By Jared Diamond
Most people have wondered at one time or another why history unfolded so differently in different parts of the world. Why did the Europeans conquer the Native Americans, and not the other way around? Why did some people develop paler skin than our forebears, and others darker? Why do some people live in skyscrapers, and others still in mud huts? For most of us, these questions remain in the pub or around a dinner table. We develop them no further; they are simply too big.
Diamond is the kind of insatiable scientist who devotes his time and energy to these sorts of questions. He’s also smart enough to know that most of us are interested in them, but are short on time and expertise. And so he has written what has to be described as one of the most comprehensive and compelling books on human history ever. I haven’t read many others, but the sheer number of surprises I found when reading Diamond’s is enough for me to believe that no other book like this exists. In tracing how the environment, geology, climate and biology caused the development of human life to unfold the way it has, Guns, Germs and Steel is an astonishing piece of work. To top it off, Diamond is a thrilling writer.
The book could not have been written by anyone else. Others could have tackled its central questions, but their responses would have been different. That’s because Diamond is canny: he knows that his readers need a personal guide through this long and arduous journey. So he brings together his experiences as an ecologist in New Guinea with his travels in Australia and Africa, and his upbringing as an American. Fascinatingly implicit in his approach to the question of how history unfolded differently on different continents is that he is an American with a top-class education and the resources necessary to write such a wonderful book – resources that include computers, literacy, food supplied by others, security, etc. It is to this depth that Diamond traces human history. The reader is surprised to hear that Africa’s poverty relative to Europe’s propensity of food is down to the fact that Africa started with fewer domesticable plant species than Europe thousands of years ago. It sounds obvious (indeed, it is!) but it’s the kind of problem that was compounded by other factors: eg, Eurasia’s west-east axis with no geological or environmental barriers in the middle promoted better migration and sharing than we see in Africa, whose north-south axis hinders cross-continent migration thanks to the different climates it spans and the existence across one great swathe of a huge desert.
These are but tiny, and no doubt ill-expressed, insights into Diamond’s view of history. Although he has condensed eons into a mere 425 pages, it is a comprehensive and lucid piece of work. Astonishing.