Book Reviews

As per the initiative started by Athenus training & Consulting, the book we are going to refer this month is an absolute great book which engages the reader as well as it provides some drastic insights to the world history in a very new and refreshing perspective.

The book we are going to review this month is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book has been one of the best sellers over the years and has both won Pulitzer Prize and Aventis price for best science book.


About the author:

Jared Diamond is an American scientist, Ornithologist, Geologist, Linguist and a traveler. He currently works as a professor of Geography and Physiology in UCLA. His other books “The third chimpanzee” and “Collapse – How societies choose to fail or succeed” are also best sellers and received rave reviews. Born to a Physicist father and mother who was a musician young Jared did his schooling In Roxbury Latin School. He then went on to study in Harvard College and got PhD from Cambridge University in Physiology and membrane biophysics. But this book would never had happened if not Jared developed a parallel second career in Ornithology in New Guinea. That eventually led him to another career of environmental History. On this continuity he became the professor of Geography at UCLA. Jared can be reached here.

Jared Diamond
Department of Geography
1255 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1524
t: 310.825.6177
office: 1251A Bunche Hall

About the Book:

This book tries to answer a question put by a native New Guinean to Jared Diamond some 35 years ago. This book cannot be categorized into a single jounor as it deals with evolutionary biology, History, Geography and psychology. This for me is a History book, a detailed one because it traces back to 13,000 BC and starts exploring from there. There are no other books to my knowledge that explores human history from that era. This entire book answers one single question that a man named Yali, a local politician who was from New Guinea started a conversation with Jared while he was in New Guinea for his ornithology project. He asked why the white men became so powerful and his race in New Guinea was left as very less improved society. Jared said that the white men were simply able to produce more goods or cargo and were able to sell it to larger population. For that answer Yali asked “How did you white men able to produce more cargo in less time, and we New Guineans; so little?” Thus started the journey of Jared Diamond to find answer for that question and the answer is Guns, Germs & Steel. This book starts from the point where all the human races were hunter gatherers and at the point where the third ice age has just finished. He examines how the people have transformed from food gathering to food production. What are the factors that contributed to form a strong society? How domestication of animals evolved? How that helped the Eurasians to stay ahead the curve? How did they use Guns, Germs and steel to a great extent and conquered almost half of the possible living space on earth?

The book is basically divided into three parts “The rise and spread of food production, from foods to Guns, Germs and Steel, around the world”.   The book starts with interesting preface with the title “Why world history is is like onion?” This is a very subjective question and one can always take various meaning for the sentence. Here the author gives a picture how the world history has always been presented before us even the best of History books like Arnold Toynbee’s 12 volumes of STUDY OF HISTORY is based on the word civilization which arose after the writing happened in history. The author claims that, presenting history in such manner cannot be a holistic view. There were societies both ancient and contemporary who have never developed writing but prevailed in midst of those societies and lived a harmonious life until the innovative societies changed them or killed them. The Author cites one important reason for the societies to excel and others to fall. That is GEOGRAPHY. In food production he explains why the central crescent area i.e. Syria, Iran were very fertile and the crops developed there were healthy enough with good nutrition content that made them to think about various innovations. Having said that the New Guineans were one of the oldest tribe to start cultivating, but unfortunately in their geographical landscape neither wheat, nor barley which had high protein grew. Then he analyzes how the mankind started harvesting than hunting. Jared comes with an answer that the places where people have possibly hunted down all the big mammals and possibly had completed all possible wild plants and that necessity made them to harvest. , He again says how wheat and Barley gained importance In planting while there were millions of other wild crops were available. He says the seeds of Wheat and Barley are larger that drew the attentions of humans. Another importance of those two is they didn’t need much technology to be sown and reaped. Between the hunting and harvesting phase somewhere people have invented the process called storage and this single invention made people to stay in one place and develop a community. Some may say that fire was the best invention next to wheel, but Jared says there would be no society if the mankind did not know how to store the things they produced. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “How to make an almond” where he explains how a wild plant transfers into a domestic plant from a plant’s perspective. Almond in its ancestral wild form one of the poisonous things to eat. It consists of cyanide that is enough to kill a living thing in few minutes. This chapter explains beautifully how that wild poisonous thing becomes healthy weed when domesticated. The things such a cross mutation and evolutionary cropping are explained beautifully in this chapter. Then he comes to the domestication of animals where he says the domestication of the fourteen animals from a million animals made this huge leap forward. He again states that the Eurasians were not intelligent to choose but the geography they live made them choose those, especially the horses. New Guineans in the other hand do not have any such thing till now. The closest they can come is to have Guinea pigs. Eurasians as they had OX, Bulls and horses used them to plough the lands and that made them to mass produce foods for a larger community. So the community was there who was in huge numbers and also healthy. And as they had horses the transportation became very easy and they became superior. As they had enough food the chieftains had time to think and develop new tools such as plaster of parries, and steel weapons which outdated the bronze weapons. There is a chapter in this book explaining how only 168 Spaniards conquered 80,000 Inca warriors by using horse and swords made of steel. He emphasizes that the humans became wiser and wiser after inventing storage system and this had a procedural proceedings. No innovations happened just like that out of the blue. He says that humans made llamas, bulls, oxes, buffalos, sheep, goats, horses, dogs and pigs as their domestic animals but not elephants. Elephants are just tamed to be useful for some specific purposes. The reason behind that is elephants take 15 years to reproduce and have relatively have longer life, so humans have to wait so long to get its other benefits like the skin of it and ivory. So they just tamed and not domesticated elephant. So this kind of wise thinking happened because they had surplus food grains and not have to spend most of the day towards hunting and seeing that they don’t starve that day. I see a great management lesson in this. As the Eurasians had cattle’s and lived closely with the livestock they accumulated the disease resisting genes very early. So when they spread their cattle in another land mark where people had never been in such environment those people had to suffer the diseases spread by the livestock’s germs. The major disease spread by these germs is chicken pox which claimed the lives of Aztec just three years before the conquest of Inca by Spaniards. But the Incas had no idea about Spaniards till they visited them at the mountains of Cajamarca. But the whole of Spain and the Europe knew about the conquest that happened while getting Aztecs. This was done through writing and the ancient new world too has their own form of writing. Why did they not have the advantage of learning from their neighboring areas? The answer for this too is geography. The land mass in Eurasia is even on the latitudes i.e. the distance is wide-spread east to west. That means most of the areas would have same tropics, same climates, same environment. But the Americas are narrow east to west and broad north to south meaning they would have different lengths in nights and days, different environment and different climate. Thus this book states that the reason for some communities to form and grow strong is pure geography. He also states the well-formed European society struggled when they entered into the tropics of Africa. So many people died of malaria and the land was tough to plough. So they could not form a harvesting community there. Instead using their gun power they drove people from their natives and made them work for them to put railroads and to explore diamond and copper mines there. As the native people have been far away from their land and way of living now the disease that affect most people of tropical Africa such as Zambia is Malaria. 48% of the Children below five die because of malaria there. So it seems very clear that there is no racial supremacy and certainly every race is brilliant in its own way, but the geography which lies as the creator of opportunities decides the rise or ruin of a society. This book should be read by everyone who is interested in sociology and to continue with the reading I highly recommend his other book Collapse. Thus one can understand the formation, sustainability and vulnerability of a society.

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