I have little to add to the above write-ups, which provide very good accounts of Diamond's book
. Diamond does a superb job of synthesizing much previous research; interested readers might want to check up historian
Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange
, and historian James MacNeil's Plagues and Peoples
to see where Diamond got some of his biggest ideas from (those interested in an alternate view should look at anthropologist
Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History
, and geographer
J.M. Blaut's The Colonizer's Model of the World
But I want to call attention to a few problems in the book, and raise two basic questions. First:
What is "racism?"
If racism means hating, or inciting hatred of, people because of their race, then Guns, Germs, and Steel is clearly not racist.
If racism means believing that some people are biologically superior to others, then Guns, Germs, and Steel is clearly not racist.
But I wonder whether these are the best ways to define racism. I would like to propose another view, one that is much broader but one that I think calls attention to a more pervasive and perhaps even more dangerous view of the world: that racism involves the belief that political and economic inequalities are natural (and therefore not really about politics or the economy). In these terms, I have serious problems with Diamond's book.
As Baffo explains, Diamond's basic question is, "Why is it that European civilization conquered the other civilization, and why didn't it happen the other way round?" Baffo insightfully sums up Diamond's answer as "The reasons of the head start, again, boil down to luck." It does in fact appear to be luck, from an individual point of view, but it in Diamond's analysis this "luck" is not arbitrary: as Marluth put it, "the world looks like this (at large) because it couldn't have been different." Either way, Diamond's argument amounts to this: It is natural that Europeans have come to dominate the world. It may be a matter of luck that one is born in Europe -- but the advantages Europe has over other parts of the world are not a matter of luck, they are a matter of geography; they are natural advantages. Although Diamond does not explicitly condone European conquest of or domination over others, his determinism has this effect.
This view must be very comforting to those Europeans, or Euro-Americans, who might feel a little guilty about the disproportionate power and privilege they have enjoyed. If it was just luck, or if it couldn't have been diferen't, then it is certainly no one's fault. I am suspicious of power without responsibility, and I am suspicious of such a self-serving argument. (I am not saying that people ought to feel guilty about what their ancestors did in the past -- they shouldn't. But I am trying to understand why people would deny what their ancestors did, or deny that their ancestors were responsible for what they did, in the past.)
I do not raise this question of racism lightly (although given the seriousness of racism, I think people need to be alert to the subtle forms it might take); I raise them because of three problems I have with the "scientific" validity of Diamond's analysis:
First, I am not quite convinced by his presentation of geography and the environment. His argument hinges on a distinction between continents that have an east-west versus a north-south axis. Eurasia is an example of the former, and Africa and the Americas are examples of the latter. Eurasia's east-west axis, about 7,000 miles, is greater than it's north-south axis of 5,000; still, Eurasia's north-south axis is considerable and it is hard to say that the difference between the two axiis is significant. If we are willing to accept Diamond's separation of Africa from Eurasia (they are geographically connected), we should also separate North and South America -- and North America's east-west axis is about equal to its north-south axis. In any event, the reason Diamond cares about the axis is that an east-west axis links places with similar climates which promotes the diffusion, or spread, of technologies; the north-south axis crosses different climactic zones which inhibits diffusion. In fact, however, the agriculturally productive areas of Eurasia are geographically isolated from one another by mountains and deserts, which create serious impediments to diffusion. Moreover, there is a plethora of evidence for north-south diffusion (potatoes, for example, diffused within the Americas from the tropics to the temperate zones north and south).
His argument also hinges on the superiority of temperate zone cereals such as wheat and millet, and the relative inferiority of tropical cereals such as rice and corn, and tropical tubers such as manioc and yams -- rendering people in the tropics protein-deficient and weak. He argues that wheat and millet have more protein than rice and corn, but one can just as well say that rice and corn have a higher moisture content (understandable in the tropics). Moreover, people who subsist on low-protein tubers have access to many other sources of protein (some of which, like insects, most Europeans would consider inedible for cultural reasons). Europeans in the seventeenth century dismissed natives of the tropics as languorous. By selectively ignoring much research on tropical food production, Diamond reproduces the same stereotype.
Second, I am not so sure that Europeans achieved technological superiority due to the size, shape, and location of Europe. Diamond argues that these factors gave Europe a "head-start," but in the 1400s Europe was by virtually all measures behind the rest of the world. Indeed, much of the technology and skills Europeans relied on to conquer the Americas came from non-Europeans. Europeans had no natural superiority; they took advantage of the superiorities of others (two examples: European colonization of the Americas and the establishment of a large slave-based economy was based on rice, using varieties developed in the tropics, and using techniques for cultivation developed by people in the tropics; the industrial revolution in Europe involved population growth and concentration in cities fed primarily by the potato, a food developed in the tropics).
Third, there is no such thing as a natural experiment. An experiment must have a clear beginning, middle, and end for it to be meaningful -- but nature, including the experiences of humans, has no such end. What Diamond calls a "natural experiment" is really a comparison between two places or times with many variables involved (Diamond often reduces them to two variables, "environment" and "culture;" but even these words refer to many sometimes interpenetrating variables.) The history of the world is far, far, far from over, and in time we might see Africans or South American Indians ruling the world. No doubt, if they ever come to rule the world they will believe that their domination was in some "natural", just as the Romans and the Chinese and the Arabs at different times in history thought it was inevitable that they would come to rule the world. Those in power always have their myths to comfort them. That our myths often take the form of scientific arguments raises another question,
Can one study human society and history "scientifically?"
I think the answer is "yes, but carefully." By carefully I do not just mean accumulating many facts (which is one important part of science), I mean care in interpreting these facts, especially when one human is studying other humans, or when a Euro-American is writing about the differences, or relationship, between Europe and the Americas.
At best, Diamond has provided a partial explanation of why Europeans succeeded in conquering the Americas, but he has not explained why they wanted to or had to (these are important questions in part because they leave room for the possibility that Africans or South Americans could conceivably have developed polities that would have conquered Europe, but either did not want to or did not have to). I think part of the problem is that although Diamond draws on a wide range of research, he ignores debates among social scientists about method and theory. Indeed, this may be part of his appeal -- many people have dismissed the social sciences as bullshit science. But this is unfortunate. Many social scientists have had training in the natural sciences and understand that the scientific study of human society and history requires innovative methods and raises issues that natural scientists have never explored. Scholars in a variety of social sciences have written sophisticated arguments against various forms of determinism, including the geographic determinism that dominates Diamond's work. Moreover, they have formulated sophisticated theories of agency. Ultimately, it is precisely what makes social science different from physics, chemistry, and biology that makes it good science.
This is not the first time people have used "science" to "prove" that social (including economic and political) inequalities among humans have natural, rather than social, causes. Several years ago there was an uproar about Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve, in which they argued that I.Q. was largely inherited, and that differences in I.Q. scores could be explained by race. As the more sophisticated critics of that book pointed out, it was not a bad book merely because it used the word "race" or argued that biology is important. It was bad science because it was deterministic, and bad social science because it ignored (or misrepresented) evidence about historical and cultural causes of inequality. Diamond is a biologist by training, and is (successfully) very careful to avoid biological reductionism; alas, he is not successful at avoiding environmental or geographic determinism. In short, Diamond's book relies on geography rather than biology, but otherwise makes the same mistakes.
A more complete explanation of European domination would have to involve political considerations, which would reveal that although there may have been "good" reasons why Europeans were the conquerors, the conquest was by no means inevitable or natural, or even "likely" given Europe's "natural" advantages (a more generous reading of Diamond's book). This is a less comforting belief, but more honest -- which really ought to be the driving force behind any science.