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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Paperback – March 7, 2017
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- William H. McNeil, New York Review of Books
“An ambitious, highly important book.”
- James Shreeve, New York Times Book Review
“A book of remarkable scope, a history of the world in less than 500 pages which succeeds admirably, where so many others have failed, in analyzing some of the basic workings of culture process.... One of the most important and readable works on the human past published in recent years.”
- Colin Renfrew, Nature
“The scope and the explanatory power of this book are astounding.”
- The New Yorker
“No scientist brings more experience from the laboratory and field, none thinks more deeply about social issues or addresses them with greater clarity, than Jared Diamond as illustrated by Guns, Germs, and Steel. In this remarkably readable book he shows how history and biology can enrich one another to produce a deeper understanding of the human condition.”
- Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University
“Serious, groundbreaking biological studies of human history only seem to come along once every generation or so. . . . Now [Guns, Germs, and Steel] must be added to their select number. . . . Diamond meshes technological mastery with historical sweep, anecdotal delight with broad conceptual vision, and command of sources with creative leaps. No finer work of its kind has been published this year, or for many past.”
- Martin Sieff, Washington Times
“[Diamond] is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English, and deals almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned about how humanity has developed. . . . [He] has done us all a great favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer. . . . A wonderfully interesting book.”
- Alfred W. Crosby, Los Angeles Times
“An epochal work. Diamond has written a summary of human history that can be accounted, for the time being, as Darwinian in its authority.”
- Thomas M. Disch, The New Leader
About the Author
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Was he paid by the number of pages he wrote? Goes into way too much detail about things no one cares about.
Also he is simply selecting things in history that conveniently fit his thesis, this is selection bias.
He makes way too many sweeping generalizations and says that is the reason why so and so country is rich today.
He writes that the larger the population a country has (e.g., it will have more Einsteins), the more competition there will be among its people and there will be more innovators among that population and therefore the country will invent more stuff and eventually become richer. If that's the case then why have no significant inventions come out of India or China in the past 100 years when they have 4x the population of the U.S.?
This book has so many flaws in logic I don't even know how it is so highly rated on Amazon. Oh wait.. I get it now.
- Then why is their tested collective IQ below that of the retardation line?
"IQ tests are biased because they have a largely cultural component."
- Then why do Asians perform better than Americans and Europeans in those same tests?
This author saturated his book with his obvious bias towards the communities he's been living with in an grand effort to make them feel better about not succeeding. He couldn't even substantiate his beginning claims about how Aboriginal Australians are more intelligent than Europeans objectively. He just states a few anecdotes about his experiences and then continues on like he's now established the truth.
No group of people is inherently less deserving of life, but this modern day effort to discredit the accomplishments of European inventors on mere suspicion of "luck" and "geographical location" due to some magic soil alone is disingenuous at best. He discredits every science that doesn't have studies he can cherry pick to fit his narrative and just comes off as an SJW mentioning the word "racist" at least 20 times in the prologue. If you only care about feeling good about humanity and don't want the truth if it's "mean" or "racist" then this book is for you.
Why is economic development so uneven around the world?
Diamond posed questions fundamental to the experience of the human race. “Why did wealth and power [among nations] become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way?” “[W]hy did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?” “[W]hy were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?” In his award-winning book, Diamond posited a “unified synthesis”—a unified field theory of history. Drawing from his wide-ranging knowledge of medicine, evolutionary biology, physiology, linguistics, and anthropology as well as geography, he surveyed the history of the past 13,000 years and identified plausible answers to the questions he had posed. In the process, he wrote what I consider to be the single most illuminating book on the history of the human race.
Academic critics howled
However, academic critics howled shortly after the publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel:
They referred to supposed errors in geography and history, which I find largely pointless. For example, geographers complained that Diamond referred to Eurasia as a single continent rather than separately to Asia, North Africa, and Europe. That’s nitpicking, as far as I’m concerned. And many of these “errors” could simply be differences of opinion. Academics are unbearably dogmatic and dismissive of those who reject their pet theories.
Some accused him of racism, although he rejected racist explanations early, forcefully, and often. That criticism is not only unsupported by Diamond’s book, it’s insulting to the reader.
The most common and far-reaching complaint was that Diamond had succumbed to the heresy of “environmental determinism.” Understandably, Diamond grounded his argument in geographic and environmental factors—but he repeatedly cited numerous other influences as well. Ultimately, of course, everything we humans do, and everything we’ve done in the millions of years since our ancestors first climbed out of the trees, has been environmentally determined.
There were complaints that Diamond had overlooked the contrast between temperate and tropical zones (he didn’t) and that he had only explained what happened 500 years ago but not subsequently (untrue). It might appear that at least some of Diamond’s critics never read the book.
However, the most aggravating criticism was that he had ignored the motives that led the industrial nations to undertake colonialism and imperialism on a broad scale. Diamond addressed only the means that enabled the colonial powers to dominate, not the reasons why they chose to do so. To my mind, that’s no error. He didn’t pretend to explain colonialism and imperialism, merely to describe how it had become possible.
Is it possible that most of these academic critics were simply bitter that Diamond hadn’t cited their own specialized research?
The roots of academic criticism
Though the critics undoubtedly uncovered a misplaced fact or unwarranted conclusion here and there through the book, the errors were exceedingly minor in the context of Diamond’s expansive hypothesis. It should be clear to any dispassionate reader that the academic reaction stemmed, above all, from narrow-mindedness and jealousy. The world of academia today is atomized. Specialties, sub-specialties, and sub-sub-specialties abound. It’s not unusual for a scholar to build a career on the study of a single obscure question that, when answered, will be of interest to virtually nobody. Interdisciplinary studies are frowned upon in most academic circles. Generalists are regarded as “not serious.” And scholars who write popular books, must less bestsellers, can expect a chilly reception from their peers.
A wealth of meaning behind the title
To understand where the academic critics went wrong, it’s useful to look at what Diamond signified by his title, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Early in his book, he dwells on the confrontation between the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Inca god-king Atahuallpa. “The immediate reasons for Pizarro’s success included military technology based on guns, steel weapons [such as swords and daggers], and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing. The title of this book will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors.”
Diamond’s argument in a nutshell
In a Prologue, Diamond poses the question at the heart of this book. He quotes a friend in what is now Papua New Guinea from a conversation in 1972, when he was studying bird evolution there: “‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?'” To answer the question, Diamond begins his story around the year 11,000 BCE, when the last Ice Age was drawing to a close and human beings were beginning to form villages in a few places around the world. It’s unclear whether the formation of villages preceded the deliberate cultivation and production of food, or vice versa. However, regardless of the sequence, that shift from hunter-gatherer society to agriculturally based settlements set in motion the course of events that have led to the “civilization” in which we live.
Diamond argues, convincingly, that the much greater availability of domesticable plants and large animals in Eurasia than in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, he explains that the east-west orientation of Eurasia from the Bering Strait to the Atlantic Ocean made it possible for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry to spread quickly to distant lands. By contrast, the north-south orientation of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa—and the presence of barriers such as the Sahara Desert, the Panamanian Isthmus, and the deserts of northern Mexico and southwestern United States—impeded the spread of these (and, later, other) new technologies to the extremities of those continents. The advent of food production enabled the development of ever-larger settlements. This, in turn, spelled the emergence of labor specialization and eventually the growth of empires as well as the appearance and spread of communicable diseases contracted from domesticated animals. Those differences in historical development eventually led to the “guns, germs, and steel” that made Eurasian dominance possible—and dictated the huge differences in economic development between what today we call East and West.
Guns, Germs, and Steel is crammed with facts and densely written. It doesn’t make for light reading. But if you have any interest in understanding how the world came to be as it is, you’ll find this book highly rewarding.
This book is a wellspring of information about where we come from and the author distributes it out of a basket of abundant knowledge. You witness the changing face of humanity, usually under the passionate hand of brutality, from Khoisans to Bantus in Africa, from Negritos to Austro-Asians and Austronesians in the Far East, from the Ainus to Japanese, and then of course in that collision of the white man with the Redskins. The incredible judgment dispensed by Francisco Pizarro upon the Incas, supposedly in honor of the Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, will make you shake your head for a long time.
In contrast to such scholarly research, it is hard to stomach the tasteless comments in some of the one-star reviews of this book. They remind you of what the Bible says about pearls and where you are not to cast them.
Top international reviews
Others reviewers have said its a dry read. Believe me, its not! I have read scientific journals much drier than this! Inevitably some of the topics, such how some plants and animals have been domesticated can be a dry topic, but the author does a really good job in making the explanations easier to follow.
The astonishing thing about this book is that it has pulled evidence from a wide variety of sources to build up such a coherent and plausible picture. The author is a genuine polymath and his masterly analysis of topics from such a wide variety of scientific and historical fields is breathtaking. It was fully deserving of its Pulitzer prize
Its easy to see why this book is unpopular with some sections of society, it undermines the basis of many other theories about racial, cultural and religeous supremacy. I am convinced however, that this will be seen as one of a select few landmark books that shape the way we perceive our origins in the years to come.
The Kindle version is good conversion of the original book. The diagrams can be effectively magnified to fill the page, the tables do not loose format and there are hyperlinks to the tables and diagrams included within the text where necessary. Unfortunately the plate illustrations have not been included, probably to reduce the overall file size; however, I did not find this to be a problem in following the arguments within the text.
The book seems to be premised around the notion of the Great Leap Forward. However three recent discoveries would seem to seriously call into question this notion; Pre-Clovis occupation 14,550 years ago at the Page-Ladson site, Florida; U-Th dating of carbonate crusts has revealed Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art; a bone fragment from Denisova Cave (Russia) shows that it came from an individual who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.
I will happily read the rest of the book, when the author reviews his theories in the light of these recent developments.
My chief issue though is the stupidly small font. It was a chore to read frankly and had I opened this before the expiry date for returns I’d have sent it back once I saw the font.
It sounds like a petty thing to mention but when it’s a thick book on a dense topic having it in what seems like 7pt just makes no sense whatsoever. The publisher really ought to know better.
Hence, it is path breaking, inspiring, there is a lot of detail (and yes, of course, some speculation) and will be a great experience for someone ready to invest his/her time to understand human societies.
P.S. There is a documentary, based on this book, by National Geographic, which is quite gripping.
I think Jared contributed a lot to answer the intriguing question: is Environment influencing cultures or the other way around? He possibly offered some anthropological tools to help us predict how societies may evolve in the future based on pre-existing conditions.
Diamond's principal hypothesis is that until around 11,000 BC all of the fledgling societies scattered around the globe were on a roughly equal footing, struggling to get by as hunter-gatherers. From that time onwards, different groups started to move towards a more structured mode of agriculture featuring the domestication of livestock and the ability to regulate arable crops. Throughout the book he stops to ask why it was that the European nations colonised Afria, Asia and the Americas, rather than the other way around. Why were those European states able to establish their supremacy?
The dreadful impact of diseases prevalent among Europeans upon the new societies that they encountered throughout the New World and Australasia is well documented. Diamond asserts that some of that contagion was initially contracted from the livestock that formed the basis of their sustaining agriculture. Diamond explores these issues with a mixture of history, archaeology and anthropology, drawing evidence from all around the world.
These are not areas that I know much, if anything, about, and I found Diamond's book completely engrossing. I might question some of his conclusions, but they are all soundly constructed, and liable to provoke lively debate.
The style is clear and readable. Where he ventures onto contentious terrain, he explicitly gives his own view but always attempts to state the counter-argument with enough force so that the reader unaware of the academic debates can at least see the outlines of the various arguments. He does go into some detail – particularly on fauna and agriculture – which forced me to concentrate a little harder than in other sections but the book is not unduly technical.
I found his theory, based on the evidence presented in this book, very compelling. However, I think that regardless of whether the reader finds him ultimately persuasive or not, the reader interested in these topics will find this book fascinating and very thought-provoking.
It is a much needed corrective to the 1960s teaching that 'geographical determinism' was not the answer. Diamond has produced enough statistics and analysis here to indicate strongly that from the earliest days of human existence until perhaps the last 1,000 years, geography in its widest sense had a huge impact on what was possible in the way of technological advancement.
If you have ever faced a class of adult male African students asking their version 'Yali's Question' - Why are you, a young white woman, here, teaching us how to read a map' . . . (or whatever). Why is it not the other way round?' - you will appreciate, as I do, what a gift this book has been to both teachers and students.
It is not the whole story of course, nor does it pretend to be. It provides no remedies - just some much needed understanding. Some of Diamond's conclusions will undoubtedly be challenged, but at least this book set an important ball rolling. Wisely, he stops short of taking on the last millennium when cultural diversity and technological change intensified and some cultures began to spread more widely across the globe. If it has a weakness, it is the lack of African data, but that is hardly Diamond's fault. Some