Book review: Guns, germs, and steel (part III)

Here is part III of the review. Parts I and II can be found here and here, respectively.

At this point, I became less enthusiastic about Diamond’s claims. The difference between Europe and China, he says, is that while Europe was organized into lots of fairly large states with their own central governments, China was already united into essentially the giant country it is today. A single large country presents more problems than several small ones: for one thing it requires more infrastructure to manage it, but also there is less of a drive to innovate without the competition of neighbors.

Indeed, we’ve seen large empires collapse due to outside pressure or internal implosion several times in history: witness the fall of the Roman empire when invaded repeatedly by outside communities (the so-called “barbarians”), or the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire, or the collapse of Genghis Khan’s Mongolian empire. But China seems to have been quite immune to this effect: it has remained more or less the same country for millennia.

So, Diamond’s explanation for why Europe fared better China is an appeal to the Goldilocks principle: for a country to enjoy maximum success, it must be large enough to have a strong central government so as to encourage technological innovation, but it can’t be too large, lest management difficulties and lack of competition hold it back.

But that invites a further question. Why was it that China unified more than Europe, and so much earlier? Again, Diamond has an answer for this. He claims that this is because of the difference in the geographies of the coastlines of western Europe and of China. In Europe, there are lots of peninsulas, where a relatively small country can establish itself. By contrast, in China, there are very few, so it is easier for a larger country to engulf smaller ones and eventually establish a massive country.

While it’s surely true that China did unify long ago, whereas Europe did not, it’s unclear how good Diamond’s reasons are. Is he just grasping at straws here? Or, is there more to the story that I would understand better if I were to educate myself further? I’m not in a position to say. At the least, Diamond seems to have much less evidence to support this part of his story than he did when he discussed axial tilts (the importance of which he demonstrated repeatedly and with great finesse).

Another interesting phenomenon in this book is the evidence for some of his claims. Of course, archaeological and anthropological evidence are important, and he draws heavily from them. More surprising to me was his reliance on linguistic evidence. One can trace the lineage of societies by the languages they speak: those who have broken off from another group recently will typically have great linguistic similarities with the societies they broke from, whereas independently developing societies will likely share few words with other societies. The more recently two groups separate, the more common their languages are expected to be. And if two groups were in contact long ago, they may share some basic linguistic similarities but still have highly distinct languages. I think that’s a really interesting approach to the problem, an analogue of radiocarbon dating for linguists.

Of course, there’s much more in this book than the small tidbits I mentioned here. A major side-theme is an anthropological study of New Guinea. I don’t really see that part as being particularly relevant to the main thesis of the book, but the anthropological study of New Guinea is probably closer to Diamond’s life work than the story at hand, so it’s good that he discusses that as well. Had he written it up in another book, I as well as many other readers would probably never have known about it.

Still, at 400 pages, this book is quite intimidating, and it requires heavy concentration to read it. I think that certain bits of it could have been cut. There’s quite a bit of repetition in it, and I don’t think too much would be lost had he published the rest of it in scholarly journals and referred the most interested readers to them.

I’m really glad I read this book. Since my dismal high school lack-of-education left me ignorant about many things, but especially about history, it’s time for me to pick up the slack and learn what a well-educated person ought to know. I expect that I learned more from Guns, germs, and steel than I could possibly have from a history class, and I learned it in a more honest way, without someone feeding me canned answers and giving me no room for independent inquiry. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to increase eir understanding of the factors that shaped the world we live in today.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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