"Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond

You know that part in "Good Will Hunting" where Will is at the bar telling off a Harvard student? "See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you're gonna staht doin some thinkin on your own and you're gonna come up with the fact that there are two certaintees in life. One, don't do that. And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late chahges at the public library."

I checked out "Guns, Germs, and Steel" from the library a while ago; its a book that I wanted to read for a while, but when I would see it in a bookstore I wasn't in the mood for non-fiction, didn't have the money, or couldn't remember who wrote it. So I spent almost ten years not reading it and instead spent thousands of dollars on anthropology courses. I could have spent $18 on a new book that covers the four primary fields of anthropology.

The premise of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is what happened to assorted civilizations about 11,000 years ago to create modern Europe dominating the world for so long while some cultures never came out of the stone age. Basically, what created the "haves" and the "have nots".

Diamond reasons that the difference between the haves and the have nots is food production and geography. He breaks food production down into domestication of plants, and then domestication of animals. The haves were able to cultivate high quality grains that we still eat today, while the have nots were stuck with tubers and low quality grains. Domestication of plants led to domestication of animals to take care of planting needs and protein needs not met be plants. Civilizations that had large animals that were easy to domesticate thrived, those that didn't were left behind.

Geography is broken down into climate and a north/south axes compared to a east/west access. Starting with the Middle East, food production, ideas, and germs were able to spread to Europe and Asia because they run along an east/west axes with basically the same climate and few topographic obstacles. The Americas and Africa have a primarily north/south axes. The different climates and large topographic barriers made it impossible for food, ideas, and everything else to spread.

Diamond provides an incredibly well reasoned and well researched book that provides a comprehensive look at while some civilizations were able to thrive and others didn't. He has a nice writing style; somewhere between college professor and journalist, making it easy to read even if you don't start out with any knowledge of the subject. There's lots of anecdotes explaining his theory both with ancient and modern examples.

Its a great book. It won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out. I would also recommend it to anyone that's considering going into anthropology to see if they like it. If you like the book, you'll like the curriculum.

I'm not sure what I'll talk about next. Maybe "Timeline" by Michael Crichton, maybe a roundup of things I tried to read but couldn't quite get through.


lori 13 years ago

Just wanted to comment that I love this blog. I have had Guns, Germs, and Steel on my to-do list for far too long. Thanks for reminding me!

Megan Green Stuke 13 years ago

It has been on my to-do list for about ten years as well. Once I read that it was required reading for all incoming freshmen at Georgetown. I had some students do a project on it once - captivating.

Still, it's kind of daunting and I can't get of my fiction-loving duff to read it. So it sits on the shelf, collecting dust. Maybe I'll make it my goal to finish it this year!

that_will_do_pig 13 years ago

I second the nudge that all of you with "Guns, Germs, and Steel" sitting on your shelf, collecting dust, should pick it up and read it. It's not as daunting as it looks, promise. And then when you're done, read "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson. This is a sort of bible for me. Then again, I am a Bryson-aholic. But in tandem, these two books made me feel a lot better about my knowledge of the world around me, AND made me infinitely better at trivia!

Althea Schnacke 13 years ago

Thanks, lori!

One of the nice things about "Guns" is that the chapters are broken into pretty small sections, two or three pages at most. Great for reading right before bed or waiting for an appointment and there's enough continuation between sections that its easy to pick up and put back down without losing the train of thought.

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