Throughout my academic life, I had heard professors refer to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and even had been assigned segments of chapters to read in class. Sometimes it had been portrayed as a work of genius, other times it was portrayed as an example of poor academic scholarship, so it seemed worthwhile to determine what I thought for myself.
First and foremost, I could not shake the feeling throughout the book that Diamond’s explanations were ad hoc rationales for the already known outcome. Very thorough ad hoc rationales, but nevertheless, had the situation been reversed (i.e. Yali’s question was why white people had so little cargo, and black people had so much), Diamond would have found a way to explain that too. The heavy didactic tone did not help this cause. I recognize that this is largely due to the nature of his research question, so I will leave my uneasiness lie.
I approached the book aware of the many critiques that it is heavily biased towards Europe, projecting European hierarchical structures on the world. I found these critiques to be overhyped. Diamond successfully walked that line of not imposing a value hierarchy on different peoples, essentially arguing that, all else constant, everyone is equally inventive. Some regions offer better circumstances for inventiveness, and therefore their people were more inventive. The book is undoubtedly Eurocentric: everything is compared to Europe, and it is the European germs and the European steel that eventually overcomes most of the world, but I think that, as an American writer, that it is better to compare the world from his vantage point than to project others’ views and label those views as genuine. Again, given the nature of his question, he uses improbably broad brush strokes for time and space, and the resulting oversimplifications could also be construed as cultural insensitivities. But I don’t see these broad brush strokes to be his argument – rather, they are a quickly explained piece of evidence for his assertion. It might weaken the particular assertion if one only focuses on that chapter, but already the depth of detail bogs down the book. Additional details might make it unreadable.
That being said, I thought that institutions should have played a larger role in the book – Yali’s question was, at the core, about institutions after all. To rephrase the question, why did the Europeans use their guns, germs, and steel to imperialize the world? A Tilly style argument about state-building in Europe expanded to European practices for “state-building” around the world could have been quite apt here, which could have dovetailed nicely with a reflection on Tilly meets Herbst’s States and Power in Africa moment, but with global implications. Diamond did not go there, but the book would have been stronger if he did.
To conclude, I do not fall in the Diamond fan club, though the broad expanse and ambition of the book is impressive. Perhaps that’s why so many professors mention it in class and assign it as homework.