Guns, Germs, and Steel

GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL….Brad DeLong has prompted me to wonder once again why so many people share a specific ? and entirely unjustified ? criticism of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

First, a recap: GG&S is an investigation of why Eurasians ended up ruling the world. Diamond’s answer, in a nutshell, is that for excellent reasons having to do with geography, agriculture, and the availability of domesticable animals, complex crop-based civilization started first in the fertile crescent area of the Middle East around 8,000 BC and then spread throughout the Eurasian continent. By the time Eurasians ? and Europeans in particular ? had matured to the point where they were crossing the seas, they were far more advanced than the civilizations they encountered in Africa, Australia, and the Americas, which were only a couple of millennia old. Europeans went on to dominate them because they were like teenagers beating up on a child.

As interesting and compelling as this thesis is, however, a lot of readers come away dissatisfied because it doesn’t go far enough. After all, it’s a nice explanation for why Eurasia ended up dominating the world, but it doesn’t explain why Europe ended up dominating the world. Why not the Muslims, the Hindus, or the Chinese, all of whom were also Eurasians and would have been long odds favorites over the Europeans if space aliens had been placing bets around 1,000 AD?

What’s especially peculiar about this dissatisfaction with GG&S ? and I shared it when I first read the book ? is that it’s completely unjustified. GG&S is about Eurasian civilization from around 8,000 BC to 1,000 AD, which is a plenty broad and demanding topic all by itself, and Diamond simply doesn’t address the question of why Europe turned out to be top dog among the various Eurasian contenders. What’s more, he even has a chapter at the end of GG&S where he specifically says this isn’t the subject of his book and then lays out a bit of speculation on the question.

As it happens, Brad links to a particularly intense version of this reaction in which the critic specifically claims that this is the subject of GG&S despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. It’s quite odd. Still, in less virulent form it’s a common reaction, and I wonder why. It is Diamond’s fault? Perhaps GG&S is written in a way that makes it easy to misunderstand his point. Or is it simply that the question of why Europe took over the world is so interesting that everyone really, really wants that to be the subject of the book, and is disappointed when it turns out not to be?

I suspect it’s mostly the latter, although there’s at least a smidgen of the former as well. When the question is “Why did the winners win?” it’s just natural to want a complete answer. Stopping at 1,000 AD and not taking on the question of Europe seems so much like cheating that it’s probably natural to think that Diamond is avoiding the real question.

But he’s not. He’s just answering a different question. Perhaps someday someone will offer a similarly compelling thesis for why the primitive and ignorant Europeans of 1,000 AD suddenly blossomed into the world conquering Europeans of 1,500 AD, leaving their erstwhile Eurasian betters in the dust. Until then, we’ll have to make do with Diamond.