Guns, Germs and Steel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 13 16:07:45 MST 2001

[Jim Blaut takes Diamond apart in his "8 Eurocentrist Historians". I may
scan in a bit later after I've had my dinner. In the meantime, here's part
of a review of the book from H-Humanities. This is a good place to look for
reviews on scholarly texts. The URL is:]

Jared M. Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New
York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 480 pp. Tables, maps,
photographs, annotated bibliography, and index. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN
0-393-03891-2; $14.95 (paper), ISBN 0-393-31755-2.

Reviewed by Jose Drummond, Coordinator, Environmental Monitoring and
Evaluation Project, World Bank Pilot Program for the Protection of Tropical
Rain Forests (Brasília, Brazil).

Published by H-Environment (August, 1999)

Environmental History and the Clash of Civilizations

The availability of environmental history texts in Portuguese, for
Brazilian and other Portuguese-speaking readers, has improved only
cautiously, despite the fact that a few translated texts received critical
and public acclaim. Since 1989, at least five important titles were
translated from English: Warren Dean's Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber
and With Broadax and Firebrand, Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism,
Frederick Turner's Beyond Geography, and John Perlin's A Forest Journey.
>From the French there was the translation of several texts by Fernand
Braudel, the ranking French historian of the Annales school, from whom many
environmental historians have taken inspiration. There are voids that could
have already been filled had there been more initiative by Brazilian
publishers, such as Donald Worster's classic Nature's Economy, or William
Cronon's unique Nature's Metropolis. The fact is that, since 1989, one good
environmental history book has been translated and published in Brazil
about every two years.

It is time for Brazilian publishers to take action once again, if not to
reduce the backlog, at least to keep up with the times. There is a new
English-language book in the field of environmental history deserving
translation, and it is a winner. The title is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The
Fate of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at the
UCLA School of Medicine, and ranking researcher of biological diversity.
For decades he has researched the distribution of plants and animals in New
Guinea and several islands and archipelagoes of the Pacific ocean, but this
is a book about, so to speak, the distribution of human societies on the

The book won a Pulitzer prize in 1998. However, its best recommendation is
the boldness of its theme. Diamond seeks answer to an old and persistent
question: Why are there so many cultural, technological, economic and
civilizational differences between peoples spread on the different
continents, sub-continents, and islands of the planet? His basic research
question can be put as: What happened in the last 11 to 13 thousand years
that made the human experience so varied from time to time, from place to
place, and even at the same time and the same place?

His basic answer is that different human societies, despite a basically
similar potential to build civilizations, were strongly conditioned by
natural factors (climate, biology, geology, etc.) that did not always yield
to their cultural and technological capabilities. Diamond therefore gives
explanatory value to non-human and non-social factors in the discussion of
human and social differences. This has been, I believe, the most valuable
asset of the best of environmental history. Diamond works within a
framework of cultural relativism with which most historians and social
scientists can feel comfortable. He directly refutes any explanations based
solely on biological, racial or genetic differences. However, his
familiarity with the instruments of the natural sciences and with natural
processes enables him to argue selected natural facts as explanatory of
selected social facts. Diamond stretches this approach at least as much as
any other study that I know of, but what makes his contribution so
challenging and original is that he covers such a large period of
pre-history and history, for which supporting evidence is mostly
archeological and paleontological. He daringly combines evidence pulled
together by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists,
climatologists, biologists, geographers, geologists, and so on, analyzing
it and reaching original conclusions and insights. One may not agree with
Diamond's answers, but it must be recognized that he makes all the
questions (including the "uncomfortable" ones) and provides his answers in
a systematic, serene manner.

Full review at:

Louis Proyect
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