Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Book Review:

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

Reviewed by Bonnie Randall Schutzman
2004, Bonnie Randall Schutzman


Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies makes an excellent case study in how to build a world, since it focuses on the development of a particular planet we all know -- our own.

Diamond's ambitious goal for the book is to examine whether an archaeologist transported back in time to 13,000 B.C. could have predicted which populations would develop dominant high-tech societies and which would continue at a stone-age level indefinitely.  He goes on to identify several factors he feels led to societal differentiation: the military technology to dominate one's neighbors, infectious diseases that weaken societies not already exposed to them, and industrial and political technology in areas including literacy, economic and political structures, and manufacturing.  He summarizes all these complex factors in the catchphrase of the title: guns, germs, steel.

In Diamond's view, a society develops advanced military and industrial technologies when its population reaches sufficient density.  A large sedentary population depends on an adequate and stable food supply.  A stable food supply depends on several underlying factors in addition to soil quality and weather: the number of species of plants and animals available for domestication, the ease with which those species can be domesticated, and the ease with which domesticated species can be transferred among societies.  Areas with many available plant and animal species, such as Eurasia, got a developmental head start over areas with fewer, such as Australia and North America. 

Diamond makes a good case that domestication spreads more easily in areas with an east-west axis, where latitude remains the same, than in areas such as the Americas where a north-south axis requires domesticated species to adjust to different lengths of day and drastic climate changes.  Corn from Mexico, for example, requires a longer growing season than the climate of Minnesota provides, and llamas did poorly in the Central American jungles and thus never reached more hospitable regions in North America.  Goats, on the other hand, were domesticated early in the Middle East and spread quickly from Spain to China.

One of Diamond's more interesting sections examines the characteristics of easily domesticated animals and explains why cheetahs (unmanageable mating cycles), elephants (too big and too slow to grow), zebras (too mean) and other easily tamed animals were never fully domesticated. 

Social technology developed along similar lines.  Denser populations required more complex methods of conflict resolution and more efficient means to distribute food.  Better distribution and reduced conflict in turn supported elites who could develop writing, accounting, and military strategies, and who passed the learning of one generation efficiently to the next. 

One of the strengths of Diamond's analysis is his attention to examples that seem to contradict his arguments.   In the competition between hunter-gathering and farming, for instance, some societies (Australia and parts of Africa, for instance) possessed such a limited selection of native species that farming offered little advantage over hunting and gathering.  A handful of societies, including those in the American northwest, had such an abundant supply of fish and berries that switching to farming would have reduced their level of nutrition.

Another interesting section examines innovation: how new technologies are put to new uses, and how they build on simpler problems that have already been solved.  The alphabet, for example, was streamlined from hieroglyphs.  Gutenberg's printing press was adapted from presses used to make wine.  Innovations can be spread through trade, copied by inventive observers, or acquired by conquest.  Chinese papermaking came to the Islamic world when an Arab army defeated a Chinese army at the battle of Talas River in 751 A.D. and found several papermakers among the prisoners of war. 

Sometimes technology is abandoned or rejected.  Japan rejected firearms because they violated the samurai code.  Polynesian settlers lost the ability to make pottery as they scattered across the Pacific islands.  Many factors contributed to this loss, including lack of materials on many islands and reduced population densities that presumably made it difficult to train specialized workers. 

Diamond discusses many other trends and developments of interest to worldbuilders.  He examines transitional societies, where new technologies have incompletely replaced the old.  He looks at settlement patterns and trade routes.  He gives special attention to the "stone age" societies in New Guinea, among whom he lived for many years as an ornithologist, and to how a handful of illiterate Spaniards brought the mighty Inca empire to its knees.  An entire long section details the patterns of human settlement in southeast Asia, Polynesia, Australia, and New Guinea. 

Diamond includes quite a few tables, maps, and pictures, but the text would benefit from even more.  I found many tables hard to read, but the maps are good.  The index seems large, but when I tried to use it to locate several examples I wanted to cite for this review, I wasn't able to find most of them.  I'm also unconvinced by his basic assertion that resource distribution and geography account for all of the power differences among modern societies.  But when I need to build an alternate world, understand how geography and resources might have shaped the town I live in, or invent a fantastic domestic animal for a short story, I'll be turning to Guns, Germs, and Steel for examples and guidance.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.  W. W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-31755-2.  Suggested retail US$16.95