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:
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.