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Strangely not mentioned at all, so I'll put it here: Jared Diamond is the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, his most famous work. It addresses the question of how and why European societies were able to advance themselves so much farther ahead of all other civilizations. There is also an excellent four-part series streaming on Netflix.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was most certainly not about "how and why European societies were able to advance themselves so much farther ahead of all other civilizations". The concept of "advanced", or being "ahead of" is inapplicable. It's a book about sociocultural evolution.

Additionally, Diamond is pretty ambivalent about the "winners". Diamond wrote an essay on the subject of agriculture called "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race". He closes the essay with "As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture's glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?"


No. I'm pretty sure it was about why and how European civilizations were able to conquer technology and the world, and specifically why many of the developments critical to the rise of European supremacy are not found in other societies. Yes, the judgments made in the book tend to be more fact-based and objective, e.g., a gun is more effective than a spear.

It is not a screed extolling the virtues of European civilization, nor a litany of the failings of other people. Sorry if that's how you understood my brief.

Gotta love HN-contrarianism. Oh have you also heard of Jared Diamond and would now like that knowledge recognized by pedantically contradicting me?

EDIT: actually let me update this. It is about sociocultural evolution. However if I had said "he wrote a book about sociocultural evolution," nobody would have understood the primary emphasis of his work. That book is specifically and primarily about identifying the key developments in Europe which allowed that civilization to rise in power. He has spent many years living among primitive societies around the world to explore his hypotheses. As much as possible, concepts like "primitive" and "advanced" are objective qualifiers and not value judgments.

When I say it that way, people understand what it's about and want to read the book.

In my opinion, the book is about 1) How geographical location and natural factors (accidental agriculture etc.) resulted in some part of the humanity accumulate certain knowledge that helped accelerate them over others 2) Advancement of certain civilization is not a necessary indication they are better, smarter, more hard working, but an indication of accumulated knowledge resulting from #1 over a long period of time 3) #2 culminated in Europeans dominating the world over the better part of last 500 years

I've read the book and feel your brief is more accurate, but less useful. The shorter one is close enough and many more people will read and grok a short one.

> When I say it that way, people understand what it's about and want to read the book.

Exactly. All pedants do is push people to hedge, equivocate, and employ dense jargon to throw them off the scent, and where's the help to the rest of us in that?

>hedge, equivocate, and employ dense jargon


Having a vocabulary that includes the word "equivocate" is distinct from using jargon (specific to a technical field, e.g. chemistry)

Come on - when used with hedge and employ, it's dense jargon. And now you're being pedantic.

Its not jargon, he gave you the definition.

Haven't read Guns, Germs and Steel myself, but "why and how European civilizations were able to conquer technology and the world, and specifically why many of the developments critical to the rise of European supremacy are not found in other societies" sounds like a description of "Civilisation" by Niall Ferguson.


(Niall Ferguson is pretty outspoken politically too, e.g. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/a-full-f...


Ferguson is someone whose contemporary political writings have really pissed me off, but his longer-view historical works (I've read The Ascent of Money but not yet Civilisation) are fairly insightful.

Yeah I've read The Ascent of Money too, it was great. You'll enjoy Civilisation.

Although after learning of his political views(I don't live in the US), I couldn't help but wonder how much it influenced his views in Civilisation. It comes off as a bit overly biased in favour of Europeans (read: the white man) when seen in this new light. For example, he tries to argue that church attendance being down is a sign that European influence/culture is declining.

It's been a while since I read it, but it think it would be more about why one "tribe" developed guns and the other didn't. (Minor nitpicking by someone who also heard of Jared Diamond).

I'm in the middle of the book right now, the author goes to great pains to point out that there is no value judgment being passed on what is better, who is more advanced (in the moral, judgmental sense), or who is right.

But at the end of the day, it is a study of how some parts of the world - particularly Europe - came to technologically, and subsequently politically/economically dominate everyone else. I don't think this is an unfair thing to say, and it implies no Euro- or Amero-centrism.

I didn't disagree with that. I just wanted to point out that his reasoning is much more subtle than just "they had guns and the others only spears". That is exactly the point of the book, because the usual explanation people come up with is "they were too stupid to invent guns". The book explains how intelligence had nothing to do with it.

Yes, I think I could have placed more emphasis on the fact that his primary hypothesis is that the conditions sufficient for technological advancement were present in Europe and the Middle East. But absolutely not that there were innate deficiencies in the people who did not benefit from those conditions. He's showing that most of history has been the result of a geographical lottery.

Jared Diamond is a very sensitive and empathetic man, and that really comes through if you watch the TV series by the same name. His work is not at all promoting Euro-centric supremacy as a race or culture, merely explaining a set of historical circumstances.

Yeah it was more about why native Americans didn't invade Europe in 1492.

I think Collapse is better than Guns, Germs and Steel. It is about the end of isolated settlements, and the path which lead them to their demise.

And I think it should be mentioned that Guns, Germs and Steel is rather extreme in suggesting an 'geological determinism.' [1] While his arguments are generally quite good, there is simply quite a bit more happening. A nice book to balance this is Ian Morris, Why the West Rules--For Now.

[1] Jarred Diamond actually warns of this determinism fallacy, but the book certainly left me with the impression that such a determinism exists.

GGS is the kind of book that makes academics despair [1]. I remember a Geography lecturer once relating how Diamond had been given honorary membership of some geographical society or other, and was giving an acceptance talk. It was a cause of supreme embarrassment for most of the people in the room; Diamond didn't seem to realise that he was addressing many senior academics who had spent most of their careers exploring why his ideas are unsound.

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2008.... (paywall)

Do you have any specific criticisms in mind? That abstract implies that the paper doesn't actually argue with anything in GGS itself. Rather, "environmental determinism" sounds like it's a dirty word in their niche of academia, and they need to yell at GGS because it might be contaminated.

One way to phrase the distinction is that no one really expects huge empires in Antarctica, so everyone admits there's some role to the environment. GGS talks about more complicated effects that the environment has, without saying anything about the outcome being deterministic. It argues that the odds were somewhat higher of Europe invading North America than vice-versa, and doesn't even try to quantify by how much.

With the disclaimer that I've watched the documentary and haven't read the book, the reasoning seemed faulty and unsound to me. It was definitely too deterministic and did not really go into non-environmental factors. For example, it boiled down the state of development of Papua New Guinea civilizations to the primary source of starch being palm trees vs grains, or something to that effect. It feels like picking one contributing factor and focusing on it at the expense of everything else.

I didn't see the documentary, but the book does build a single case, but it's mostly saying "please consider the many, many complex effects of the environment" rather than "don't consider other things."

I thought Diamond's comparison of Europe and China was especially weak. He wrote it off as that China had an emperor, and thus a single point of failure. He didn't do enough to explain why Europe did not become an empire, or to explain why China's immense bureaucracy did not avoid such a single point of failure.

I remembered he did explain why Europe failed to become a united empire - geography.

According to the book, the reason China has a large stable empire was because of China's geography, which was mostly flat and well-connected by the Yangtze and the Yellow river. With few geographical segments, this led to the people being less likely to form 'tribes' and more likely to be united culturally.

This is in contrast to Europe, which has a large impassible mountain range in the middle, and lots of peninsulas and small rivers, forming natural boundaries. This led to Europe being more diverse culturally.

But Europe has at one point been a united empire. Doesn't that imply that pure geography is not the cause?

Geography is the reason why Europe did not remain united long.

I think the reason Diamond's books are so popular and influencial is because academics do a poor job of relating to the public the consequences of their discoveries. By building on the latest scientific findings and filling in some gaps with speculative theories Diamond is able to astound readers with insights that the general public rarely hears. Even if the theories aren't the most accepted by academics the fact that the ideas are being discussed in a publicly digestible way is beneficial.

Btw, I noticed that Diamond has another book out, for all of you who are interested in his work.

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