading for one of my anthropology classes last year.

      The thing is, and I noticed this too, that Diamond often can't get right or purposefully cherrypicks older historical narratives (now scrutinized and often tossed aside in favor of more modern and multifaceted scholarship), in making arguments. The authors of Questioning Collapse really point out the many instances where Diamond simply has incorrect or senstationalized histories. His cursory understandings of some of the subjects he portends to write grand books that offer the 'absolute word' and 'final theories' on, make it hard to take them very seriously. Diamond seems to have become first and foremost a popular writer with a penchant for spewing out conventional wisdom on these subjects.

      But that's just me. I actually came to Guns, Germs and Steel with a pretty neutral frame of mind, because it was on the State department reading list and for the most part I read it with an open mind, and agreed/learned a few things from it. However, I still came to a final conclusion that was critical, and further research, again cemented that critical impulse and added new lines of criticism that I might not have made otherwise, (I found Blaut an especially compelling critic of GGS).

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:08:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It seems to me that you have (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ban nock, Hamtree, jakedog42, gzodik, maracucho

    conceded that Diamond's major theme is accurate. I see your criticisms as fairly peripheral.

    You say:

    Stepping away from the critical aspects, Guns, Germs, and Steel has its strengths; Diamond is a readable and convincing writer, and he also possesses a rare talent among academics and that is the ability to make clear, concise arguments. Certain central points that Diamond makes in the book are a piece of any more nuanced understanding of history. The greater barriers that a north-south continental axis provides to agriculture as opposed to an east-west axis is one such point (due to changes in climate on latitudinal ranges), but Diamond adds other interesting elements such as the number of naturally occurring useful crops and large pack animals as a source of early labor. Not every area of the globe had such resources available to facilitate early agriculture and it is on this subject that Diamond is an overflowing repository of knowledge and insight, being closer to his main research fields of physiology and evolutionary biology. What’s more is that Diamond creates a compelling narrative, outlining how natural barriers impact the expansion of civilizations and certain forms of progress, while showcasing how isolation of small human groups tends to cause the loss of culture and technology. Diamond even construes a plausible rationale for the development of human societies from hunter-gatherers into larger and newer forms of social organization and government.

    Environment is important. The presence of certain environmental factors that allow for permanent settlement of large, dense human populations and for agriculture to provide surpluses of a balanced diet, enables governments to be formed and specialists and genius inventers to use their abilities for solving ever greater problems.

    I agree. And that is the main thrust of the book--that environment, not racial superiority, was the main reason why white, Western European culture came to dominate the world.

    I have my AP classes watch the video and write about it as part of our unit on race.

    "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others." --Groucho Marx

    by Dragon5616 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:16:42 PM PDT

    •  There are better works (6+ / 0-)

      And I wouldn't use any material that presents such a one-sided thesis as this one does (Diamond's repetitive use of environmental causation even where that isn't clear).

      I hardly excused Diamond's main theories. I said his underlying assumption isn't that controversial. This is simply something that is a part of understanding the development of civilizations. It isn't the only part, but it is an important aspect to review.

      But Diamond haphazardly places into a grand theory and runs with it, applying it soundly to many areas of Polynesia, but applying awfully to the Orient, parts of Africa, and to the Americas, making numerous historical errors and misrepresentations along the way, many of which I tried to point out.

      The idea that environment is the reason why white, Western European culture came to dominate the world is just not compelling and that is not something I agreed with. There is a role that plays, but also many other factors that Diamond dismisses or downplays or ignores. Period.

      My greater point was that Diamond doesn't at all due a good job at combating racist histories in the sense that he uses very hegemonic historical narratives for much of his arguments and occasionally shows a very patronizing manner. These types of blind hegemonies, are just as problematic as many forms of racialized history, and they end up feeding into the same Eurocentric narrative that is already ubiquitous, and is merely made into an inevitable occurrence by Diamond.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:25:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It sounds to me (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Hamtree, jakedog42, IreGyre, greenbell

        like he doesn't fit your definition of politically correct.

        No offense intended.

        Peace.

        "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others." --Groucho Marx

        by Dragon5616 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:34:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm actually hardly a member of the politically (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, Dragon5616, YucatanMan, Ahianne

          correct brigade, though I am always highlighting how it is important to use certain language carefully. But no, he doesn't fit my definition of a scholar or a historian because of his selective use of outdated or oversimplified histories in discussing a lot of these issues. And my basic point in responding to you and re-summarizing my essay, had nothing to do with political correctness of any form and by any stretch of the imagination, it was that Diamond applies this theory to everything, and in many important cases does so very questionably and makes a very poor argument. His factors and causations in applying his theories are often based mostly in speculation, some of it superceded by modern scholarship, and sometimes misrepresented geography. What does any of this have to do with political correctness? My main criticism was and is that Diamond simply doesn't do a very good job at what he proclaims he's set out to do. His narrative is well-written, but too dependent on a single line of theorizing and too underinformed on many of the subjects he writes on. It's not very good science and teaches a few correct things of basic nature, then leaps out into some vast and frequently incorrect assertions/tenuous arguments that he presents as rather unarguable.

          If you want to teach about the Spanish Conquest, by all means assign Charles Mann's imminently readable and informative 1491, which contains a much more thorough and complete review pre-Columbian society and the conquest.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:21:18 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I agree with you (5+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          gzodik, Dragon5616, Hamtree, IreGyre, greenbell

          I think this diary is a bit over the top. No book or theory is totally correct, but Diamond is right far more then he is wrong.

          •  His facts are most often right (7+ / 0-)

            and his presentation of basic ecological factors is correct and brilliant as well. But his book promises a theory and promises to prove that that theory works everywhere and explains everything. It doesn't do anything of the sort, and along the way he makes some factual errors, some mis-conflations, and a displays a general eurocentric bias (again, read Blaut, please, his argument is much more suited towards breaking down the elements of ecology and geography in Diamond's book). That for me is very problematic, and Diamond is someone I have mixed feelings on, though I am inclined to like him and his politics, and it was not my intention to come off as over the top.

            "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

            by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:09:23 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I see... (0+ / 0-)

              So because the book isn't a "God" that knows everything it sucks...
              You keep saying that there are so many errors yet you can name any errors that are relevant.

              We only think nothing goes without saying.

              by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:33:16 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  You've thought a lot, and present a refreshingly (13+ / 0-)

    strong point of view here. Since I had my mind enjoyably blown by Guns, Germs, and Steel, it was eye-opening to read your harsh critique of it. I basically liked your diary because, like Diamond's book, it made me think again.

    It seems to me that you make some very convincing points, but I also see a few flaws in your arguments, and have a sense that there are more flaws below the waterline, where I can't put my finger on them. Your critique is a bit daunting, because you're bringing up several specific criticisms that rely on an intricate awareness of the book. If someone intuits, as I do, that you raise valid points, but focus far more on the books flaws than its strengths, they'll only have a twentieth of your facts at their disposal to argue back with.

    Am I supposed to go away and reread the book, and then write a diary of my own to rebut you?

    I'm sure the truth lies somewhere between my overly rosy and your overly dark view of Diamond's work. Yes, I know you concede some of Diamond's strength, but I feel you got the balance wrong, or just didn't see some of his good points.

    I just scrubbed two paragraphs - this is getting too long. One final point, then. You wrote:

    . . .Guns, Germs, and Steel has its strengths; Diamond is a readable and convincing writer, and he also possesses a rare talent among academics and that is the ability to make clear, concise arguments.
    At your first link, Jason Antrosio wrote in his take down:
    Unfortunately his story-telling abilities are so compelling that he has seduced a generation of college-educated readers.
    I found the book gripping from start to finish, as did several people I know. So when you wrote:
    After a time, Guns, Germs, and Steel becomes tedious reading, because, as one anthropology blog notes, “It’s a one-note riff.” The total absence of individual agency and interpretation of culture in history is disheartening.

    that was not an objective truth, but your own personal reaction to the material. I also don't think it was an intellectual assessment, but more of an emotional response on your part.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:52:05 PM PDT

    •  It's an invigorating read no doubt (7+ / 0-)

      I've had to read plenty of things that were much more unpleasant to wade through than Diamond who is never difficult and never off-putting in style. When I said the book becomes tedious reading, I was making a personal point (I did say I would do that in my intro), and I was talking about the ideological repetitiveness of Diamond's argument becoming tedious to see over and over again. That's not a contradiction, wouldn't you say?

      Maybe I'm too far leaned one way, but I feel Diamond's strengths are generally on things that are rather basic statements, and things that have little to do with his theories and many of his recountings of history. Put differently, Diamond does well explaining the rationale for certain issues like early environmental factors, livestock, and germs, (and also gives plenty of interesting information about these) but I don't view that as what is important in this book. I view his overarching theory and application of his theory to history as what is important, and the fact that his history is so often troubling, not totally accurate, or incomplete, meant that the important part of the book was deeply flawed as well.

      I think that's a fair defense of my critical argument of the book, no?

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:30:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This diary is a huge success: you've stirred up a (7+ / 0-)

        very interesting debate. I'm glad it's been rescued.

        It's always bracing when you find yourself arguing with several commenters at once. You seem to be up to the challenge. Be of stout heart.

        I can see that you're aiming for an objective view here: you're backing up your points, and acknowledging the strengths you do see in Diamond's work.

        I have a longer point to make, but I'll need a cup of coffee, and rereading the diary, before I can frame it.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:15:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm probably close to burnt out for the night (7+ / 0-)

          But will likely return as the weekend drags on. It has been a long while sense I had this experience of, much like a chef, rushing between 7-8 different burners with different ingredients and trying to add what needs to be added and keep an eye on where things are going.

          I'm being very academic.

          And while some have criticized me for rightfully zooming in on small details and peripheries of the arguments, I just have to make the very generalized defense to all these statements that in someone as intelligent as Diamond, this is where his biases and subjectivity is going to be, and in my opinion, is. It may seem pedantic, but as a humanist I find theories that attribute the bulk of human development to environment troubling to say the least, even if environment plays a role that everyone acknowledges (the debate is whether it is appropriate or plausible to make it the primary or central role).

          I also just want people to understand that the quibbling is important because Diamond's frequent mistakes about history and linguistics (Blaut points out another one in conjunction with Diamond's discussion of the Greeks adding vowels and being the first to use language for artistic purposes), undermine his broader credibility from an academic standpoint. His overall theories just don't work and aren't particularly useful for any intensive understanding of historical causation and human history.

          But you're right, this is some response. I'll have to keep writing critical reviews I guess, because when I'm positive I can check on the diary and never hear anything but crickets chirping. Haha.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:31:52 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  A good book to discuss: Lots of folks have read it (5+ / 0-)

            and care about it.

            People should question what they know. It's healthy to think again. You brought a lot of new facts and ideas to the table.

            I would be very interested to read Diamond defending himself from these criticisms. They're out there, he must have addressed them more than once. OK, here he is in 1997:

            After warmly praising my book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies as “artful, informative, and delightful” [NYR, May 15], the distinguished historian William H. McNeill identifies two contrasting approaches to history: the traditional emphasis on autonomous cultural developments that he favors, versus my book’s emphasis on environmental factors. Without disputing the value of McNeill’s approach, I believe that our differences arise from the different historical scales that we consider. My focus is on trends over whole continents since the last Ice Age; his, on much smaller areas for shorter times. . . .

            Mr. McNeill faults me for underemphasizing cultural autonomy—i.e., propagated cultural developments independent of environmental differences. Naturally, they are conspicuous in history over shorter times and smaller areas. But, over the hundreds of generations of post-Ice Age human history, and over a large continent’s thousands of societies, cultural differences become sifted to approach limits imposed by environmental constraints. How could cultural autonomy possibly explain the distinctive course of Aboriginal Australian history? Australia had hundreds of tribes, whose cultures diverged greatly. Some built villages with canals and intensive fish management, while others were nomads mastering the most unpredictable deserts on Earth. If any tribe had developed agriculture, armies, or metal tools, it would thereby have been able to conquer the rest of Australia. But none did.

            Was that failure because of independent stultification of all those hundreds of autonomous cultural developments in Australia? Of course not. Instead, the responsible environmental factors are clear: Australia is the smallest, least productive, most isolated continent, with no domesticable wild animal species and almost no such plants. Qualitatively similar, though quantitatively milder, differences stamped the long-term, continent-wide differences in human societies among the other continents.

            That only addresses the one point, defending his environmentally determinist view, at least as applicable to his largest questions.

            Also, you say the field has advanced a lot in the last 16 years. I expect that his books since 1997 incorporate some of the developments in his fields, but I haven't read them yet.

            It does still seem to me that, whatever flaws there are in Diamond's work, he has both brought a lot more attention to the fields he works in, and has galvanized them with healthy disputes, ultimately generating more accurate and complex theories than were previously accepted.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:23:39 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Well, I'm still flipping back and forth (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              poco, RiveroftheWest, Ahianne, YucatanMan

              while Arrested Development buffers, and this is a manageable comment so I'm going to keep yapping as seems to be my only talent at times.

              First, I'd say Diamond hasn't really learned from the failings of GGS, as more recent books contain a lot of the same flaws and failings, like his book Collapse (I linked to another book that is primarily oriented around rebuking collapse, and features numerous scholars and academics from various fields).

              Second, Diamond doesn't seem to really get aboriginal history. Ugh. Blaut is just so much better than me. Let me blockquote a hugeass piece of text and apologize now for the annoyance.

              Contrary to Diamond's theory, north-south diffusion, which generally meant diffusion between temperate and tropical regions or between temperate regions separated by a zone of humid tropics, was as important as east-west diffusion.

              Diamond argues that agricultural traits will have difficulty diffusing southward and northward between midlatitude Eurasia and the African and Asian tropics because this requires movement between regions that are ecologically very different. Hence it must follow that midlatitude crops will tend not to grow very well in humid tropical regions, and vice versa for tropical crops, because they are accustomed to different temperature and rainfall regimes and either need seasonal changes in day- length if they are midlatitude domesticates or, conversely, cannot tolerate such changes in day-length if they are low- latitude domesticates. This argument is used by Diamond mainly to support two of his theories. One is the theory that tropical regions of the Eastern Hemisphere tended to develop later, and more slowly, than temperate Eurasia. The other is the theory that temperate regions of the Eastern Hemisphere that lie south of the tropics, notably Australia and the Cape region of South Africa, did not acquire agriculture largely because tropical regions kept them isolated from the Eurasian centers of domestication. But the effect of the north-south "barriers" cannot have been that important. The essence of domestication is the changing of crops, by selection and other means, to make them more suitable for the human inhabitants of a region. Always this involves some changes to adapt to different planting conditions. There are, indeed, true ecological limits. But the range of potential adaptation is very wide. Most tropical regions with distinct dry and wet seasons are potentially suited for most of the major cereals grown in temperate Eurasia. Day-length is important for some crops, notably wheat, but in most cases adaptations could, and did, remove even this limitation. After all, in early times some kinds of wheat were grown as far south as Ethiopia; rice was grown in both tropical and warm midlatitude climates; sorghum, first domesticated in Sudanic Africa, spread to midlatitude regions of Asia. In the Western Hemisphere, maize was grown by Native Americans all the way from Peru to Canada. Most tropical root and tuber crops had problems spreading to regions that were cold or seasonally dry, but many of these crops, too, adapted quite nicely: think of the potato. Diamond's error here is to treat natural determinants of plant ecology as somehow determinants of human ecology. That is not good science

              Diffusion is also stressed by Diamond as having been a significant factor in early world history, and some of his points are valid. But when, in various arguments, he posits natural environmental barriers as causes of non-diffusion, or of slow diffusion, he makes numerous mistakes. Some of these (as in the matter of north-south crop movements, just discussed) are factual errors about the environment. Other errors are grounded in a serious failure to understand how culture influences diffusion.[6] Two examples deserve to be
              mentioned.

              "[What] cries out for an explanation is the failure of food production to appear, until modern times, in some ecologically very suitable areas" (p. 93). All of these areas are midlatitude regions that are separated from midlatitude Eurasia by some intervening environment. Diamond devotes a lot of attention to two such areas: the Cape of Good Hope and Australia. Why did these two regions remain non-agricultural for so long? In both cases, the sought-after explanation is supposed to be a combination of barriers to diffusion and local environmental obstacles, notably relative absence of potential domesticates. Cultural factors are ignored. The Cape of Good Hope is a zone of Mediterranean climate. What "cries out for an explanation" here is the fact that this area, according to Diamond, had the ecological potential to be a productive food-producing region, but remained a region of pastoralism until Europeans arrived. Bantu-speaking agricultural peoples spread southward into South Africa but, according to Diamond, they stopped precisely at the edge of the Mediterranean climatic region. This region was occupied by the Khoi people who were pastoralists. Why did the Bantu- speakers, who had invaded Khoi lands farther north, not do so in the Cape region and then plant crops there? Why did the Khoi not adopt agriculture themselves? Diamond denies, rightly, that the this had to do with any failure of intellect; the causes, he argues, were matters of environment and diffusion. The crops grown by the Bantu- speakers, here the Xhosa, were tropical, and, according to Diamond, could not cope with the winter-wet climate of the Cape region. So the Xhosa did not spread food production to the Cape because of its Mediterranean climate. The Khoi, for their part, did not adopt agriculture because Mediterranean crops that had been domesticated north of tropical Africa could not diffuse from North Africa through the region of tropical environment and agriculture to the Cape; and because the Cape region did not have wild species suitable for domestication. But the Khoi probably did not adopt Xhosa agriculture for quite different reasons. Almost all of the area in South Africa that the Khoi occupied before the Europeans arrived is just too dry to support rain-fed agriculture. The Khoi could have farmed in a few seasonally wet riverside areas. They must have known about the Xhosa techniques of farming (some of them lived among the Xhosa). But they chose to remain pastoralists. This had nothing to do with non-diffusion of Mediterranean crops, absence of domesticable plants, and non-adaptability of tropical crops. The decision to retain a pastoral way of life was an ecologically and culturally sound decision. (Actually, the zone of Mediterranean environment, with enough rainfall for cropping, is a quite small belt along the southernmost coast, a region too small to bear the weight of argument that Diamond places on it.)

              Australia also "cries out for explanation." Why did Native Australians not adopt agriculture during the thousands of years that neighboring peoples to the north, in and around New Guinea, were farming? Again we are told that the explanation is a matter of environment and location. Diamond accepts the common view of cultural ecologists that the hunting-gathering-fishing economy employed by Native Australians was productive enough to give them a reasonable level of living so long as they kept their population in check, which they did. (It is likely also that their way of life helped them to fend off efforts by non-Australians to penetrate Australia.) Why then, should they give up this mode of subsistence and adopt agriculture? Diamond simply assumes that they would have done so had it not been for environmental barriers. Of course, parts of Australia are moist enough to support farming. But these regions, says Diamond, did not become agricultural because of their isolation from farming peoples outside of Australia. The logic here is murky. Diamond notes that Macassarese traded with Australians in the northwest, near modern Darwin, but he believes that the Macassarese (famous sailors) could not have sailed to the Cape York Peninsula, where tropical crops could have been grown. Moreover, Cape York Peninsula is separated from New Guinea by the narrow Torres Strait, with several stepping- stone islands nearly connecting the two landmasses. Why did not the Australians around Cape York adopt the agriculture practiced by New Guineans? Again: isolation. Diamond finds barriers to (north-south) diffusion that just did not exist. Probably Australians chose not to adopt agriculture because they managed quite well without it...

              3. What Diamond is trying to do is a very good thing, but I can't help but read his defense as a bit an under the table kick couched in seemingly polite terms. He's all but saying, in patronizing manner, "Well, his little field is useful in looking at small specific examples, but mine is what really gives us the big answers." Which begs the question why Diamond spends most of his book trying to apply his big answers to specific locations and cultures. I find his response a bit grating and far from convincing.

              "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

              by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:42:38 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  And please note (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              poco, Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

              that Blaut's criticism is not some schick criticism from 2005, but actually a published criticism from 2000, not long after the book was published. Diamond's work was never that well-received by anthropologists, particularly cultural anthropologists.

              "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

              by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:44:36 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  And also note that Blaut's (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              poco, angry marmot, RiveroftheWest

              specialty deals specifically with cultural ecology and geography, so his criticisms of Diamond's basic factual problems should and do carry a lot of weight.

              "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

              by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:46:31 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I think Diamond does best as an ambitious polymath (7+ / 0-)

                Because he is conversant with physiology, ornithology, anthropology, ecology, geography, and evolutionary biology, he is well adapted to cast a wide net, and articulate grand theories. But he's also prone to stumble over details that someone who cultivated one field thoroughly wouldn't make.

                Of course he upsets people in those individual fields. He's ridiculously successful for an academic, he happily gives the impression of knowing whole fields they don't, and they can see from up close that he makes rookie errors in the stuff that they dedicate their lives to.

                To someone from outside all these fields, more interested in a dramatic story than a text with careful footnotes, his big ideas are more compelling than your specific quibbles.

                I'm not certain, but it feels to me like you have dented his arguments without crushing them.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:52:37 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Well, that's because I'd incorporate some of those (4+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Brecht, poco, RiveroftheWest, YucatanMan

                  theories in my own understanding of the world. I would incorporate many theories though, so that's the main difference between us. I don't place similar weight on his, but his fundamental assumptions aren't entirely off, so yes, I am only denting them.

                  And I think that's a good wrap-up of Diamond; an ambitious polymath writing over a broad array of fields. I don't know if I would say his mistakes are rookie mistakes because they are recurring and comprehensive and service a certain Eurocentric prejudice or come out of very old environmental determinist scholarship that was ironically originally used in racist ways (Diamond's great contribution, is, I guess, transforming the mainstream conception of environmental determinism into something combating racism, that is changing the goals of the theories). So I simply disregard Diamond where he's inaccurate (a lot of places, Diamond's narrative is really limited as a tool for understanding history, whatever he may say), and acknowledge his points and eloquence where he's compelling/relatively accurate.

                  It's been a lot of fun having the debate though and I thank everybody for it.

                  "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                  by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 11:06:19 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

            •  This part of Diamond's statement is interesting: (6+ / 0-)
              If any tribe had developed agriculture, armies, or metal tools, it would thereby have been able to conquer... the rest of Australia. But none did.

              Was that failure because of

              So, and I'm just going off the rails here to suit my own curiosity, is Diamond's view that "success" means "conquer"?

              That is a very Western view, whether it is his or not. After all, Manifest Destiny here we come, the Western conquering (literally, Conquistadores, in some areas) of the Americas is our pride and joy, isn't it?

              And thus, to explain our success, we need only Guns, Germs and Steel.  But what if success is not decimating other peoples and stripping their raw resources bare?  What if success is something else entirely?

              I don't know.

              But I do know that the Catholic church still has trouble today, over 500 years after the arrival of the Spaniards, keeping Maya rituals out of syncretist churches in Chiapas, Guatemala and so on. After centuries of literal brutality and oppression, they've found it necessary to remove ordained Catholic priests of indigenous origin for blending ancient practices with the approved doctrine from Rome.

              So, another question arises for me:  Were the Maya really "conquered"?  Certainly their culture lives on.  

              The albaniles (masons) who've worked for me are able to construct a level, square building with no more sophisticated guidance tools than knotted string for measuring diagonals, a rock for a plumb weight, a pencil and occasionally a thin clear tube of water. They say their techniques were handed down from their fathers , their grandfathers and so on.

              Sometimes, a modicum of common sense and practical knowledge can match an entire boatload of modern technology.  

              I find I have no cultural superiority to the workers I've hired. In fact, they have much to teach me about the world in terms that most Westerners would scoff at.  

              "Environment?"  Really?   Both the Egyptians and pre-Columbian Mesoamericans independently built immense pyramids. Vastly different geographies and environments, but at the very least superficially similar edifices.

              The Maya were using the concept of zero long before Europeans and they had to get it from Babylon via India and then Islamic math to Fibonacci (c 1200 AD). In other words, the environment of Western Europe did not allow them to spontaneously create knowledge in the way that the Maya had.

              I'm not a scholar in anthropolgy, archeology, or history.  But I have read dozens of books, including Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created as well as Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and Why Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

              For whatever it is worth to the far more adept commenters in this thread, my preference is for Mann's explanations and grand themes over Diamond's. That said, any writing which causes people to pay attention to history and other cultures, perhaps upending settled views in the process, seems to be a useful contribution.

              It seems to me that a "big explanation" for all societies or all "successes" is probably overreach and bound to fail. I tend to agree more with the diarist, but many comments here have been enlightening as well.  

              "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

              by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:50:20 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Just to add a bit more, but to this day, the Maya (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Brecht, poco, melo, RiveroftheWest

                are almost obsessive about bathing and personal cleanliness.

                They were appalled at these man-like hairy creatures who reeked of stale food and nasty odors.  Unlike Mocteczuma, they didn't think the Spaniards were gods. They thought the Spaniards were disgusting.

                Europe was a stinking pig-stye compared to the living conditions of most Native Americans at the time of contact.  Most of the indigenous peoples had higher standards of living than the general populations of Europe.

                Contact brought devastation through disease. I don't see a lot of the "superiority" of the Europeans Diamond argues towards.  Did they have metal and guns?  Yes (having learned about gunpowder from the Chinese).  Does that make them a more sophisticated or advanced society?

                Not if you want to stink to high heavens with rotting food in your long beards and poor personal hygiene and live a superstitious life of barbarity unknown to the Americas.  

                DeLanda's institution of The Inquisition in Yucatan was horrific.  Even pre-contact warring city-states didn't destroy rivals books and torture vanquished enemies by the thousands.  A few princes and nobles were sacrificed and everyone went about their business.

                "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

                by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:07:26 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Diamond never claims that Europeans are superior - (5+ / 0-)

                  merely that they accidentally prevailed. He's done a fair bit to refute the previous assumption, that their victory implied Europeans must be superior.

                  Now, whether Diamond has some unconscious assumptions about European superiority, which he unwittingly embedded in his work, is a far trickier question.

                  "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                  by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:22:10 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

              •  Interesting, substantial comment, of many points (6+ / 0-)

                which I'll respond to in reverse order.

                1) Diamond has the advantage of having gotten to us first: Most commenters in this diary have chewed on Diamond's ideas, and generally adopted them. But Mann's and ArkDem14's views are new info, and take awhile to digest.

                However adept those commenters, your actual experience of Mann's ideas, and the chance you've had to compare and contrast them with Diamond's, give you a stronger empirical base for your opinions. So it's good to hear your voice here.

                2)

                They say their techniques were handed down from their fathers , their grandfathers and so on.

                Sometimes, a modicum of common sense and practical knowledge can match an entire boatload of modern technology.  

                I find I have no cultural superiority to the workers I've hired. In fact, they have much to teach me about the world in terms that most Westerners would scoff at.

                I'm not ready to scoff at Diamond's ideas, but I agree with the general truth that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy", and that Western culture is generally conceited and unaware of so much that's right in front of our faces.

                Computer's being uncooperative=> Points 3 & 4 in another box.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:16:45 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

              •  "what if success is not decimating other peoples?" (4+ / 0-)

                3) Huge question, what is success? If we could realign our culture towards a larger and more humanistic value-set (than "the richest person wins"), we could start living in a healthier direction. Too huge to get into here, really.

                I'm not sure how much this problem adheres to Diamond, but it is a strong argument that the values of the Conquistadors of yore and the Multi-Nationals of today are inferior to those of their victims.

                4) There is a problem that others have been accusing Diamond of for several years now: Projecting his own assumptions into his work, and onto indigenous peoples. Most recently:

                Survival [International] accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

                "It's a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us," said Survival's Jonathan Mazower. "It simply isn't true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people's rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative."

                In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace". He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as "primitive brutish barbarians" or as "noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes".

                He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:36:40 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Doesn't this sound like a direct derivation of his (5+ / 0-)

                  extensive experience in Papau New Guinea?

                  Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace".
                  I think his assumption that strong central governments are the preferable mode of living could be open to question.  

                  Yes, that's how the modern world is constructed, but if we take a moment to reflect upon how our current strong central government is engaged in perpetual war around the world (War on Drugs, Enforcement Actions, War on Terror, drone campaigns, various interventions and invasions), it is sorta hard to see  how our particular "strong central government" is ... um... "enforcing peace."

                  Many nations around the world, including our allies, see the USA as thuggish and brutish and generally unsophisticated. They would not characterize what we do as "enforce peace" which to me is more of a Cold War term relevant to super powers.

                  ;-)  Cheers!  Time for a Saturday night refreshment here in the rainy tropics.

                  "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

                  by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:18:24 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  strong central governments are the preferable mode (6+ / 0-)

                    Another comment opening onto complex issues.

                    Constitution (& Federalist Papers) saw clearly that power corrupts, and powers must be balanced against each other.

                    In ideal world, central government balanced by state and local power, and by an active, participating, informed electorate. Kind of communitarian, multi-leveled democracy. Also Judiciary and Media doing their job properly.

                    This world far from ideal. Nevertheless, central govt. necessary, in order to balance metastasized corporatism of USA - someone has to regulate Wall St., Big Oil etc. Also, central govt. is how we got New Deal, Civil Rights.

                    So, real question is, how to make strong central govt. responsive to Constitutional Law and real needs of entire population? The balance mechanisms mentioned above, plus a culture that isn't "thuggish and brutish and generally unsophisticated."

                    So it's simple. Just fix our entire culture and grow a healthy government, and we all win.

                    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                    by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:59:10 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

      •  i think this captures the essence (7+ / 0-)

        of the debate here.

        i read the book years ago, in the early 2000s.  i found it to be incredibly fascinating but i had zero background in any of the scientific disciplines it touched on.  i did notice that it was the same one note riff that he kept applying chapter after chapter.  towards the end, i also recall it becoming a bit of a slog.

        with that said, it was my first introduction to a theory exploring how geography, agriculture and domestication of animals could explain so much of the rise and fall of civilization and i did find it somewhat "mindblowing."

        i also get your point that what i found to be so fascinating was basically old hat by the time ggs came out and i really appreciate hearing a critique of exactly what diamond got right and wrong...

        thank you very much for the diary...

        Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

        by No Exit on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 11:02:43 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Interesting discussion of a complex and compelling (6+ / 0-)

        book by Diamond.

        I appreciate Jared Diamond for the massive scope he attempted to undertake--the whole of human history, with attempts to document evidence of whys of certain trends.

        Also appreciate your diary for its detail and alternate perspectives.

        In Guns, Germs, and Steel, I found that I thought maybe the book could also have been titled Agriculture and Language, but that probably wouldn't have been as catchy.

        Because Diamond's scope is so large (over time and geography), it's inevitable that are places where his discussions are not full, complete, or better presented elsewhere. Still it's an impressive piece of work.

        I see it as kind of a first giant step for putting out thought-provoking information, theory, and discussion. Diamond himself acknowledges he is attempting to develop a new "science" and therefore one would not expect it to offer all the answers out of the starting gate, any more than any other science. There is more work yet to do.

        I found the discussions in the book on linguistics and alphabet and character development with regard to written language particularly interesting.  And also the reminder of the role religion played (continues to play) in the subjugation of one culture over another with guns and weaponry.

        Also liked his discussion of hunter/gatherer evolution into more complex societies.

        Technology is the new field.  And where we go from here as a human race is going to be interesting and fraught with pitfalls.

        Thanks for the diary and to others here with thoughtful comments as well.

  •  I read it a long time ago (5+ / 0-)

    Often being a fun read makes what you say believable, even if untrue. For many people myself included, Jared's book is most of what we know about how and why civilizations came to be what they are.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:21:16 PM PDT

    •  There's plenty of good literature out there (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, ban nock, poco, Ahianne, YucatanMan

      Questioning Collapse
      1491

      And beyond. Diamond isn't a bad source, and again, a lot of this quibbling must seem incredibly academic and obscure to casual readers of history and that's because to a degree it is. But by all means, read further and broader and get the more comprehensive view of history and civilization if you have the time.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:43:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I read parts of 1491 didn't find it as readable (5+ / 0-)

        I want to read 1493.

        How big is your personal carbon footprint?

        by ban nock on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:22:53 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I actually found 1491 more interesting than (5+ / 0-)

          1493, but yes, it isn't light reading.

          Both could go into a course called "All the lies about history I was taught in High School."  ;-)

          1943 very generally lays out the idea that multinationalism originated with Columbus' quest to find India and China. Once the Americas were discovered, the Spanish did not stop there, but rapidly set up shop in the Philippines to trade with China.

          As much or more of the Mexican silver went to China as came back to Spain, in return for silk, spices, etc.  So, the multinational leveling of nations has been going on in ebbs and flows for 500 or so years.

          Of course, that's vastly over simplified, but it's the general gist.  I preferred 1491 because I'm most interested in history of the Americas before and at the time of Conquest. 1493 encompasses a more global view.

          "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

          by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 06:01:07 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  glib (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alain2112, Hamtree, gzodik, angry marmot, akmk

    and rather strawmanish. The term "environmental determinism," which is your key point, is particularly problematic.

    Diamond’s entire section dealing with Pre-Columbian societies is problematic, and he fails to point out issues that make his environmental deterministic theories unworkable (north-south axis and slow diffusion as limiters to civilization). Namely that Mesoamerican societies had some of the greatest feats of agriculture—unlike in the Fertile Crescent where edible wild ancestors to wheat existed, Mesoamericans literally bred a useful and edible plant into existence with maize.
    This was one of Diamond's points. You're arguing that one of Diamond's points proves Diamond wrong.
    In essence, the primitive-sophisticate, advanced-backwards dichotomies that emerged in the historical narrative of the Spanish conquests post-facto as part of racist histories, are unsurprisingly wrong.
    This has nothing to do with Diamond's book.
    •  Diamond admits that fact (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, angry marmot, YucatanMan

      but also gives estimates/timelines that Blaut (and some anthropology texts, though they aren't dealing with Diamond), find a little too long in the cultivation and diffusion of maize, and Diamond doesn't deal with this in terms of how it affects his arguments vis-a-vis limited diffusion. I'm arguing Diamond doesn't convincingly show that one of his points is correct and how it confirms his overall argument.

      The seceond quote there, has quite a lot, actually, to do with the framework and assumptions that go into Diamond's section on the Spanish conquests.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:48:13 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The term "environmental determinism" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco

      is just that, a simple academic term for the exact argument Diamond makes. There is nothing strawmannish about it.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:49:13 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  no it's not an accurate description, (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Hamtree, alain2112

        it's a strawman. I'm sorry if some academics have chosen an inappropriate term.

        Wikipedia has a good definition:

        Determinism is a metaphysical philosophical position stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen.
        Determinism is an extremely strong claim. It's easy to refute a deterministic claim (which is why it's a convenient strawman), but Diamond doesn't make that strong an argument.
        •  The term isn't used that absolutely in Academics (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, YucatanMan

          Environmental Determinism simply describes ideologies where environment plays the largest and most central role in human history and development.

          And yes, Diamond makes superficial adjustments to avoid entirely deterministic claims, (you are right on this). He discusses, in passing, proximate causes (and gets those all wrong with Europe as well, but let's just overlook that), but mostly makes a point to mention these and then say they are beside the point because the important thing is his discussion about the environment.  

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:06:58 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  sigh. "academics" in the philosophy department (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            ArkDem14, Brecht, alain2112

            do use the term "determinism" in its strict meaning. (Or at least they used to.) It's helpful to know that anthropologists don't really mean determinism when they say determinism.

            Two different claims:

            1. Environmental advantages encouraged eurasian technical development that provided a military advantage against the new world at the time of contact.

            2. Environmental advantages determined eurasian dominance of the new world.

            I read Diamond as only claiming #1. If you're arguing that he claimed #2, fine. I didn't read him as making that dumb a point, but if you read him as making argument #2, then yes it's a stupid theory.

            •  Linked this above but wanted to re-link to you (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              ferg, Brecht, RiveroftheWest, YucatanMan

              http://en.wikipedia.org/...

              The thing is, I think that Diamond's point is exactly #2, but that's just me perhaps.

              "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

              by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:11:50 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  thanks (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                ArkDem14, YucatanMan

                That makes more sense. I don't think Diamond comes close to establishing #2. If the plagues had been slightly less virulent, or the population recovered faster, or the Europeans slower to follow up, or the governments on either side different, or no silver, or ....

                •  That's it though, other readers have also (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  poco

                  seen Diamond as assuming European superiorty, because he simply does, and in numerous cases he presents technological advances, such as writing even, as not becoming important until they move westward into Europe. And his goal is to show that European dominance was ordained by geography, and this is why they were dominant over other people. In other words, he's saying its not genetics or race, it's just chance, just geography, and that because of this Europeans were so much better than everyone else that they established their dominance. I mean this is really summarizing in a nutshell.

                  I did like his section Australia, generally. Even there he makes too many assumptions and has some tenuous arguments.

                  "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                  by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 11:10:00 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Here's Diamond speaking to the "determinism" point (5+ / 0-)

                    He addresses it, but doesn't necessarily refute it. He says determinism needn't hold going forward, but that doesn't mean it can't have brought us to where we are now.

                    From that 2005 Nat. Geog. interview:

                    NG - Do you worry that audiences may sense an inevitability in your argument—as if we're destined to be either poor or wealthy depending on where we are born, and that there is not much we can do about it?

                    JD - If you make a complex argument, there will be people out there who will simplify and misuse it. I recognize that there are people who will say geography deals out these immutable cards and there's nothing we can do about it. But one can show the evidence and say there is something we can do about it. Look at Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan. They recognized that their biggest disadvantage was public health. They didn't say, We got these tropical diseases—it's inevitable. Instead they said, We have these tropical diseases and they are curable and all it takes is money so let's invest in curing the diseases. Today they are rich, virtually First World countries. That shows that poverty is something you can do something about.

                    People have a misunderstanding that geography means environmental determinism, and that poor countries are doomed to be poor and they should just shut up and lie down and play dead. But in fact, knowledge is power. Once you know what it is that's making you poor, you can use that knowledge to make you rich.

                    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                    by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:52:48 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Good, but that doesn't address these (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      poco

                      problems from a historical perspective. People have been manipulating or superceding environmental boundaries since before civilization formally emerged; hunter-gatherers of homo sapiens developed pretty intricate manipulations of their environment, if similar observations taken from modern leftover hunter-gatherers are to be believed.

                      Diamond is skirting around saying environment determined how we got to where we are now (that is his argument), while somehow saying it will no longer determine where we go. I'm a bit confused by the general inconsistency of these interviews, their contradictory nature at least (this one and the other op-ed you quoted earlier). I'm not being sour or debative when I say this either, it's just something I'm noting. I'll have to think about this a little longer.

                      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

                      by ArkDem14 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 01:07:18 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  The earlier answers definitively place germs at (4+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        ArkDem14, poco, Hamtree, RiveroftheWest

                        the heart of the story. That was my recollection of the argument in Guns, Germs and Steel, too - but I read it a decade ago.

                        All of these answers show that Diamond is listening to his critics and accounting for their critiques (somewhat) as he moves forward.

                        What I'd like to see, what would give me fresh respect for Diamond, would be for him to write another over-arching book, a kind of G, G & S 2.0. If he were to take his earlier formulation as thesis, and the critiques of it as antithesis, and finally develop a synthesis that included and went beyond both - then I'd think he had the intellectual heft to support his ambitions.

                        But that would be huge and detailed work, for a man in his late 70s. So I'd be pretty satisfied if he just brought out a new edition of G, G & S, with a 20 page preface addressing criticisms and developments in the field since '97.

                        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                        by Brecht on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 01:22:10 AM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

                  •  Disagree with this. I thought Diamond was quite (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    RiveroftheWest, Brecht

                    respectful, for example, of (was it the Navaho?) who took an oral language and developed a written language from it, unique to themselves with borrowed characteristics from others.

                  •  At one point... (0+ / 0-)

                    basically the whole world was ruled by Europeans, almost zero by Africans, native Americans and slightly more for Asians.
                    And even then the total technological advancements and economic expansion occurred in Europe.
                    Basically your whole "argument" against the book is "Its to complex, so therefor hes wrong" you never actually provide any evidence that its wrong you just say it is.

                    We only think nothing goes without saying.

                    by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:37:46 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

  •  I loved the book until I read Gavin Menzies (8+ / 0-)

    Well, I am still reading Gavin Menzies "1421 The Year China Discovered America". I read Guns Germs and Steel over the Christmas season and I accepted his environmental determinism as being real, but I felt he never addressed the cultural aspects of life. Look at the middle east today, versus Europe, versus the US, versus South America. The cultures are enormously influential.

    Gavin Menzies book was published after Guns Germs and Steel, in 2002 and he makes an attempt to dig up (sometimes literally) what happened to an armada of huge Chinese junks that set sail in 1421. Some of these ships were almost 500 feet in length. They were 10 times the size of the wee boats of Magellan and Columbus. And when Magellan and Columbus set sail they had possession of charts that already showed much of the world, which Gavin establishes could only have been made by this huge Chinese exploration.

    I won't talk more about Gavin's book except it really begs the question why the Chinese, who already had guns and clearly had the lead on shipbuilding and many many other capabilities, did not become the dominant culture on the planet.

    Jared established the impact of germs on the Americans, but he had little to say about the Chinese.

    As it happened after the Chinese fleet set sail and before they returned several years later there was a change in power in China with a new emperor who basically wiped the slate of the works of Emperor Zhu Di and destroyed most of the records. This was a cultural event which set China on a path of isolation. The change happened in part because the costs of Emperor Zhu Di's programs were draconian.

    Anyway - I still love Jareds book and accept he makes an excellent case but I do think there are some rather massive influences he is ignoring. Maybe they could be summarized as the role of money. I am still chewing all this stuff over in my mind, and certainly today I see money as being a massive influence on American politics. More so than even racism, which is in part empowered by money. And I think we have yet to get a handle on the influence of money and that now is a time we have to fix this ignorance or we may simply destroy the planet.

    Thanks for the diary.

    •  Chance also plays an important role (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, muddy boots, YucatanMan

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:53:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Chance (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        akmk

        Chance is the same for everyone so statistically it plays zero role.

        We only think nothing goes without saying.

        by Hamtree on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:25:14 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  What I meant was that (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, akmk, YucatanMan

          things that occur as a result of chance (bad leaders, natural disasters, etc), can have a huge impact on the history of a society and that the sum of subaltern histories and decisions adds up to be a decisive x-factor that isn't accounted for just by environment, nor fairly represented by the dismissive label of proximate factors that Diamond gives it.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:07:22 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Well, I believe Mann makes a point on this (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      muddy boots, poco, Brecht, YucatanMan

      And that's that China had no colonizing impulse. Their society was well-managed, and their explorations did not find anyone superior to their economic or military strength and so they just didn't see the point of the expeditions. There wasn't so much a mercantilist philosophy in China, to put it succinctly.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:56:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  In short, money. (6+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ArkDem14, 88kathy, Hamtree, poco, Brecht, YucatanMan

        Gavin acknowledges the fleets held onto their vast stores of treasure as they did not find anyone worth negotiating with that way.

        Meanwhile the Spanish went for the gold, as in money. And so did the British empire.

        In other words there is a massive cultural element that swamps the environmental determinism to explain why the Europeans became dominant. Complete with its religious roots of "go forth and multiply" which I don't think Jared has addressed, even in explaining why it should not be addressed.

        •  Mann brings up the interesting point (5+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          88kathy, poco, Brecht, muddy boots, YucatanMan

          that Spanish silver from the New World was so copious that it wrecked the global currency market, and in China led to hyperinflation and economic collapse because their currency was silver. This in turn led to the emergence of the Qing Dynasty, which was an extended disaster for China.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:10:17 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Yes. I completely agree with this point. n/t (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          muddy boots, RiveroftheWest

          "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

          by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 06:18:16 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  And that was caused.. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        muddy boots

        By the fact that China was more isolated.
        Most of your criticisms about the book are you not taking cause and effect to the next step.

        We only think nothing goes without saying.

        by Hamtree on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:28:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The Spanish had just waged long and costly wars (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, melo, RiveroftheWest

        to rid what became Spain of the Moors (the Reconquista).  And, being somewhat (or a lot) Messianic, Ferdinand planned to rid Northern Africa of the Moors and reoccupy Jerusalem. All this at the time that Columbus was setting off to discover India.

        The entire purpose of Columbus' voyages was to secure riches for Spain so they could continue to pursue their religious wars.

        China preferred the Chinese way of doing things. They didn't lack for spices or silk or the many other things Europeans lusted after. They didn't lack for scientific knowledge. But dynastic changes affecting the rule of such a vast area were more profound than the relatively tiny dynasties which ruled the relatively tiny areas of Europe.

        Said another way, one king's death in Europe didn't switch the course of the entire continent (or very rarely did), while in China, the entire vast nation could be thrown into upheaval. Some emperors had interests in other lands while others were self-absorbed fanciers of lesser things, such as personal pleasure.

        Chance comes into being in such a sense, when the fate and direction of a nation depends solely on the personality of the next emperor.

        "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

        by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 06:17:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  The explanation is... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      88kathy, muddy boots

      The reason China didn't come out ahead of Europe is because China was more isolated from the rest of the world compared to Europe.
      So yes China excelled at some technology and had some years of good governance, but it also had bad years of governance and was deficient in some technology. During those bad years Europe caught up and surpassed China because while Europe was in bad years Northern Africa was in good years and the knowledge gained in Northern Africa was easily transmitted to Europe.
      2 heads are better then 1.
      The Euro area is the most/largest connected area on earth therefore it will have the most "heads". The Chinese head was better then any individual European head but it was far worse then all of them combined.

      We only think nothing goes without saying.

      by Hamtree on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:20:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  OK - that is the chance aspect (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco, YucatanMan

        But we are only looking at the last 600 years out of some 13,000. I think there are powerful cultural issues at work that will not be stopped by chance.

        The Chinese were modelling themselves on a Confucian philosophy which is rather more atheist, despite all the gods and incense. And we see China advancing in the world today at great speed.

        As the Chinese curse wished we live in interesting times.  

        •  China's problem was (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          poco, muddy boots, YucatanMan

          that it's had no neighbors of relatively equal power to challenge it and prevent it from becoming isolationist for any extended period of time, and I think Diamond kind of sort implies this particular argument.

          China also had a cultural problem. They had such an engrained ideology of cultural supremacy that it was to convert that to isolationism, and even then, China remained an economic and military power on par with Europe until the 18th century.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:15:08 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yep (0+ / 0-)

            and the reason China had those problems was largely caused by its geographic location compared to the rest of human civilization.

            China remained an economic/military power compared to single European powers but was inferior in those regards to all of them; as a result the Europeans advanced so far ahead of China that China wasn't even a major Power.

            We only think nothing goes without saying.

            by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:43:32 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  If Chinese power centers had been located (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            poco

            next to Europe, they would have crushed Europe like a bug. (at certain points in history extending over many centuries)

            Europe is geographically lucky.  heh

            "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

            by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 06:22:39 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  No they weren't (0+ / 0-)

        The Chinese were heavily connected to the rest of the world. In fact, the main reason Europeans were so absolutely delighted with "discovering" the New World was because it had such an abundance of silver, the currency China required for trade, a market the Europeans were desperate to break into since it was the largest in the world.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 04:25:48 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Centralized empire can have fatal weaknesses (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      muddy boots, YucatanMan, melo

      For instance they can set in motion a huge project... like China built walls thousands of miles long... set about invading Japan twice but were foiled by a typhoon...  

      And then building a world-girdling fleet... That was the equivalent of the Apollo program... expensive and mostly just to do it... for knowledge and bragging rights (and today still no moon colonies...) ... and then having the plug pulled because the central power changed... possibly because the very expense of this heavily top down project doomed any further steps... and a culture that was biased against "Merchants"... it was seen as a low and unworthy occupation. The fleet was attempting to avoid the tacky trade thing by calling what they did as exchanges of gifts...

      But that very success, bringing things from far away was a cultural negative since it was seen as trade in disguise. So had there been a respected mercantile class stepping up to take over the government investment that got things going then China would have ruled the world.. but the very fact of their imperial dominated culture and world view as the center of the universe the middle kingdom between heaven and the less realms of barbarians meant that most believed there was no point in exploring and coming to dominate the rest of the world beyond the border areas that had to pay homage to the empire.

      So the great fleet would never have led to a next step and world domination simply because it was not going to get respect and economic incentives into the mix. And that is cultural and the culture became that way because it was the perfect place to evolve a large empire early on and become static in some important ways. The central power enabled funding of discoveries in many fundamental areas... advances well beyond the rest of the world... but again that very centralized imperial world view and economic structure also got in the way of taking the next steps that would lead to the technology moving out to benefit the entire population who would have the incentives to build on them.

      So geography made China possible and the China that it made also bent the cultural balance in a particular direction which in the end made them more static and inward looking. That is some determinism... which is simply the way things would tend to go absent some new ingredients to shift things to a different balance... Mongol invaders simply became imperial replacements... as Chinese as the Chinese. Western upending of the imperial system in the 1800s did not lead to them become as Chinese as the Chinese and ruling as new emperors... they ruled via economic exploitation more than anything else... military force was used to impost mercantile and trade and the Europeans stayed European. In the end the Chinese caught up with technology and social changes and went to a modified imperial system that is becoming more democratic nowadays... not so overwhelmingly top down... they are traveling and trading the world based on their revisions and world view changes.

      Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

      by IreGyre on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:17:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Geography did not make (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco, muddy boots, YucatanMan, Brecht, melo

        China more inward looking and isolationist.

        And this:

        but again that very centralized imperial world view and economic structure also got in the way of taking the next steps that would lead to the technology moving out to benefit the entire population who would have the incentives to build on them.
        Appears to be assuming that colonialism is both a good thing and the natural course of action for any successful civilization. It's also a fundamental misunderstanding of China's history, as China does not fall behind Western Europe until much later than you seem to be assuming and for much more peripheral reasons than you cite. You're also using the same Eurocentric "Free, artistic, liberated West, bureaucratic, despotic East" dichotomy that has marred European scholarship on this for centuries, and was something I was trying to note in this review and in my additional readings.

        "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

        by ArkDem14 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:12:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Because it is... (0+ / 0-)

          Colonizations means you have more resources to work with; having more resources is a good thing for wealth and also power.
          China fell behind around the same time the Americas were finally conquered; and it shorty thereafter fell so far behind that it could not catch up.

          We only think nothing goes without saying.

          by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:59:37 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Wrong (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest

            China did not fall behind until well after the Americas were conquered. China and the rest of the world did not fall behind Europe until Britain had the ability to store energy for use after the sun went down - coal. An abundance of coal and easy access to it is the reason Britain jumped ahead of the rest of the world for a short period, followed quickly by France, Spain, Portugal and eventually the Americas.

            China is catching up quick, though.

            Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

            by moviemeister76 on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 04:30:18 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  So according to you... (0+ / 0-)

              China was not behind Europe when Europe controlled 3+continents and China controlled just China...
              In the 1600's Chinas GDP per capital was around 2/3rds of what Europe was, by the 1700's it was half[1]
              Are you seriously saying that having half the living standards is not being behind?

              [1]http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/...

              We only think nothing goes without saying.

              by Hamtree on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 06:48:07 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Well... (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                poco, RiveroftheWest

                In 1700, China, India and all of Europe had roughly an equal amount of the world's GDP. By 1820, China had pulled ahead to first, while India had fallen to third. Europe did not pull ahead to first, primarily due to Britain, until about 1850. Europe did not pull ahead in manufacturing output until 1830, which would roughly line up with that. And Britain did not seriously make inroads into controlling the African continent until the latter half of the late 19th century when they found a way to get around malaria.

                So, yes, you were wrong. Your numbers are wrong. I don't know where you are getting them from, but I got mine from Richard B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World.

                Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

                by moviemeister76 on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 11:05:15 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

        •  Then why were they inward looking and isolationist (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          ?

          Geography did define the physical extent of China and the tendency for a unified empire most of the time effectively walled of as it was by mountains, desert and oceans... and the richness within it meant few reasons politically, economically or culturally to quest elsewhere for political, economic or even religious reasons.

          For example, China saw no need to go to India to take control of the cradle of Buddhism or liberate it from invasions that were suppressing the belief in its native land. China had always had major ongoing links to India among scholars but the religion was not dependent on India... China had evolved its own version of Buddhism and had no overwhelming social or religious reason to defend it elsewhere... While in contrast Europe had warring Christian denominations and a longer ongoing struggle to counter militant Islamic expansion to the south. China's main faiths all coexisted in China and again the geography helped that status quo since there would be no deep intrusion of an outside faith until European Christian missionaries came...

          Another clue to geography being a major influence is country sized border exclusionary Walls... The only time Walls were built on the edge of empire in Europe was a limited scale by the Roman empire in Britain. Rivers and mountains were more ready borders elsewhere and keeping out invading nomads from central Asia was never needed by the Roman empire which did not last long enough to have the long term viewpoint or have the stark geographical definitions that Chinese empires had on their northern and western marches. China built border walls on a scale never seen elsewhere and they did it again and again for over 2000 years. (one other exception to the lack of country scaled walls in most places is a recently discovered earthen wall hundreds of miles in circumference around an entire African kingdom built to keep elephants out... a unique Geographically driven choice)

          Even the maritime experience in China was  enhanced and unified by geography but also constrained by culture and the geography that defined that... and even though they had excellent seagoing technology coastal craft were the sizable majority of their shipping... which is part of the reason that Kublai Khan's great invasion fleet sent against Japan failed... most of it was composed of river and coastal craft impressed for service in the fleet. They never had a reason to develop and ongoing effort to explore and colonize or conquer via the oceans.

          The reasons for that range from the low esteem for merchants and the self reliant inland economies did not have ready access to distant seaports and did not need the mostly high end rarities that comprised much of the trade... meant that it was self limiting. They had a huge fleet of river and coastal crafts created extensive and economically enhancing canal networks for internal trade which knit their empire together along with the mandated and maintained roads. All mainly inward looking solutions to the realities of their universe.

          China had little use for manufactured items from elsewhere which were seen as inferior or pointless... while they did export fine china and other items they preferred precious metals and gems in exchange if not highly valued exotic things like ivory or food stuffs or animal/vegetable items prized as ingredients for Chinese traditional medicines instead of things that were culturally alien to them.

          And further to why they did not colonize more than border regions which they were more content to extract tribute from instead of dominating as an economic and political possession links again to geography. Colonization is initially a way to compete with other neighboring hostile nations... if you can't beat them or neutralize their threat you can with the right technology obtain wealth and power via expansion into other more distant places who cannot resist as effectively and have resources that will both enrich and empower your own country and allow it to push back against close neighbors. Europe had inherent geographic barriers to being unified... and its natural tendency to fragment is a natural incentive to go the colonial route. And that in the end was the key to out competing, out producing and economically dominating sizable areas of a fragmenting China. And its extensive and varied coastlines meant that most areas were not too far from a seaport even with primitive road access... many large navigable rivers with relatively short distances helped. In the end Europe developed deep water vessels that could gain toeholds and then knit together their colonial possessions.

          This is not a reason to imagine Europe was inherently superior or whatever... geography is not totally destiny but it has a huge effect on shaping how societies evolve at different stages of civilization. All of the elements that kept them fragmented and their coastlines eventually led to the colonial phase well before any reliance on coal... and in fact decimation of forests because of shipbuilding and population increases which was also due to new foods and expanding money supply and trade.... meant coal was needed sooner and it in turn fed the evolution in manufacturing and its reliance on colonies for both many resources and as a captive market for what was produced. Many things co-evolved and the different growth and change elements and drivers are completely entangled... but geography is an underlying basis for much of what happens and even when certain technologies expand or find more powerful elaboration.

          What constrained China geographically in the past plus the bad luck timing of it being in the later stages of a fading dynasty when Europe happened to be in its colonial phase is again an accident of history and not so much to do with geography but much of the mismatch at the time has geographical driven or influenced threads... It was much the same story with India... England was powerful at the right time to coincide with the end stages of the Mughal dynasty and empire in India... another mostly self contained world unto itself... even though it had an earlier colonial trading eras that influenced a large part of south east Asia... it had its own set of geographical influences that if anything tend to echo the Chinese example... but with its own tendency to have fewer unifying empires overall and more persistent smaller kingdoms... but to still be mostly inward looking.

          Geography is just the path of least resistance plus living within constraints but that only holds true as long as there is not a new level of technology and culture that can transcend specifics....

          China is now the upcoming semi-Colonial and economic power of the world... and that is in part because newer tech and cultural adaptation has made the previous geographic shapers and influences  irrelevant. But also driven by other aspects of its geography the very limitations of its resources and the huge population which its geography made inevitable... and the empires and culture it fostered meant a large human resource of peasantry held back for a longer period... but now exploding onto the world scene part of reason for Chinese ascendancy. Ample low cost labor, a history of education and advanced culture and technology are all geographically linked features of its millenia old empires and culture that now stand them in good stead to compete globally.

          Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

          by IreGyre on Mon Jun 03, 2013 at 08:56:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  As to the guns. (6+ / 0-)
    Charles Mann for instance, in his book 1491 dismantles the Eurocentric idea of European technological superiority. The truth of the matter is that guns during the conquest and throughout the early periods of conquest in the Americas were almost useless;
    What I remember from GG&S on this area is that the guns were almost useless. BUT - these guns were used by soldiers on unbelievably fierce war horses. So the first time anyone saw these 'useless guns' - they killed people quickly. It was noisy loud, the horses were fierce and fearless and charged the people. The people ran, which was exactly the wrong thing to do. This made the people vulnerable to the swords which were not useless but the very best swords ever made. The few conquistadors were like tanks. They were able to win even though they were vastly outnumbered.

    Another thing the conquistadors had the advantage of reading of previous conquests and being aware of the indigenous population.  The indigenous population did not have this advantage.

    Finally why wouldn't the conquistadors switch to the superior native armor. The conquistadors' armor would be for fighting other conquistadors. Switching to the superior native armor would have been a no brainer as they say.

    What Diamond showed me is that it is all an accident of circumstance. Some continents were better for human growth. Others had some pieces of the puzzle but not all. And each piece rested on all the other pieces.

    Get the 'oopsie' out of 'keep and bear arms' see GunFAIL and Gun Crazy diaries weekly.

    by 88kathy on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:08:50 PM PDT

    •  There's no doubt (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      88kathy, poco, Brecht, YucatanMan

      that north-south axises for continents provide more barriers to the diffusion of ideas and plants (the problem here is that Diamond often exaggerates those real difficulties because his overall theory requires that). Eurasia was simply by far the largest and most varied continent and diffusion did occur from several separate centers of early civilization.

      But I would advise not reading too much into Diamond's statement on horses. Beyond Cajamarca, the impact of horses is very limited, especially considering most of them died in the Andes and due to a combination of factors.

      But yes, Diamond's point about this being an accident is good and admirable. I like Diamond's politics and his general ideology, I don't like his overall theories or his recounting/application of history. That's a pretty consistent position I think.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:50:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Mostly I just get from Diamond that everything (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco, IreGyre, YucatanMan

        is shaky but rests on everything else.

        First the germs put the population in turmoil. The conquistadors had superior knowledge because of best selling books about successful battle experience in the vertical continent. The horses were used enough to win some decisive battles. The guns were their flash bombs. The sword was their AR-15.

        I like the idea Muddy Boots offers. Gold fever. I don't think Diamond even talked about gold fever. Europeans definitely had gold fever.

        It has been a few years since I read GG&S. Do any others explain how gold fever got started? The Chinese didn't catch it evidently.

        Get the 'oopsie' out of 'keep and bear arms' see GunFAIL and Gun Crazy diaries weekly.

        by 88kathy on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:05:57 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Money is another infection... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          88kathy, YucatanMan, melo

          and the gold and silver fever were a more democratic addiction... ordinary people... well not peasants as much... but even they could "get rich quick" if they were in a military campaign. Gold was a holy material to the Incas... sweat of the sun... not a medium of exchange.

          From coppers to silver to gold... having a medium of exchange was revolutionary... and getting it from stealing was a short cut to social mobility... not from others in your own land but from defeated or conquered peoples elsewhere... a big motivation to keep coming back for more with more dreamers lusting for it.

          And it built the colonial economy and built it and linked it together in ways the Incas and others did not link theirs as sophisticated as their own empire system was....

          Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

          by IreGyre on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:24:17 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  When I think of all the sweat of the sun that (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            YucatanMan

            was melted down into gold bars. Well I just can't think about it.

            The Romans conquering the Greeks is the only great conquest in history can think of where the conquered civilization was esteemed. I wonder why that was?

            Get the 'oopsie' out of 'keep and bear arms' see GunFAIL and Gun Crazy diaries weekly.

            by 88kathy on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:37:04 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  cultural destruction - so many places and times... (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              88kathy, YucatanMan, melo

              Library in Alexandria torched by Christian fundies of the era...
              The Mayan Texts burnt by the Spanish...
              The Buddhist university in India sacked by Islamic invaders in 1193

              Egyptian mummies rendered down wholesale into quack medicine or ink in the 1800s...

              Tomb robbing and treasure hunting despoliation in every country of the world...

              Unique and amazing things destroyed or lost... fought over and ruined...

              The Giant Buddhas of Bamian
              The loss of the Amber room
              Antiquities in bombed museums
              Untold quantities of fossils "Dragon bones" ground up into traditional medicine in China...

              what comes down to us seems all to often to be accidental... the things the ignorant, the vandals and thieves missed or just did not get to.

              Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

              by IreGyre on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 10:16:12 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I know. That is why the Greeks stand out. They (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                YucatanMan, Brecht

                were enslaved and robbed, but not destroyed. In fact, I might be mistaken, but I think Romans thought it was a good idea to learn Greek.

                I have never heard anyone talk about why the Greeks missed out on the destruction of language, culture, and genes.

                Get the 'oopsie' out of 'keep and bear arms' see GunFAIL and Gun Crazy diaries weekly.

                by 88kathy on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 11:34:54 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  Diamond's portrayal of these "tanks" leaves out (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, RiveroftheWest

      however, the thousands of indigenous allies that they very frequently had in their battles.

      The Spanish did it themselves. Montejo famously reported that some 60 Spaniards "vanquished" over 10,000 Maya warriors, leaving out his own 10,000 Maya allies.

      10k vs 10k + 60 guns + 20 horses.  Makes it an entirely new equation.

      "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

      by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 06:26:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Aztecs' neighbors all hated them (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        YucatanMan, Brecht, RiveroftheWest

        but hadn't yet got to the point of joining forces against them. Cortes was able to talk them into it precisely because he was an outsider and didn't belong to any of them. (That and a gold-plated silver tongue....)

        The Maya were an entirely different situation - lots of petty rivalries, but no overwhelming hates. Also, each city-state was an entity unto itself, and a lot of the Maya didn't live in the cities, so there was no one central place that could be taken over and used to rule them all. It took 200 years to vanquish the Maya, one village at a time.

        If it's
        Not your body,
        Then it's
        Not your choice
        And it's
        None of your damn business!

        by TheOtherMaven on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:29:51 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  And the War of the Castes lasted a good long 50+ (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, RiveroftheWest, poco

          years in Yucatan. Also known as the Caste War of Yucatan, the Maya rebellion was one of the longest revolts among the indigenous people of the Americas.

          Some measure it at 85+ years:

          Although the war had been declared over many times before in previous decades, records show that the last time the Mexican army considered it necessary to take by force one of the area's villages which had never recognized Mexican law was in April 1933, when five Maya and two Mexican soldiers died in the battle for the village of Dzula – the last skirmish of a conflict lasting over 85 years.
          The Zapatista movement in Chiapas could be considered today's continuance of rebellion against central government from Mexico City going back to the Spanish arrival. At least Comandante Zero wants us to go along with that.

          Back to your comment, although most Maya didn't live in much more than small villages at the time of contact, they continued the system of familial alliances and rivalries.

          Those Tutul Xiu Maya who joined Montejo (finally, on his family's third try to conquer Yucatan, it was his son who more or less succeeded by establishing Merida) had vengeance in mind against their eastern rivals. Without those allies, the Spanish would likely have been thrown off the peninsula yet again.

          A rough map of the familial territories at the time of Spanish arrival can be  found here.

          Sounds like you know all this, TheOtherMaven, but I thought maybe other readers would find it interesting.

          "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

          by YucatanMan on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:08:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Lot of people lump Aztecs and Maya together (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            YucatanMan, RiveroftheWest, poco

            as though they were one and the same people and the Spanish subjugated them all in 1519-21.

            But while there were some superficial similarities (at least some of which came from the Aztecs copycatting the Maya and predecessors), they were in fact quite different. The Maya way of organizing themselves resembles nothing so much as pre-Viking Ireland, with the people living in small groups here and there and only gathering in ceremonial centers for ceremonial occasions (and raids and wars against rival groups).

            The Norse got the Irish started on town life - the major cities of Ireland started as Norse settlements - but the Irish never fully committed to it, and were extremely hard to subjugate because of that. (Count the centuries from Henry II to Cromwell....)

            As far as I can tell, Montejo and Son took a big bite out of the Yucatan but they didn't swallow all of it. But of course they bragged about what they had accomplished, so everyone believed them.

            If it's
            Not your body,
            Then it's
            Not your choice
            And it's
            None of your damn business!

            by TheOtherMaven on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 09:08:02 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  interesting! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht

    i read this many years ago and maybe half way through, basically thought it got tedious  and repetitive in his arguments.

    started off well, i thought.

    i honestly don't have the background to critique it as a social scientist

    but your review made me chuckle because i kinda had the same emotional reaction

    intellectually i'm from a different place than you so  can't argue any way.

    i think i should read it again.

    what is interesting to me is that phrase 'guns, germs and steel' has become part of popular culture. have you see jon cozart use it in his youtube video?

  •  great read!!! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht

    even Mexican America women can  read Jared Diamond!
    Take that Jason Richwine!

  •  The Hunt for the Royal Sun (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    poco, Brecht

    is also an interesting read/film for a more creative take on Pizarro and Atahualpa.

    "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

    by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 08:56:10 PM PDT

    •  Ordered it! Thanks. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ArkDem14, poco, Brecht

      The Pizarro and Atahualpa story is the main reason I read GG&S

      Get the 'oopsie' out of 'keep and bear arms' see GunFAIL and Gun Crazy diaries weekly.

      by 88kathy on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:13:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  ArkDem, I think you meant (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, RiveroftheWest

      to say, The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Peter Shaffer. If you didn't, then I'm wrong.

      •  I did and am yet again (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco, miscanthus, RiveroftheWest

        showing my ADHD tendency to incorrectly recall names. I have this problem a lot and its rather funny, because I have an extraordinary member for recalling even obscure names for something I only briefly dealt with years before, but then I'll frequently make a mistake. Have a wrong first name. Mix up part of the title, etc. It always killed me in quiz bowl.

        "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

        by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:54:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I have to confess that there was a certain (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, ArkDem14, angry marmot, YucatanMan

    sinking of my spirits when I saw the title of your diary at the top of the Spotlight list. Knowing DKos's veneration of this book, I was expecting another glowing review, and was dreading to read it. Decided at the end to just skim it, and was very, very pleasantly surprised to read your diary.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    Diamond's basic thesis seems to be: Euro-Americans are great NOT because of genetics, because to assert that would make us all racists and put us in Murray/Richwine (The Bell Curve) territory. But then how to explain that Euro Americans were great, are great, and would be great in the future? Hmmm....its because of the environment. Its because of physical geography and lets either ignore or distort everything that doesn't fit into this deterministic theory, and voila! Success!!

    The fact that just about every serious academic who works on geography and cultural anthropology has repudiated Diamond's theories in this book, seems to make not an iota of difference; the audience just laps it up.

    The book solaces them with a record of their greatness, while assuring them that they are in no way racists to believe in that. Nature just did other people wrong. We were just the lucky bastards. Hah!

    It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

    by poco on Fri May 31, 2013 at 09:30:30 PM PDT

    •  Ummm... (8+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      maracucho, poco, Hamtree, Brecht, IreGyre, akmk, Ahianne, melo

      One big problem. You are leaving out the fact that it is EURASIA, and NOT Europe he says had an advantage. Since he deliberately includes both Indian and Chinese civilizations, it kind of knocks a whole in your accusation. I think you are being unfair to Jared Diamond and his book.

      His thesis is somewhat reduced by the newer discoveries (see 1491) about the Americas and agriculture, but basically even 1491 backs his thesis (the germs part). European germs basically wiped out the vast majority of the population of the Americas, thus allowing a handful of Europeans to take over two continents that previously had been strong and impressive. Fits Diamond's thesis even if Diamond's view of the advantages of Eurasian agriculture are now out dated.

      Another book I have read, Africa: Biography of a Continent, describes the fact that Africa has worse soil for agriculture than any other continent (same reason it also has the most diamond mines...the nature of the rock that makes up the continent). It also outlines how diseases in Africa co-evolved with us and this is why they tend to be so persistent, long-term and debilitating rather than having a massive and rapid death rate. This combination of poor soils and endemic diseases kept population growth relatively low compared with the humans who migrated out of Africa and populated the rest of the world (including Americas and Oceana). Although these exact factors are not included in Diamond's analysis, it seems to go along with it. The exact nature of the diseases and the opportunities to develop widespread agriculture was different in Eurasia than in Africa.

      One thing most people ignore is that genetically humans are widely the same. Africa contains far more diversity of genetics (a GOOD thing by any biological standard) because it is where we evolved. The people who left were Africans and have diverged genetically somewhat, but far less so than say dogs have evolved as they diverged from wolves. Except for the tiny genetic contributions of Neanderthals (and possibly other related species), we are all basically an African species with only small differences. Guns, Germs and Steel offers a reasonable and reasonably argued refutation of the stupid argument put forward by the Bell Curve. From what I have read, the theses put forward by Diamond still hold up pretty well. I do think he probably overstates his case somewhat, but it still holds up pretty well and in no way is Euro-centric...POSSIBLY Euro-Asian-centric, but his basic point is the current political and social dominance of Eurasia as opposed to say a dominance of the Triple Alliance, Tawantinsuyu, and Amazonian cultural/political model of the Americas, which in many ways could have been dominant had the Eurasian diseases not pretty much wiped them out.

      FREEDOM ISN'T FREE: That's why we pay taxes. NYC's Progressive/Reform Blog

      by mole333 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 07:00:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wished I could comment but... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht

    I do have the book but haven't had much time to read it. Anyways  the Authors I seem to like most are John Lundstrom,Norman Friedman,D. K. Broan, R. P. Hunnicutt and several authors on the US Civil War.

  •  Listened to the audio book (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ArkDem14, Brecht, IreGyre, Hamtree

    which I recommend as it probably avoids some of the tedium of the book (if any). I recall finding the "one note" issue being problematic later on in the audio book as well, so it wouldn't surprise me if it's worse in print.

    But I don't know if it's a terribly interesting critique of Diamond to say that it was germs and not steel that were more prominent in Spanish conquest. Germs are central to his theory. In simple terms the environmental advantage of having several domesticable species resulted in Europeans developing immunity to viruses like the one that causes smallpox. This was an "unearned" advantage held by Europeans. Your point is taken that Diamond's sources were out of date, but his overall thesis holds up even so.

    There's a difference between a responsible gun owner and one that's been lucky so far.

    by BeerNotWar on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:27:17 PM PDT

    •  Would be interested in your views (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ArkDem14, Brecht

      on Diamond's book "The Third Chimpanzee." I found his work on animal and human language in the book to be fascinating. Plus, you know, the sex stuff.

      There's a difference between a responsible gun owner and one that's been lucky so far.

      by BeerNotWar on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:29:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  There are other problems as well, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco

      but you're right. I focused on that because I know the most about that and wanted to make a point (which I could have made on his sections on Asia and Europe as well, but didn't because it simply would have been too long), that there's a subtle pattern in these decisions and peripheries, and that it makes his argument very Eurocentric, and in the end all Diamond does is say why Europe ended up as the dominent area of the world.

      Blaut, who I linked, was a famous geographer and cultural ecologist, and he does more to break down factual flaws that emerge in parts of Diamond's ecology and geography, as well as thoroughly takes Diamond's arguments to task, while also pointing out the Eurocentrism. He's a much better read than I am.

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:58:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Eurocentrism... (0+ / 0-)

        So basically you dislike the book because it shows that the Euro area was most suitable for development and you just don't like it "because"
        Can you accurately articulate any of Diamonds huge geographical flaws? Because earlier you were wrong about the Euro area being the most connected.

        We only think nothing goes without saying.

        by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:12:02 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You write (0+ / 0-)

    like an academician with an agenda.

    GOP: Bankers, billionaires, suckers, and dupes.

    by gzodik on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:29:37 PM PDT

    •  Everyone has an agenda. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, P Carey, angry marmot, YucatanMan

      "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

      by ArkDem14 on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:55:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I am curious as to what your agenda is. (0+ / 0-)

        Your review seems to be of a type.

        Think of a great book or film. Go on line and read user reviews. Among the raves you will always find sneering, disingenuous-sounding, "zero star" reviews.

        What is the motivation? Does it make you feel superior?

        GOP: Bankers, billionaires, suckers, and dupes.

        by gzodik on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 08:13:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  No at all (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          pico, poco, gzodik, YucatanMan

          I want other people to know a fuller story than Diamond provides because I think he provides an often limited or disingenuous history couched in positivist terms and claims to have far more answers than he does. It's about promoting a more nuanced and less biased understanding of the world of history than Diamond provides, which is why I've written critically of his work, pointed out some mistakes, and linked some critical responses that point out other mistakes in other fields of Diamond's discussion.

          But in any case, having an agenda is not a criticism unless the agenda itself is bad. I would only praise Diamond's agenda for instance. Certainly no one is without one.

          "Once, many, many years ago I thought I was wrong. Of course it turned out I had been right all along. But I was wrong to have thought I was wrong." -John Foster Dulles. My Political Compass Score: -4.00, -3.69, Proud member of DKE

          by ArkDem14 on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:20:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  So. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Hamtree

            So.

            You want to take a more penetrating point of view? Reasonable enough. And, I suppose the way to do this with such a successful book is to take a critical point of view?

            But much of your criticism seems completely unfounded. Most important, you take quotes out of context from a preliminary discussion to say things like

            Diamond’s argument about horses being a deciding factor
            and
            Diamond’s argument about horses being a deciding factor
            Did you read the whole book? The principal point of the book was that disease was the overwhelming factor.

            GOP: Bankers, billionaires, suckers, and dupes.

            by gzodik on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:21:45 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Heh, you're taking a lot of heat here, but (9+ / 0-)

    you're right.   I've mentioned before here that I found Diamond's narratives of history interesting, if simplistic - and frustrating in how poorly the arguments he constructed to support them were.  Since GG&S I've become better acquainted with the field, and it's not really a surprise to see that Diamond's work - at least his pop-science books, not his articles - isn't taken seriously by professionals.  But it also leaves you open to anger from users who love the way his narratives reinforce their ideological beliefs.  (I feel the same way about Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, by the way.  Comforting narrative if you're predisposed toward it, but both the argument and the evidence are laughable.)

    Barbara King over at NPR gave a reasonably good defense - sort of - of Diamond's work, arguing that it's pretty bad stuff on the face, and ridiculously patronizing toward non-Western cultures, but that its propensity to force us into asking questions about Western culture isn't a bad thing, given how popular his books are.  I guess I can buy that.

    But the best review of the pros and cons of Diamond's scholarly work was done by Wade Davis in the Guardian.  As Davis notes, Diamond's field work in Papua New Guinea - especially on issues related to birds - is valuable, important stuff.  But he knows nothing about culture or anthropology, so he practices "ethnology by anecdote".   That's fine for a pop-science book, but it's not particularly good scholarship.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 12:03:12 AM PDT

  •  You picked a tough target-- (9+ / 0-)

    but I think you are holding your own and then some. Thanks for the diary. Despite some of the comments, I would rate it more than fair and well worth a little serious and critical thought.

    I read this volume soon after it was out--highly recommended by several friends--and found it entertaining and laughable. I truly laughed at some of the broad strokes he employed; but I enjoyed the book. I could certainly see why several of my (more intelligent then me) friends would recommend it. Still, I thought its better function was to get readers thinking critically about the development of civilization and ask those hard questions that Diamond seemed to have easy answers handy: but easy answers to hard questions are seldom satisfying, no?

    There are precious few articulate and readable science writers, but Diamond falls into that category. Unfortunately, he uses that gift to offer pat and neat theories to difficult and multi-layered situations--an exercise meant (perhaps) to get the reader thinking, but more often than not (in my opinion) gives the reader an easy out. This is entertaining and makes someone like me think I understand "science" on a macro level; but I would rather be left with a thorny knot that would occupy my mind for weeks to come in those rare moments of respite.

    Thanks for a stimulating read.

  •  Holy crap... (9+ / 0-)

    I love, love, love this diary. So glad it was Rescued, and so disappointed that I couldn't be around last evening to participate.

    In the end, I'm no great fan of GSS which I would describe, fundamentally, as an attempt to do totalizing history in the Annales tradition without either a) the theoretical constructs or b) the depth and breadth of knowledge in the disciplines (and disciplinary histories) of anthropology, sociology and history. Blaut's criticisms are incisive, well-informed and justified (imo), which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his must-read The Colonizer's Model of the World (1993).

    On a meta-ish note, I have to say how delighted I am with the discussion-threads. Smart folks here, talkin' books and debating points of contention with respect (for the most part.) Heck, two of my favorite commenters are "duking it out" above but I can still imagine them sitting down, after all is said and done, for a beer...

    Good job, ArkDem14.

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:52:46 AM PDT

  •  GGS as hideous travesty... sheesh (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akmk, melo

    some attack it like it was almost as useless as an Ann Coulter book... or a creationist text.

    Why all the vitriol and scathing condescension? I get that academics can point out more than a few flaws but somehow it all begs the question... how much is begrudgery of too much success of a pop science book and how much demolition of details without much focus on valid points or areas that there is still reasonable debate over?
    Some tepid admissions that here and there there are still some OK things about the book and then on to it all seeming to end up looking like a vigorous need to apply the death of a thousand cuts even though the overall idea and much of the detail is still useful and true. It is still in balance much more true than say, Freud's mostly outdated and refuted ideas about psychology... so why the energetic desire in academia to demolish Diamond's work?

    I guess it is normal... academicians are almost always hostile to interlopers on their turf regardless of whether being mostly right partially right or utterly useless... you'd think this was all a Velikovsky "World's in Collision" or Erich von Daniken, "Chariots of the Gods" territory for all the acid derision or scornful faint praise that seems to be out there for G,G&S...

    Sure, I get that after years of study and painstaking work and a deep grounding in a specialist area... to have some parvenu gadfly lightweight blow in on turf rightfully earned and owned by this or that world authority is galling... and worse to get a lot of book sales and public recognition with what might seem to be a mish-mash of outdated notions with at best a kernel of something mildly useful or a detail that is microscopically redeeming... OK... things that approach that extreme do deserve some hostile dismantling but Jared Diamond is probably not as deserving of that kind of reception as some...

    Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

    by IreGyre on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 09:59:54 AM PDT

  •  Half of it stolen from Marvin Harris (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YucatanMan

    Read Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches or Harris' Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures

    Harris invented cultural materialism, and is in my opinion the far more important writer.

    It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America. - Molly Ivins

    by se portland on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 10:49:14 AM PDT

  •  Good work, even though I disagree with (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, akmk, RiveroftheWest, ArkDem14, melo

    you. You gave us a nice Rorschach test.
    You got people interested. I think that you overdo the anti-Diamond stuff.  I agree that the book Collapse is much less successful and provocative than GGS, but I won’t go into that here.  Many people have trouble with multivariate causation, that most everything is determined by multiple factors, whereas our minds and our culture make us think of single factors, good vs. bad dichotomies etc. I have two points
    1.    I knew Diamond in college, not well, but one year he lived across the hall from my roommates and me. We thought that he was unduly studious, so we called him Jared the microfarad. He has certainly had a much greater impact than that of my roommates and myself combined. He writes very well.
    2.    This controversy immediately takes me to EO Wilson. EO Wilson, the father of sociobiology, the ant man, who has a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. I was offended by Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, as were many others. Wilson has evolved over the years, not only with better writing but wider interests. He’s even older than Diamond. Wilson has been bitterly opposed by Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, but he will be remembered in 2100, whereas Dawkins and Gould will not.  Wilson did not have the monumental impact that Darwin did. Darwin was neurotic and full of self-doubt, but he stuck to his guns.  Hardly any idea is truly unique, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus understood much of what would become the Theory of Evolution but didn’t want to devote his life to that area of inquiry. Alfred Russel Wallace was brilliant, he and others understood the basics of evolution, but Wallace became an anti-vaccinator and proponent of many unscientific notions. In that sense Wallace was like Freud, whose legacy will be tiny in 2100 IMHO.

    Why questions are difficult.  I made brain lesions in rats and pigeons that caused them to starve themselves to death (kept alive but tube feeding & tricks like chocolate chip cookies). Actually, they eventually recovered. I can construct theories about why China didn’t attempt to conquer and exploit the Americas, as Spain and other European countries did, but they aren’t subject to proof. I think that Diamond looks better than most of his cultural anthropology critics, but you may not agree because you may have different starting points, initial values, etc.  I would put Darwin alongside Newton and Einstein, Wilson relatively high but qualitatively lower. No neuroscientist, living or dead, approaches the accomplishments of Darwin, Einstein and Newton. Freud started out doing good neuroscience (invertebrate studies) for his time, but he strayed. Diamond’s GG& S says many things, it is not a one note riff as some anthropologists claim, but we can differ about its place today 16 years after it first came out, and can still benefit from talking about it.

    •  multivariate causation (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      akmk, ArkDem14, melo
      Many people have trouble with multivariate causation, that most everything is determined by multiple factors, whereas our minds and our culture make us think of single factors, good vs. bad dichotomies etc.
      That does appear to be one of the central issues in this discussion.
  •  Late to the party... (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    poco, Ahianne, ArkDem14, YucatanMan, melo

    I wanted to say first, I immensely enjoyed reading this diary and the comments afterwards (although I only got through about half of them).

    I think, on top of the other problems with the book, one issue I have with GG&S is with one of its central assumptions.  It asks the question, why Europe?  But treating either "Europe" or "Western Europe" is a very modern concept that is frankly incompatible with history.  

    It may be intellectually satisfying to have a universal theorem of history, but you end up ignoring all individual, local, regional, and national agency to do so.  If Rome rose to such heights in its particular geographical niche, why did it ever fall?  

    And what does it mean, even, to say that Europe is in a way superior?  Are we just speaking of military victories?  In that case, it's a bit of a curious question, as Western Europe itself was first conquered by the Prussians with an Austrian dictator, and then torn between the Americans and the Russians of the Asian steppe.  

    And if China was insular and did not conquer its neighbors, what of it?  Are they lesser because of it?  Does the subjugation of Chinese political authority to colonizing Europeans mean that China was weaker militarily, or that Europe was simply full of people in some way greedier and more cruel (which is to say, lesser?)

    Anyway.  I read GJ&S some time ago (maybe 10 years?), and while its breadth is impressive, it left a bad taste in my mouth nonetheless.  I think your diary brought out why - thanks.

    •  Answered (0+ / 0-)

      1) Europeans were the ones who sailed to the Americas and conquered those people; Europeans were the ones who invented most technologies. That is what it means that Europe is superior.
      2) Rome fell because its technology/power/economy did not reached a barrier resulting in it being able to rule/dominate all others. In every part of the world great empires came and went.
      3) China had very little power/wealth or influence; that is why it was lesser.

      We only think nothing goes without saying.

      by Hamtree on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:52:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Grain (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akmk, sawgrass727, Brecht

    As someone raised on a grain farm, I most enjoyed his perspective on the influence of grain on historical development particularly how the attributes of a single grain crop could heavily influence if a civilization could grow and thrive.   I often find in current discussions of urban farms and farmers markets utterly no conception of why grain farming is different and important.  Why don't we just all grow vegetables?  Well, we don't all have a climate that would sustain merely growing vegetables.  Where I am, it may be June 1st but in a cold wet spring like this you wonder if it's still too early to plant tomatoes.  

  •  A remarkable coincidence (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    melo, angry marmot, poco, Brecht

    Just today I was clearing about a hundred books off my bookshelf to free up some space and do some downsizing.  

    One unfamiliar book appeared on the shelf: Guns, Germs, and Steel. Whereas I remember acquiring pretty much all other books on the shelves, I had no idea where that one came from and had never heard of it.  

    A cursory look in the book was enough that I knew I like the topic matter so I put it on the shelf designated for future reading.

    So I take a break from my office re-organizing and find this diary that provides a very thorough review of the same book.  I wonder if Nate Silver could calculate the probability....

     

  •  Thank you for this diary, & the comments pro (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    melo, angry marmot, poco, RiveroftheWest

    & con it generated. Mostly constructive on both sides.

    I read the book you critique years ago. I did so without the feeling of being exposed to something intellectually innovative.

    In terms of the Americas, especially the conquests of the areas referred to as the Aztec & Incan empires, I was very unimpressed. Then again, it would've been hard for anyone to put together an intelligent description of events of which we still know relatively little now...and much less at the time of Diamond's writing. What we know (relatively) well is the aftermath.

    i must admit to being somewhat surprised at the amount of controversy your diary has generated. That does make me happy though as it reflects a greater interest in the general subject than I was aware of having existed here.

    Tipped, rec'ced, & thoroughly enjoyed. Same in spirit for "most" of the comments on either side.

    The Americas greatest political dynasty...the Kaan

    by catilinus on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 01:00:22 AM PDT

  •  excellent, provocative diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    angry marmot, poco, Brecht, RiveroftheWest

    i could feel my neurons' accelerated multiplication throughout the comments too, congrats to all for a fine discussion!

    guns, germ, steel, and...ideas.

    why? just kos..... *just cause*

    by melo on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 01:12:56 AM PDT

  •  This is an interesting diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    angry marmot, poco, Brecht, RiveroftheWest

    As someone who has read a great deal of history and anthropology books about this subject, I tend to agree with you. Diamond's book tends to simplify things, something that every single famous academic usually does in order to sell more books. I also think he has a definite Eurocentric slant.

    I think Robert B. Marks wrote a good and much shorter counterpoint to it a few years ago with his The Origins of the Modern World, which focuses quite a bit on the way a lot of American and European historians and anthropologists tend to frame history as if the only things of note that ever happened occurred in Europe or were directly related to Europe.

    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

    by moviemeister76 on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 04:38:09 AM PDT

  •  Rescued! (4+ / 0-)

    As Brecht wrote above

    your diary both made me think and taught me things
    While I don't have to agree with everything that is written in diarys, I do expect them to make me think and teach me something.

    I am sorry I wasn't able to join the fun yesterday.

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