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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 570-571

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Book Review

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. By Jared Diamond. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Pp. 480; illustrations, maps, bibliography, index. $14.95.

In this work Jared Diamond takes on a perplexing and complex question: Why has the distribution of power in the world so disproportionately favored Europe and North America, and not Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere? Diamond argues against racially deterministic explanations, asserting instead that environmental factors crucial to the development of farming and sophisticated technologies gave certain societies indomitable advantages over others. Diamond's environmentally deterministic stance is the largest flaw in this audacious attempt to present for a general audience the significance of human interaction with the environment over the course of eleven thousand years of history. Diamond deserves credit for taking on "big history" in this book, but serious scholars will likely find it to be as often frustrating as fascinating.

Consider, for example, the brief section in which Diamond makes the argument whence comes the book's title. He contends that societies having better technologies, carrying more lethal germs, and with sophisticated political organizations inevitably came to conquer or absorb other societies. Diamond calls these the "proximate" causes of lopsided power relations in the world, and describes the encounter between the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Inca emperor Atahuallpa to make his case. While he is not wrong about European weapons and smallpox having had a devastating effect during the European-Incan encounter, these factors say much more about the process of conquest (and even there they do not tell the full story) than the creation and maintenance of the colonial states that emerged. For Diamond, guns and steel unproblematically confer lasting power, but the critical question of how these and other, less glamorous technologies did so--and specifically how they participated in the social and political organization of stabilized colonial states--remains largely unquestioned in this book. He likewise takes the European impulse to expansion as given, ignoring the complex interplay of cultural, political, and technological factors that brought Europeans into aggressive contact with other cultures.

The rest of the book is dedicated to Diamond's explanation of the "ultimate" causes of power differentials. Why did some societies acquire [End Page 570] better technologies and carry more devastating diseases into their encounters with other societies? Diamond argues that settled agricultural societies produced the technologies, germs, and political organizations that proved to be so dominating. Settled societies were more likely to develop craft specialists who could produce innovative technologies. Farmers with livestock were frequently exposed to new diseases and were able to develop resistance that isolated or unsettled groups did not have. Settled societies were likely to develop tightly organized political organizations. Finally, societies having regular contact with other societies tended to be more technologically and politically dynamic.

Assuming this, Diamond asks why some groups of humans evolved into agricultural societies of varying levels of sophistication, and others did not. Here, in the realm of prehistory, Diamond's analysis becomes more compelling. Drawing comparisons across continents, he shows why certain plants and animals lent themselves more readily to domestication. He traces environmental factors that gradually led some societies to depend on settled agriculture, while for others hunting and gathering or less settled forms of agriculture remained the best options. Diamond succeeds admirably in describing the diversity of human interactions with the environment, as well as the multiplicity of solutions that have been applied to the problems of survival, including technological development. Again rejecting racial distinctions, Diamond draws on scholarship from the history of technology to dispute the idea that genius is the sole requirement for innovation, linking technical dynamism to communication with different cultures, access to raw materials, and the establishment of craft specializations. Nothing here is groundbreaking, but the points are clearly made. The deterministic treatment of specific technologies (such as the guns of Pizarro) is, by contrast, frustratingly unsophisticated.

Some might argue that Diamond's tendency toward determinism...


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