Good Trees, Bad Forest
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond) is an academic exercise in junkyard salvage. Any mechanic will tell you that a car that doesn’t run isn’t necessarily trash. It can still be useful for the parts that the car is made of. This book is worth reading, not because its thesis is in working order – it’s not – but because there is a wealth of interesting information in the parts that make up the thesis. If a reader can overlook the overly simplified environmental determinism, they can mine out fascinating nuggets of information ranging from crop domestication, to linguistic studies to human migration.
The Failure of the Thesis
From an argumentative perspective, the author establishes a non-falsifiable case. It is a pseudo-scientific masquerade where causation is conflated with correlation and where the entire cannon of diverse human history can be plucked through to find supportive theories and examples. The author upholds collaborating evidence because it collaborates, and discounts everything else because it does not. For example, he meticulously describes the evolutionary process by which corn was domesticated and changed from pinky-sized ears to the forearm-sized corn cobs that we enjoy today, but ignores and rejects the implications of human evolution caused by different selective advantages for a farmer and a hunter-gatherer over the same span of time. The thesis and the support are self-fulfilling, and argumentatively fallacious.
In the final chapter, the author reveals his intention to bring scientific methodology to human history. The scientific positivism he proposes – which has long been rejected for social sciences because it fails to predict human behavior – strives to tell a tale of human development that unfolded a certain specific way and could not have unfolded in any other way.
In the book’s thesis-framing example, Pizarro leads 168 Spaniards to victory over 80,000 Incan soldiers. The author argues that the result was environmentally pre-determined and accordingly that there was no way it could have occurred differently. This is just one example by which he explicitly attempts to remove human agency from the equation of human history, with the penultimate goal of discrediting any claim that human differences account for differences in human history.
The author’s intentions are clear, as he is very careful to jump through politically correct hoops with disclaimer after disclaimer to appease his hypersensitive academic audience. Over and over again he assures the reader that he is not racist (which he proves by explaining how he thinks native New Guineans are more intelligent than American Whites, a politically correct – albeit racist – contention).
The central problem with his thesis becomes evident in his final chapters when he tries – and fails – to reconcile the explanations of human pre-history with recorded accounts of modern-recorded history. The problem of human agency overwhelms an otherwise untested hypothesis. When writing about events for which there is no record beyond the ultimate terminal result it is easy to discount the impact of human decisions because there is no record of those decisions being made. Since the choice between A and B is not explicit, one can assume that there wasn’t a choice at all using the perfection of hind-sight. Surely the Allied Forces had to land at Normandy (instead Pas de Calais or Italy) to win World War 2 because they won the war after landing at Normandy. This is the circular logic that permeates primary thesis: It had to happen because it did happen.
But in the final chapters, he attempts to bring his theory of human development into the 20th Century and cracks begin to emerge. The success of Chinese Civilization which was predicted by environmental determinism choked and failed because of human choices (the choice of Eunuchs to shut down ports). The failure of Japan to adopt muskets resulted from the human code of the Samurai and the honor of the sword. Once human history – and the inevitable choices incurred by human agency – are recorded, there is more difficulty discounting the impact of those decisions.
Ultimately, then, this book is not able to discount the impact of human agency or redirect the focus from human difference.
Good for the parts
Although the thesis is not compelling – largely because it overreaches – there is certainly use in the individual arguments that are made. Certainly, environmental conditions played some role in human history. The important caveat that needs to be made is that environmental variables helped shape but did not dictate the paths that human history took. Different people in the same environments would have lead to different results. The author all but admits this when he talks about the near-death of Hitler before World War 2, and the failed assassination attempt later.
The sections on human migration, plant and animal domestication, and written language development are fascinating. The utility of this book is that it surveys such a broad range of topics, explaining extremely complex theories succinctly and in plain English. You don’t have to be an anthropologist or a botanist to grasp the narrative prose. The author litters the pages with anecdotal evidence that, like the parts of a broken down car, can be taken out and reassembled into a car that runs.
This reservoir of interesting, useful information makes this book worth the time to read, so long as one is sufficiently critical of the thesis. And just in case you are on the border, the book has pictures too.
I know that this has nothing to do with the wedding, so feel free to just ignore it unless you are interested in my silly opinions of a Pulitzer Prize winning book