Since it came out in 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel is a book that has been much discussed and praised. It has been at the top of my to read list for some time. It has taken me rather a while to actually get round to reading it. I was waiting for it to come out in either audio or on Kindle in the UK. In the end I gave up and simply bought the paperback, whereupon, as I should have expected, it instantly appeared in both the formats I had a preference for. But I am not unhappy. Having read it, I think this is one of those books that you really want in physical form. It has just a few too many maps and tables to make it comfortable to absorb electronically and it is thought provoking enough that you really want to be able to take the time to mull them over.
Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with Diamond’s prose style – far from it – it wasn’t really a page turner. I found myself rereading bits and just stopping to think things through.
Where it scores is in looking at things not so much in a different way as in a lot more depth than usual. But it isn’t a difficult book and it certainly doesn’t require any specialist knowledge, although I have a feeling that the better grasp of biology you have the more you will get out of it. It sets out to answer a very simple question. Why are the people who live in the modern western world so much better off materially than the inhabitants of South Sea islands who have only recently got out of the Stone Age. Or in other words, why are some people very poor and others very rich?
To track down the answer to this question we range far and wide. We look at the shapes of continents. We consider what kinds of domesticated animals exist and where they were found. All sorts of intriguing facts turn up, but all contribute to answering the question originally set. It works most powerfully when we consider obvious facts that we knew all along without ever seeing their significance. For example, most people have an idea of the advantages the Spanish had in their conquest of South America. They had guns, they had horses, they had ships that could transport them quickly to wherever they might want to go. These are all handy things to have up your sleeve (up your doublet?), but even so with sufficient numbers the natives could have countered them. The Spaniards real knock out advantage was that they were simply several orders of magnitude more ruthless. Why was this? Well they were heirs of centuries of culture that gave them a good idea of how to handle the situation they were in. The South American natives only had oral traditions passed down from their immediate predecessors. Lack of writing meant a lack of perspective.
It is interesting to look a bit more at the perspective of a Spaniard like Cortez compared to his opponent Montezuma. The culture from which Cortez had arrived had contacts across the rest of Christian Europe, with Muslim North Africa and the Turkish Empire. It was aware of and to some extent informed about the advanced civilisations of China and India. Its literary traditions stretched back to Classical times some two thousand years before. Had he chosen to do so, Cortez could well have read up on how Julius Caesar had handled primitive tribesmen. In comparison Montezuma’s world comprised not much more than central America. Geographical barriers separated him from the other cultures and the limitations of Aztec writing, which was not much more than pictograms, meant he could only draw on recent experiences. It really is no wonder that Cortez could outfox him so easily.
A lot of history is very Eurocentric. This is pretty unavoidable given that over time most historians have been Europeans, and Americans aren’t so far from their European roots. This book is also Eurocentric but not in the same way. By setting up the question as to how the most advanced nations got to be that way, you can hardly avoid giving Europe a lot of coverage. But you learn a lot more about non-European history here than you would from an average book of history covering such a long time span. And there is certainly no condescension or belittling of people whose culture didn’t get around to building blast furnaces or aeroplanes. In fact, Diamond regards the Indonesian islander who first asked him the question that inspired the book as being in every way superior to himself by any measure you might chose. I think this is probably false modesty. I don’t think many people from any culture could have written a book as good as this one.