Monday, November 19, 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel

This one has an unusual context in that it was recommended by a very senior and well known programmer who must also be a very shrewd judge of character on the basis of a couple of email exchanges...

Shallow Review of the Deep Book Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

How to justify this one for this blog? Usually the reviewed books are current and have overtly political themes, but this one is pretty straight history and was published in 1997. However, it definitely isn't the sort of book that Dubya seems likely to read or understand, so I guess that's the main justification. There was a chapter about kleptocracy, which was a notion I'd never heard of but which I've already encountered elsewhere, but nothing overtly directed towards the coming neo-GOP government. Kleptocrat certainly applies to some of the current crop of neo-GOP leaders... Under extreme time pressure (with the book due back at the library tomorrow) and being a bit tired, this one is mostly just going to be notes and reactions.

The overall perspective is very high level. The author notes that he's covering an average of 150 years per page per continent, which is certainly booking. (Pun intended.) The thematic question was posed by a fellow in New Guinea, who asked why the people outside New Guinea had so much 'cargo', as they refer to most of our worldly possessions. To answer the question Diamond mostly focuses on the history of food production and how it influenced migration. The guns and steel of the title represent the technology made possible by accumulated food surpluses, and the germs are awkward side effects mostly acquired from domesticated animals, but devastating to the unprepared hunter-gatherers. The basic idea is that Eurasia had better natural resources, especially for plants that could be domesticated, and a big head start, and that's why they won. This is a very wide web of a book. He draws evidence from linguistics and anthropology and carbon dating and historical records and archeology and genetics and various other areas, and weaves it into a very cohesive presentation.

It's kind of a funny thing, because I regard myself as very broad and shallow, and he is clearly a very deep scholar in a number of areas, but... In one of the few areas where I do have a bit of depth, it turns out that he's wrong. That was his discussion of the Japanese language, which has a totally incorrect presentation of the Japanese writing system. I actually see how some aspects of the Japanese reality could be incorporated into his presentation to actually strengthen it, but this sort of mistake does make you wonder about other details of the book. As a result of that, I found myself more skeptical about some of his other examples where he appealed to Japanese examples for such topics as guns restrictions in Japan. Japanese-related topics actually appeared many times in the book, though the final one was a place where he skipped over Japan's probable involvement. He mentioned that China gave up navies, but he didn't mention that before that several Chinese fleets had perished in typhoons when they were attempting to attack Japan.

Another omission was The Mismeasure of Man. Actually, quite a bit of Gould's work seemed relevant to his topics, but there certainly wasn't any mention in the text, and I didn't spot anything in the appendix about additional reading, though he closed the general section with a famous book that was basically an attack on Gould's book. I'm pretty sure that Gould's revised edition, which included a response to that book, was published several years before this one--but still no mention of it.

To quickly mention the topic of kleptocracy, I kept expecting him to start ranting about "property is theft", but he kept it on more reasoned basis. He wasn't very consistent there, seeming to agree that there were some large scale projects and good works that were sometimes done by governments, but that the idea was basically theft. I'd prefer to regard it as a greedocracy... Anyway, I felt that his political theorizing was a relatively weak part of the book.

Near the end he's talking about the study of history as a science... He includes various aphorisms about history, but he left out the one I regard as the quasi-official joke of my own history department at Rice: "The only lesson you learn from history is that no one learns any lessons from history." He never heard of it? Or it cuts too hard against the grain of his thesis that history is worth studying?

Interesting read, and lots of food for thought--but not sure if I should recommend it to a general audience. Well, Dubya should read it, but mostly to keep him out of mischief for a few months. Can't expect him to learn anything by it.