My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love Diamond’s approach to history: look for patterns, and apply the scientific method as much as possible, achieved here to its fullest degree with linguistics and archeological findings, and a robust side dish of evolutionary biology.
That said, I’m so biased in favor of this approach, because it’s exactly the one I like. I happen to hold a degree in biology, with a minor in Classical Civilizations and a second almost-minor in Political Science (it would have been a full minor if my school allowed classes to be counted twice for minors).
I’m not as familiar with linguistics, although the anthropology class I accidentally took touched on it somewhat. So I can’t say for certain, but as far as I’m aware, he does a good job of research. Skimming the list of sources/further reading at the end reveals some major, not always primary, sources of information, which he supplements with published papers from reputable journals. This book is the opposite of Helen Castor’s ‘She-Wolves‘ in that most of the sources are based on physical evidence rather than documentation. Which is nice, because campfires and burial grounds can’t lie.
Of course, archeological evidence comes with its own caveats. Diamond does as reasonable a job as seems to be possible, but the wide scope of the book necessitates his focus on sources that support his thesis—and yes, he does acknowledge when hypotheses that support his view are in the minority. Given that he opens the book describing how he’s using adjusted radiocarbon dates because recent decades have revealed inaccuracies with older methods, it’s possible—even probable—that future updates to this work will be needed. In fact, recent papers showed a higher-than-expected prevalence of Neanderthal DNA in Eurasians, which would impact, I think, the early chapters of this book.
One could argue, and Diamond himself brings it up, that this book is too impersonal in its mentions of massive depopulation, but Diamond sure as hell doesn’t lack emotional investment in his subject matter. He’s worked extensively in New Guinea alongside natives, and a brief anecdote reveals involvement with missionaries, though it’s unclear whether or not he was one of them. The entirety of the text opens with a question one of his close New Guinean friends had, which becomes a defining theme for the book: why did X develop here, and not in the place that was conquered by it? Yes, we say Europeans won the New World with guns, germs, and steel, but why did they have it in the first place?
As I’ve said, I love his approach, opening with the reinforcement of this question throughout the narrative, substantiated with a critical examination of sources and speculation of what might have been based on the real circumstances of different microenvironments, given that it’s impossible to set up laboratory experiments to test these hypotheses. Diamond’s background as an evolutionary biologist, with an apparently strong interest in linguistics, is of huge benefit here because he’s frequently looking at either prehistory, or the history of marginalized groups who didn’t keep written records prior to foreign incursions. The epilogue brings it around nicely: history does indeed benefit from the application of the scientific method, insofar as that’s possible. Historiography has been around since at least the early Renaissance, and it’s valuable for identifying bias within sources with a known author, but I’ve never seen the level of analysis applied to history that Diamond applies here, and that I was taught to apply to journal papers. But, of course, a certain amount of creative adaptation is necessitated by the fact that history only has room for negative proofs: we can say X or Y never happened in Z fashion, but we can never be 100% sure that Q led to R exactly as described. In the past, it’s supported racist ideologies—the natural superiority of Europeans over Africans (doubly ironic given who’s more Homo sapiens!), and the vaguer, but unintentionally racist, notion that some cultures try harder than others.
Diamond opens with a borderline inflammatory statement: he’s going to undermine all current views on why Europeans achieved superiority, starting with his emphasis on all the other cultures. Note that that’s how it seemed to me; he’s not quite this brash in his writing. And one of the factors that he seemingly claims is overstated—geography—takes clear precedence, although for reasons that are far more well-elucidated than “difficult geography = success,” which came up when we were studying Herodotus, so that assumption goes way back—the relationship between geography and cultural progress is not quite what you’d expect.
As a US resident growing up in the West and then the Midwest, I can safely attest that I wasn’t aware of how extensive Native American populations were before the first influx of Europeans. And this is despite having a curriculum that included a big unit on the Navajo, and having been to the Field Museum’s more recently reconfigured exhibits—there’s an improved section on the indigenous cultures of North and South America—but the scale just doesn’t come up. Of course, it’s disturbing.
The edition I have has a postscript added in 2003, 7 years after the book’s original writing in 1996. It pulls more pieces into perspective, including newer research and concerns that readers had raised, as well as economic/business relevance that was apparently a side effect of Bill Gates endorsing this book. I agree that Diamond’s central thesis has survived refutation by new evidence, and translates nicely to other levels of human society.
Anyway, even when this book relies on evidence that comes with a fair bit of interepretation dependent on available technologies and resources, and even though it will be irreversibly outdated at some point, the approach it takes is more than worthwhile.