Book review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), ISBN: 978-0099302780

I want to approach this book by means of its subtitle. Specifically, I want to contrast its subtitle with that of another classic text. This may seem perverse, but bear with me. The subtitle of this book is – or rather was originally; it has changed since the first edition, perhaps revealingly – “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.”

Now I do admire the sheer cheek of this. It’s deliberately provocative. Obviously it isn’t really such a book, because such a book couldn’t possibly be written, and if it could it would be much, much longer than this, even if it was short, because 13,000 years is a long time, and everybody is a lot of people. At one level Diamond is aware of this, and I don’t hold that against him. Perhaps it was his publisher who came up with it. But at another level, he really does appear to suppose that this is that book, or at least a synopsis of it, and that is where we part company.

The other subtitle I’m thinking of is that of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” It’s equally provocative, of course. But I think the main thing I have against Diamond’s book is that, ultimately, for him people don’t matter at all. Which slightly begs the question of why his book exists at all, but we’ll get onto that.

Other critics of this book have taken issue with particular details, and this was probably inevitable. After all, there is a lot of detailed archeology which the book skips merrily over, not all of which has dated especially well, which of course isn’t Diamond’s fault. The pyramids, for example, are blithely put into the category of “public works advertising state power” (Chapter 14, “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” p. 285 in my copy). I am not an Egyptologist, and I don’t even play one on TV, but even I have a hard time swallowing that Diamond can really assert such a superficial account with a straight face.

There’s a version of the human story that we all get taught, and it goes something like this. In the beginning, we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, and it sucked (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t). Later, some bright spark discovered farming, and everything got much better (spoiler alert: it definitely didn’t) because that meant we could become more numerous (because that has to be a good thing, right?) and also because we had surplus food we could support people who didn’t produce food (because that also has to be a good thing). And that took us on a smooth trajectory to the paradise we live in today, where half the world is starving and we have the Department of Work and Pensions. Hoorah!

I’d love to say that Diamond’s book is the antidote to all this. In some ways it is, or tries to be. Diamond’s field-work as an ornithologist has led him to spend a lot of time in New Guinea, which has made him a kind of amateur anthropologist. He often recurs to New Guinea in the book, and those are often the most valuable passages, because they stem from his own lived experience. He is by no means an uncritical cheerleader for the modern lifestyle, as witness his 2013 book The World Until Yesterday, which is even subtitled: “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” – it’s just that from this account we’re lumbered with it, apparently everywhere and forever.

Diamond sets himself the question of why it is that the people of Western Europe – not, on the face of it, either the smartest, wisest, or materially well-endowed people on the planet – were able to subdue so much of the rest of the world. This is a reasonable question, and he gives it his best shot. But I am reminded of the work of a justifiably forgotten English essayist of the eighteenth century, Soame Jenyns. If anyone remembers him today, it is probably because of the righteous stomping his work received at the hands of Samuel Johnson: that he maintained that whatever is, is right. This, ultimately, is Diamond’s thesis too.

For essentially his explanations are entirely mechanical. There is no room for human agency in any of it. He occasionally weeps crocodile tears over, say, Native Americans being deliberately given blankets infected with smallpox, but it’s just the way it is. The Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were still using stone tools when Europeans arrived, so ultimately it was fine for them to be exterminated. (British officers had a wager on how many human bodies a musket ball could pass through, so in order to resolve it they lined up a bunch of Tasmanians and fired a musket ball through them and counted the corpses. Sad, but you know, kind of inevitable.) Diamond tries very hard not to be racist about all of this, but it’s pretty cold comfort for the losers.

The mechanistic basis of his world-view is betrayed in his account of religion. For Diamond, religion is just a manifestation of what he terms “kleptocracy.” With touching faith, he seems to imagine that as human society progresses, there is less room for kleptocracy. (Sweet summer child! Does he truly know nothing of the corporate world?) But there’s also no room in his account for actual spiritual experience. Even if he has no direct knowledge of this, it seems strange to me that he has heard nothing of it from his friends in New Guinea, to say nothing of friends closer to home. It’s not so much an omission as a gaping void. After all, an awful lot of those people in the last 13,000 years have been religious, one way or another. They can’t all have been idiots.

This is history without the ethics. It isn’t, actually, history at all. History is not just about what happened, but what might have happened instead. Otherwise it’s basically just physics. In Diamond’s universe, what happened is the only thing that could have happened, because for him it really is all just physics. (Not quantum mechanics, of course, because that would be embarrassingly non-deterministic. Newton for the win!) Resistance is useless.

For Diamond, it would appear that everyone in the world is doomed to end up buying their groceries online, because that’s just the way things are. We’ll all be ruled in every tiny detail of our lives by faceless bureaucracies, because that’s just the way things are. In fact, we’ll all be living in some version of the USA, because that’s just the way things are. Is that what he wants, on some level? Judging from this book, I think perhaps it is.

Well: sod that for a game of soldiers. Luckily for us, the laws of physics (ha!) will render this version of the world unfeasible, and possibly sooner than we may think. Diamond may have written a history of the last 13,000 years, but it will take far less time than that for it to appear – well, dare I say dated?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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