Book of the Month: Guns, Germs, and Steel

I have been wanting to read this book for awhile, and so was excited to see it show up on the Faders' dining room table after Christmas. In true McCropder community fashion, we refer to anything one of us has that the others want to borrow as “kingdom” material (meaning it belongs to us all). Thus, Jason's book became the Kingdom book and I happily brought it home to read. I have to say that while the idea of the book is interesting, and even the ideas IN the book are interesting and informative, it's not a particularly interesting book to read. In fact, it's pretty dry and academic, and I would have preferred reading someone else's synopsis of the book. So that's what I'll give you, faithful readers.

Jared Diamond, the author of GGS, starts out the book with a good question. What makes the difference between conquered and conquering societies? Why was Europe the continent that took over and subdued others, rather than the other way around? Why didn't Kenya take over England, or Peru sail across the ocean to colonize Spain? Sure, the Europeans had weapons (guns), diseases (germs) and technology (steel) in their advantage, but how did they gets those advantages in the first place? Some in the past argued that there was a fundamental difference between the peoples of these countries—Europeans were more innovative, more curious, more intelligent than the average African. Diamond calls this racist, and puts forth a different, geographically based theory.

Basically, people who happened to live in Europe had several advantages over people living on other continents. The biggest advantages were the presence of wild plants and animals on the continents of Europe and Asia that could be domesticated (unlike Africa—no one has yet domesticated the cape buffalo, or rhinoceros, or even the zebra). This led to increased food production which led to the ability to feed larger groups of people—not all had to be hunters/gatherers and now some people could focus on technology and invention. Living in close proximity to animals gave Europeans contact with a variety of diseases (cow pox becoming small pox, influenza from swine flu, etc) and subsequent immunity. Also, because Europe is a wide continent instead of a tall continent (east to west axis instead of north to south) the food and animals that were domesticated could easily spread across the continent. Contrast this with food developed to grow in Mexico trying to thrive in Alaska, for example. So it's not that Europeans are superior to other races, they were just in the right place to thrive, according to Diamond.

In the end, it was probably a good book to read although it can't come as highly recommended as Strength in What Remains! But for Westerners working in Africa, I have to fight against the temptation to buy into the idea that our ways are "superior" over African methods. Look! We were able to develop better societies than our African counterparts. Which, of course, is not necessarily true, and even if my ancestors developed technologies and societies faster than my Kenyan coworkers' ancestors, it is not based on some inherent cultural or genetic superiority but rather, as Diamond states, better real estate.


Tabitha said...

We talked a bit about "Guns, Germs, and Steel" at my old workplace, The Acton Institute. A number of my co-workers recommended the book "The Victory of Reason", by Rodney Stark, that was written in response to Diamond's book. Stark argues that it was Christianity and, more importantly, the values that Christianity brought with it, that had a greater influence on societal development than geographical location.

If you're interested in a "kingdom copy", I'm sure I can dig one up for you ;)

The Drs. McLaughlin said...

We'd love it, Tab. I think the point is quite valid. I have my doubts as to whether historical study will ever verify which model is more accurate, but it would be foolish to ignore the implications of each view of developing civilizations.

Diamond's view can be a ready antidote to feelings of racial superiority, and this can be valuable. However, it sounds like Stark does well to acknowledge that worldviews do differ and do matter in terms of outcome. Moreover, if Christianity really does tell truth, then its effect on culture would likely lead to prosperity (which has nevertheless not always been stewarded particularly well).