Guns, Germs and Steel, Reviewed by Kimberley Evans

HIS2465

 

Thesis Statement

In this review, I will argue that although Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”[1] attempts to answer many important questions that the study of history aims towards – namely causality – ultimately, Diamond’s work is lacking in rigour, presents a far too simplistic explanation to some very difficult debates, and takes too much of a scientific approach to questions concerning world history. His piece ties in strongly with many of the works and themes we have been discussing in class, which I will attempt to address in the course of the review.

Description and Analysis of Book

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” begins with a research question, termed “Yali’s Question”[2]. This goes as follows: “”Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”[3]. As a research question, this is incredibly broad, and links back strongly to the debate raised when reading Prasenjit Duara[4] and William J. Sewell[5]: how far back can you take historical causality? According to Diamond, the answer is 11,000BC. This in itself raises some methodological problems, and in turn led me back to an article and book excerpt about historical research and the use of archives. A pertinent point raised by Roy Rosenzweig[6] and John Randolph[7] was that of the problem of incomplete knowledge, and the limitations this posed when trying to investigate the past. Just like the “to be burned” note on top of the Bakunin papers[8] mentioned in these readings, and the deleted Bert is Evil page[9], a lot of information has been lost since 11,000BC. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond has created a scientific model for human history with an unquantifiable amount of incomplete knowledge. This in itself is enough grounds to refute his model, both from a scientific perspective, or otherwise. I will go on raise some of the debates surrounding the “scientific approach” to history further on.

The main premise of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is that the differences in the experiences of human history can be explained by climate and geography. “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”[10] . The book follows this thesis through to the end, with various examples for all world continents. Although Diamond does leave some space for “human inventiveness”, as he argues that “all human societies contain inventive people”, he then goes on to state that “it’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.”[11]

This leads me to a second critique. Throughout the book, Diamond fails to answer why people chose to use their technology and resources in the way that they did. He answers the question of why Europeans had “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that gave them an advantage during the conquest of the Americas, but he does not answer the historian’s main question of why they used them as they did. As Peter Nabokov states, historical narratives are “for sharper questions about why things happened the way they did”[12], and, in “Gums, Germs, and Steel”, this “sharper” insight is lacking.

Furthermore, this links back to Marx’s saying “all the more must the phrases and notions of parties in historic struggles be distinguished from their real interests, their notions and their reality.”[13] In plain terms, Marx was warning historians to not take everything at face value, as well as arguing that one of the aims of studying history is to dig deeper, in order to reach a deeper understanding of humans and the causes of their actions. Ginzburg[14] also demonstrated this “digging deeper” approach to history amply in the “Cheese and the Worms”, with his book-long attempt to understand exactly why Menocchio reached the cosmogony that he did through a variety of different research methods. Although Diamond does explain early formative differences in pre-historic times[15], he uses a small variety of sources, and he does not leave enough space for the role of human agency as world history unfolds. For example, when discussing the Spanish conquest of South America, causation is explained as follows: the “reason for the civil war was that an epidemic of smallpox…had killed the Inca emperor”, and “if it had not been for the epidemic, the Spaniards would have faced a united empire”.[16] This explanation is lacking in factual evidence to support the claims, and does not attempt to dig any deeper in terms of causation. Attributing just one cause, without even considering or mentioning other contingent factors, presents an unsustainable and un-rigorous claim. Marc Bloch mentions that historians should not be a judge, but rather someone who “describes”[17]: Diamond fails on both fronts. Although I disagree with Bloch’s statement to a certain extent, I do believe that a historian should first attempt to glean as much factual evidence as possible, before making sweeping universal statements in his attempt to reach the “ultimate explanation”[18]. This is not present in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, which makes for a dissatisfying historical read.

Books’ Merits

On a more positive note, the book has several merits. First and foremost, Diamond addresses where his knowledge is lacking, as well as his academic background. He follows the approach suggested by Marc Bloch in his “Historian’s Craft”, where the historian is open about their training and limitations[19] in the introduction of their work: Diamond’s “undergraduate…training was mainly in languages, history, and writing”, and he later went on to study in sciences and spent 33 years contributing to the field of evolutionary biology.[20] This is helpful for the reader, as they are more able to comprehend both the scientific focus of the book, as well making them aware of the bias of the writer.

Another merit of the book is Diamond’s consistent posing of questions. This is closely modeled on Ginzburg’s style[21], which guides the reader throughout his thought and research process. This can be seen in “Gun, Germs, and Steel” at the beginning of each new paragraph of the book. Not only does this link back to the aforementioned ideology of  Bloch and his Annales school – which called for historians to be more open about their methodology and biases – but it is also extremely useful in terms of understanding any hypotheses and conjectures made.

Conclusion

In conclusion, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is an interesting attempt at the experiment of taking historical causality back to its very origins. It adds a lot to the debate about whether it is possible for causality to be taken back to the beginning of human life on earth. That being said, due to both the nature of the research question being incredibly broad and impossible to address in a single volume, as well as Diamond’s scientific approach to history, there are a number of flaws in this book. It must be noted that the book is well written and accessible, and raises a number of interesting points about the influence of geography and science on historical events. This “histoire croisée”[22] method of an interdisciplinary approach to history can often lead to the introduction of new paradigms. Although “Guns, Germs, and Steel” does not necessarily introduce new historical knowledge, nor contribute significantly to the historical debate over events such as the Spanish Conquest, it does encourage historians to include the impact of geography and climate, alongside the role of human agency.


[1] Diamond, Jared M. 1997. Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

[2] Ibid. – p.13

[3] Ibid – p.14

[4] Duara, Prasenjit. 1998. “Why Is History Antitheoretical?” Modern China. 24 (2): 105.

[5] Sewell, William H. 1996. “Historical events as transformations of structures: Inventing revolution at the Bastille”. Theory and Society. 25 (6): 841-881.

[6] Rosenzweig, Roy. 2003. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”. The American Historical Review. 108 (3): 735-762.

[7] Burton, Antoinette M. 2005. Archive stories: facts, fictions, and the writing of history. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. – p.209-231

[8] Ibid – p.

[9] Rosenzweig, Roy. Op. Cit. – p.

[10] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit.- p.57

[11] Ibid. p.1114

[12] Nabokov, Peter. 2002. A forest of time: American Indian ways of history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. – p.2

[13] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2001. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. London: Electric Book Co. http://site.ebrary.com/id/2001665. – p.80

[14] Ginzburg, Carlo. 1980. The cheese and the worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[15] [15] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.41

[16] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.77

[17] Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. New York: Knopf. – p.140

[18] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.79

[19] [19] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.27

[20] Ibid. – p.27

[21] Ginzburg, Carlo. Op. Cit.

[22] WERNER, MICHAEL, and BÉNÉDICTE ZIMMERMANN. 2006. “BEYOND COMPARISON: HISTOIRE CROISÉE AND THE CHALLENGE OF REFLEXIVITY”. History and Theory. 45 (1): 30-50.

 

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