My senior year of high school, my English teacher told me something that’s has stayed with me ever since. “Nothing,” she said, “is boring as long as you don’t want it to be.” It was after we had all read a particularly dry chapter of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood—Dillard’s childhood love for rocks and minerals was talked about, at length. Anything, she told our glassy-eyed class, given enough concentration and attention, can be interesting.
When I picked up Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel—essentially an anthropological account of the world as we know it—I recalled that exchange. Steeling myself to dive into the study of agriculture, early man, and historical détentes, I promised that I would stick with it. Fortunately, I didn’t need to remember those words of wisdom, because Diamond’s opus is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.
It’s likely to appear on most history teachers’ must-read lists, and for good reason; Guns, Germs and Steel is a pensive, well thought-out extended hypothesis on why human history unfolded differently on different continents for the last 13,000 years. Why did Europe conquer the Americas, and not vice versa? Why did certain societies seem to fall by the wayside while others advanced considerably technologically?
Diamond’s work challenges the easy narrative that certain cultures have an inherent intelligence that grants them success over others. Instead he lays out, in a methodical and effective manner, the external, geographical factors that contribute to the acquisition of world power.
The book has the potential to be dense and academic; it is neither. Diamond does not write for the obvious audience, choosing to make the book accessible to a wider range. The writing is light and informative, and the progression makes sense, as he intermixes recognizable historical anecdotes with more complex ideas. He re-emphasizes points without risking redundancy—after all, there’s a lot to remember.
Beyond the writing, the premise of Guns, Germs and Steel is important. History is not just “one fucking thing after another,” as Rudge in The History Boys would say. It is a science; there are variables, there is hard data and there are traceable, natural trends that have moved the course of humanity.
Diamond doesn’t shy away from the point of his chronicle, which is to present an alternative to the imperialist and racist explanation that certain groups succeeded due to biological superiority. He does this without rendering the historically conquered perpetual victims to their own circumstance. In fact, he notes several occasions when he lived in New Guinea where he might have died were it not for the intelligence and wherewithal of the people he was staying with.
An anthropologist I know hazards that Diamond’s narrative isn’t quite complete. “Read this book,” he said, “and then read some other literature”— noting that Diamond glosses over cultural advancements outside Eurasia likely because they weren’t tied to military population and power.
Still, Diamond’s treatise is thorough, especially for the entry-level reader. There is certain skill required to make the documentation of domesticable plants and animals an interesting read, and Guns, Germs and Steel manages to achieve that quite well.
Simply put, read this book if you want to really know something. Guns, Germs and Steel delights in the epistemological pursuit—its nuanced approach will leave you a better, more informed member of society.