GUNS, GERMS & STEEL - The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, W W Norton & Company, New York,1999, 480 pages, $16.95. ISBN 0393317552.
Review by John Loofbourow, MD
At first I doubted that I would read through this book. But it gathered my interest quickly. It occurs to me that guns are mostly steel, but I digress already! Diamond is impressive, a generalist, who strikes a pretty convincing, though self conscious, Darwinian pose. I don't trust his politically correct bias, as it seems to me it introduces obvious error to his work and conclusions. He is an elitist (like Thoreau!). Words do matter and reveal the real writer: note, for example, the reference to "most lay people" (p297), referring presumably to those who are so unschooled as to be unable or unlikely to follow the author's logic and scope of knowledge. Still, despite those disclaimers, I liked the book.
Diamond has presented a detailed, coherent argument for his conclusions that Eurasian (and hence, by derivative, North American) technologic pre-eminence was predestined, by environment. I feel his conclusions about intelligence are specious: He feels bushmen or new Guineans are "more intelligent" than the average modern American or European because we (the latter) are sheltered by our genetic history, our technology, and disease adaptation, and are idiotized by TV. Therefore we are genetically and culturally degraded. Yet if that TV-mediated degeneration can occur in only a generation or two, could not "intelligence" (whatever that is!) have also been genetically and/or culturally improved through thirty or more Eurasian generations? It can't be both ways, I think.
Diamond's personal history, which he injects liberally throughout his writings, is also impressive and provides a reasonable defense of his pose as a horizontally oriented investigator, who brings together the findings in many fields. There is no doubt that most people who consider themselves scientists are very limited outside their particular field. Diamond certainly breaks that pattern.