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Book Review


Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 1997), 494 pp, $15.95.

By now most teachers of World History at either the University or the secondary level are familiar with Jared Diamond's thought-provoking book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Its publication in 1997 was heralded as a fresh look into the new and growing field of World History by some, and was dismissed by others as the off-beat work of a non-historian dabbling in an unrelated field. As a professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, Diamond is no stranger to producing ground-breaking work. His many articles and published papers have earned him election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science, in addition to a host of other awards. 1
     The book is divided into four sections, the first two of which deal primarily with the role played by geography in the uneven distribution of animals and crops that shaped early world history. It is these two sections, which comprise almost two hundred pages, that many teachers of history find the most intriguing. Indeed, Diamond's scientific examination of early human history provides a fresh alternative for many world history teachers. 2
     Diamond uses the date November 16, 1532—when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Incan emperor Atahuallpa met—as the crucial point between Europeans and Native Americans that changed the world forever. It is this axis around which most of the book revolves. Alternating between 11,000 BCE and the 17th century, Diamond convincingly explains how world civilizations developed at varying rates and why the history we all know actually came about. Through simple geographic and biological data the author clearly illustrates that certain areas of the world, such as the Fertile Crescent of early Sumeria, were endowed with physical characteristics that allowed early civilizations to flourish and quickly develop, thus giving them a head start. For example, although Africa contained a high percentage of all the large mammals in the world, none of them could be domesticated. In contrast, the area around the Fertile Crescent contained most of the domesticable animals of the world, which meant that these animals could be utilized for their labor and for their food value. Thus, Diamond presents the reader with a scientific explanation for why and how some societies developed certain types of civilization more quickly than others.   3
     At the secondary level, these two sections of Diamond’s book give students a geographical foundation to the course, a scientific prehistory that answers a lot of basic questions without resorting to cultural bias. Of the instructors that use Guns, Germs, and Steel, almost all make exclusive use of this half of the book. Many teachers assign these particular sections as summer reading or early in the first semester as it sets up the rest of the course fairly well. On the other hand, many teachers opt not to use the book in class, but to read it for themselves in order to further their understanding of prehistory. 4
     In part three, Diamond shifts from geography to plagues and technology. The links he draws between domesticable livestock and crowd diseases are interesting but technical, and thus this section is probably not suited to most high school students. Chapter 12 explores the origins of the earliest writing systems, while chapter 13 focuses on how and why technology developed in certain areas. The author gives many examples of accidental as well as intentional inventions to illustrate the sometimes haphazard nature of technological development. Diamond spends quite a bit of time on individual cases but fails to deliver a conclusive and convincing argument for the geographical origins of technological development. 5
      In part four, Diamond attempts to apply his geographical rationale for societal development to regional case studies, which include China, Africa, and Polynesia. Many historians, however, find these chapters to be the least useful in the book because of their tendency to brush over important historical debates. Thus, in this reviewer's opinion, the most useful parts of Diamond's book—especially for use in the world history classroom—are the first two sections. Indeed, if taken in parts Diamond's book can be of good use to teachers and students if for nothing else than to give a different perspective on why the world developed as it did. 6
Christopher Ferraro
Spring Valley High School

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