This is an interesting and influential book that in its broad conclusions makes a lot of sense, though I have doubts about Diamond’s reasoning on some of his smaller points. It’s longer than it needs to be, but largely because it is thorough and takes the time to break down academic subjects to be accessible to intelligent but non-specialist readers.
First published in 1997, this book sets out to explain why Europe was able to colonize such a large part of the world in the last few centuries. Europeans’ possession of “guns, germs and steel” was an immediate cause, but why did they have these things when people on many other continents did not? Diamond’s answer comes down to the environment in different parts of the world. In essence, all of these advantages come down to agriculture. In a hunter-gatherer society, population is kept relatively small, people have to focus on acquiring food, and (unless they live in an especially bountiful area), small groups typically need to move from place to place, such that they can’t have too many belongings, especially if they have no domestic animals to carry them. A society built on farming, however, tends to be much more populous, can support a class of people who do something other than farm (an elite class of nobles, but also specialized trades), and can accumulate belongings, which makes developing new technology more worthwhile. So, parts of the world that had a head start on farming also had a head start on developing technology, such as metallurgy.
Meanwhile, European germs played probably the most decisive role in their conquest of the Americas, as well as some other parts of the world; given the size of the native population (an early European visitor to the east coast of the modern U.S. wrote that there didn’t really seem to be room for colonies because the area was so heavily populated) and the difficulty of getting even small numbers of people across the ocean on wooden ships, one can imagine that this could have turned out much more like the English conquest of India, or might not have happened at all, if not for the epidemics that killed some 90% of the population. Why were the Europeans the ones with the germs? Well, human epidemics have come from domestic animals (think swine flu and avian flu today), and epidemics need a large population to stay alive; otherwise they will simply kill everyone they can kill and then die out with no new hosts. Therefore, epidemics evolved in places where people lived in close quarters with domestic animals, and stuck around in populations large enough to produce a new crop of children before the epidemic died out (this is why diseases like measles were once considered “childhood diseases” – not because children were more susceptible, but because the diseases were so prevalent that children would almost inevitably catch them before growing up). Both individuals and populations exposed to these germs would eventually develop immunity if they survived.
But the opportunity to domesticate animals wasn’t spread evenly around the world. Asia and Europe (referred to throughout the book as “Eurasia” since it’s really one landmass, considered two continents for political rather than geographic reasons) had lots of options, including horses, cows, water buffalo, sheep, pigs, and goats. As far as domesticable large mammals go, the Americas had only the llama (which didn’t spread beyond the Andes), while sub-Saharan Africa had none. It isn’t that people didn’t try – people will keep almost anything as a pet – but numerous factors influence whether a large mammal is a good candidate for domestication. It needs to live in herds, to tolerate its own herd’s territory overlapping with others (or you’d never be able to bring in a new cow that wasn’t related to your current cows), to not be overly or unpredictably aggressive toward humans (this is why the zebra has never worked out), to not panic, bolt and throw itself against the fence until it dies, and more. Eurasia had a couple of major advantages here. Being the largest landmass, it had the most animal diversity. And, as modern humans evolved in Africa and Eurasia, animals evolved alongside them, presumably learning how to deal with human hunters’ increasing skills; on the other hand, most large mammals went extinct in the Americas and Australia shortly after people arrived.
With agriculture, too, Eurasia had an advantage, causing it to kick off there early. Again, there was a greater diversity of plants, only some of which make sense to domesticate and begin to grow. The Fertile Crescent (roughly modern-day Iraq and Turkey), perhaps the first site of agriculture in the world, had it particularly easy: wheat already existed in a form quite similar to its modern equivalent, and grew bountifully, so the idea of taking it home and growing it wasn’t much of a leap. On the other hand, with corn – a staple crop of Mexico and eventually the eastern U.S. – there isn’t even agreement on what the wild ancestor was; the plant that might have been the original corn produced husks only about an inch long with tiny kernels and other disadvantages. People had to work on it for a really long time before it became a suitable staple crop for large swathes of the continent.
And then too, you wouldn’t switch from hunting and gathering to farming for just one crop. While hunting and gathering seems like a precarious lifestyle to us, it can actually be better than subsistence farming. Farmers worked harder – which makes sense, since they had to nurture their food every step of the way rather than simply finding it and bringing it home – and based on their skeletons, early farmers’ nutrition was worse than that of hunter-gatherers. So it’s the total package that counts; in areas that provided a nutritionally-balanced diet of domesticable plants, plus domesticable animals to supplement that diet and also provide labor and fertilizer, farming made a lot more sense than it did in areas without such a bounty. Essentially, the sort of lifestyle people had depended on the food options available, and some places supported agriculture much more than others. Nobody’s building a densely-populated empire from a desert like the Australian outback.
There is a lot more to the book of course, but I think it’s the central thesis that’s the most convincing. Many of Diamond’s other points – ancillary to his main argument – don’t work so well. For instance, he’s very interested in how a Spanish force of about 150 managed to defeat and capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who was supported by thousands of troops. Certainly the Spanish weaponry played a decisive role, particularly since it was the first time the Inca had encountered guns or cavalry. But Diamond claims that we know well what happened based on the (likely self-serving) accounts of several Spaniards, without apparently realizing that the Inca would probably have told a different story, and then makes a big deal of the fact the Inca lacked writing, arguing this is why they weren’t aware of prior Spanish conquests in Central America and therefore walked into a trap. But this ignores the fact that people who can’t depend on storing information in written form tend to have far better memorization skills than people who write everything down (Homer was not unusual in being able to recite epic poems from memory), and the fact that “they’re going to try to kill you with terrible weapons” is a simple message that could certainly have been transmitted intact had the Inca had envoys in Central America, all while assuming that Atahualpa didn’t know it was a trap. Without contemporary Inca sources, we have no idea whether perhaps he did know, but being new to the throne of an empire destabilized by epidemics, had to go anyway or risk looking weak to his subjects and promptly being overthrown.
There’s some other questionable reasoning here: that it makes sense that the wheel, while invented in Mexico, wasn’t actually used for transportation because there were no animals capable of pulling carts. (So what? People too can transport far more weight on wheels than they can carry.) That New Guineans are probably smarter than Europeans because their society has a higher homicide rate. (A society with lots of murder and warfare would select for strength, skill with weapons, and ability to maintain strong social ties far more than it would select for abstract, creative, or analytical thinking. Plus, an anthropological study of a New Guinea tribe found that those typically targeted for murder were the elderly, who would have already passed on their genes regardless.) And the 2003 epilogue, attempting to apply principles of societal development to how corporations should organize themselves to best promote innovation – apparently inspired by business leaders writing to Diamond about the book – even if true, has nothing to do with the contents of this already-long book.
Obviously there’s a lot to chew on here, hence the long review. I do think the book is worth reading, though it’s unfortunate that Diamond doesn’t cite sources for individual facts, and only includes generalized “further reading” lists. The book has some repetition that makes it a little longer than it needs to be, but overall I think it does a sound job of explaining some of the broad strokes of human history.
This is in a lot of ways a fun, quirky book, but somehow I managed to not realize going in that it’s ultimately about the effects of catastrophic climate change. So I wound up finding it too depressing, for real-world reasons, to really enjoy.
The book starts with the two protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, as kids, both outcasts at school who happen to be unusually gifted (Patricia with magic and Laurence with science) and who become friends. Usually I don’t have much to say for child characters, but the third of the book following their childhoods was my favorite part of this one. It’s fun and quirky, vividly over-the-top in a Roald Dahl kind of way that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the pair as kids are fun and relatable.
Then they grow up, and the middle third of the book sags a bit, as the characters meander through a near-future San Francisco without a particular sense of urgency. The characters aren’t especially deep, but they do feel like real, weird people, speaking and thinking like actual millennials; for instance, Laurence worries that he’s not good at active listening, while Patricia is concerned that she’s too self-centered (when she’s not). Then at about the two-thirds mark, we get a chapter straight out of On the Beach, and this became “that horribly depressing book that I have to finish because I’m most of the way there” for the remainder; even when depressing things weren’t actually happening, it was still a climate change book. The ending isn’t a total downer, but only because of
a fantastical solution with no real-world application.
And yeah, it’s important that people think about this stuff and take it seriously, but I’ve done that for years with no effect; in the end I’m one person with no particular power to effect change, and exposing myself to this kind of material depresses me without doing anyone any good. Real power is in the hands of corporations and the politicians they fund (supported by a public who will believe any message they want to hear that lets them claim moral high ground while requiring nothing of them). And the powers-that-be don’t care much about anything beyond this quarter’s profits. So, too bad we don’t have the level of magic and science that exist in this book to solve our problems for us, I guess?
God, this was depressing. I would read something else by this author on a different topic though.
This is less a travel book than the memoir of the author’s emotional journey. Kira Salak seems to be a professional adventurer, which is pretty cool, and she’s also a compelling storyteller, bringing to life her experience traveling around New Guinea’s swamps, rainforests, mountains, crime-ridden cities, and even a rebel refugee camp, in 1995. What she does not do quite so well is illuminate the lives of the people she meets; she’s in New Guinea to discover herself.
And I get the sense she’s spent a lot of time analyzing herself, and no wonder, having received more than her share of dysfunction being raised by evangelical Objectivist parents, and feeling compelled to go off on life-threatening journeys to prove herself. But she was 24 when she took this trip and only a few years older when she wrote about it, and some of the ways she describes her emotional experiences seem a little simplistic. I also couldn’t help but shake my head at her idea that she was going to recover from the trauma of a previous kidnapping (also on a dangerous trip) by traveling through another dangerous place where, unfamiliar with the environment, she would be at the mercy of strangers. It’s no wonder this doesn’t really work for her… or it doesn’t seem to, until the epilogue, which wraps everything up rather too neatly; insisting, for instance, that she wasn’t taught to fear like other girls, when she spent most of the preceding 400 pages preoccupied with danger and fear. Her threshold for what she’s willing to do anyway is certainly higher than most women’s, but she rarely feels safe enough on this trip to enjoy herself.
That said, Salak does write well about the places she experienced: the grueling hikes through swamps and mountains; the wonder of a helicopter ride over the jungle; the tragedy of the refugees from the western portion of New Guinea, victims of genocide from Indonesia; the hubris of missionaries trying to drag locals into a modern way of life. When she does write about locals, it’s really quite good; I loved reading about the calm swamp village where tiny children learned to paddle in tiny canoes, and she was taken in by a man who had no plates or silverware because his wife took them all when she left and moved across the road. And for that matter, about the truck drivers in Mozambique, where Salak’s early attempt at adventure got her in well over her head. But she rarely stays in one place long, and I was left wanting to learn more about these people: for instance, about the women living away from their families at the YWCA in Port Moresby, despite rampant crime there.
Overall, this was enjoyable reading; it seems a bit long for what it is, but Salak has such an intense and varied journey that I’m not sure what could be cut. I think this book is worth reading, though if your primary interest in it is learning about New Guinea, you may come away frustrated.
This book reminded me how much I love and miss reading about vampires and legends of old.
Christopher is a man that disguises his family shame with an over the top charming personality and being the best at what he does. Rosalind is a clever woman but is getting tired of having to prove herself as a vampire hunter. These two star-crossed lovers will have to unite forces in order to bring down a common enemy at the same time that a prophecy seems to be taking place and their feelings for each other seem to be more than just unbridled passion.
I loved the world building. I remember reading this story when it first came out and while I remember liking it then I have to say I liked it even more now. The Druids as a historical backdrop was something I hadn’t read before and I liked how it was weaved within the Tudors era. Vampires as Machiavellian beings and not necessarily heroes provided that extra darkness that I like in my PNR.
The thing I didn’t like much was the love triangle that took place in much of the story. I always think it unfair when one of the characters is left as an afterthought just because the object of their affections couldn’t make up their mind and kept dragging the poor guy along. I know it happens IRL but I prefer it wouldn’t happen in my romances. I also thought the prophesy aspect needed more fleshed out. It took me a while to understand it and assimilate how the whole thing tied up in the end. But I think that was a personal problem that I tend to have where prophecies are concerned.
All in all it definitely was a very enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone that loves paranormal mixed with their historical reads.
*I received this book at no cost to me and I volunteered to read it; this is my honest opinion and given without any influence by the author or publisher**