When one thinks of “must-read” books, one probably doesn’t think of anthropology; yet, Guns, Germs, and Steel keeps getting rave reviews from everybody, and it is undoubtedly an anthropological text. Diamond seeks to answer the question “Why did technology develop at different rates on different continents?” From this, he goes on to explicate the history of animal domestication, food production, the steady decline of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, the origins and epidemiology of disease, the origins and logistics of the development of a written language, and the development of political organization within simple or complex societies.
It’s complicated, yet, but Diamond’s prose is lively enough to keep one’s interest. By the end of book, I felt a little discouraged, in that he had spent much of the book asking rhetorical questions, and not all of them were able to be answered. As within anything involving the past, some of it is known, some is guesswork, and some may never be known.
Conservatives take heart: this isn’t a weeping left-wing tome of the “It’s all white people’s fault” sort, seeking to throw blame for incongruencies in rates of technological development. Basically, his thesis (the answer to his question), is that geography is the most important determinant in the development of societies. The road to get to that conclusion winds its way through a laundry list of interrelated steps (for instance: certain areas have more domesticatable mammals; societies with more domesticated mammals are more likely to have epidemic diseases; and so on).
It’s not an easy jaunt. Though readable, Diamond goes to great lengths to fully argue his points, and the painstaking explication requires complete attention. He has his detractors, such as those who thinks he ignores the “human factor,” whatever that is supposed to mean, but I haven’t, in my admittedly brief search, seen anything that convincingly discounts Diamond’s thesis.
In short, an absolutely fascinating book. I heartily recommend it.