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Review of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

by Jared Diamond

Two people recommended this book to me on two separate occasions, so I was eager to read it. While the book turned out to be as thought-provoking as I had hoped, the writing left something to be desired.

Jared Diamond has a compelling thesis and offers good arguments to support it, including numerous figures, charts, maps, and dates. However, in his zeal for such statistics, he often forgets about the coherency of the writing, and it suffers. The book reads more like lengthy scientific essay than a non-fiction book aimed at the general public. That doesn't mean it needs to be dumbed down either--the tone and coherence of the writing just needs work. I found much of the book repetitive and dull enough that I just wanted to skip ahead until I found a "more interesting" section.

For instance, I realize that the uneven distribution of domesticable animals and plants is a major part of Diamond's thesis. However, he reiterates this point to the extent that he is beating a dead horse (or, if in South America, a dead llama). He also fixates much on the Austronesian islands, such as New Guinea, and I wonder if part of that comes from a bias having spent much time researching there.

Other portions of the book are interesting and eye-opening, however. I particularly liked the section on the development of writing (Chapter 12) and the detail he went into there. The part on the origins of various diseases was also fascinating. Even the chapter where he discusses the racial distribution of Africa and compares various languages is great, if you can gloss over some of the technical aspects of the discussion.

Diamond raises some points that I had never before considered, such as the major axes of the continents--it makes sense, in retrospect, that it's easy to transport crops across longitude, because the climate does not change as much as transporting crops across latitude. That makes sense.

Overall, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a worthy book. Those heavily-inclined toward academics could do worse. It suffers somewhat from the heavy-handed writing style of the author, but this is not going to stop me from reading another one of his books (I think I'll try Collapse next).


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