Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies- Jared Diamond

This is an older book by Jared Diamond, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.  This book as exemplifies part of why I force myself to read different genres.  Normally I would not have picked up this book, but from the start I found myself hooked and I couldn't put it down.  I was listening to the audiobook version [and an abridged version at that], but I was over halfway done in one weekend, and then my MP3 player died and it took me months to get back to it.  When I did though, I excitedly saw the book through to the end.
I remember in college, I was talking Intro to the Social Sciences and I had to read a lot of professional articles and journals.  One of them that I we were asked to read was titled something like "Are the Soft Sciences Really Soft?" and it argued that they were not.  At the time I do not think I cared enough about the subject, nor was I reading the papers in a focused way that would allow me to understand them completely [that's what happens when you procrastinate and save a week or twos worth of reading a hundred or more pages to a Sunday afternoon].  But now I would argue, that no the soft sciences are soft, and barely scientific at all.  They do not and cannot be as exacting as using physics to predict the motion of a spacecraft, or chemistry to discern chemical reactions.  In regards to the soft sciences and this book, I was surprised how much this book touched on science to explain history.  It didn't convince me that history and sociology are hard sciences, but it did help me see how the hard sciences and advance our understanding of history.  I wonder now, in light of the additional things we learned via genetics, if the thesis of this book could be elaborated upon more.
The main thesis of the book was a question posed to the author by an indigenous tribesman, something like, "Why is it that white folk have lots of cargo, and we do not?"  In other words, how is it that you came to be so technologically advanced and we did not?  In times past, this question has been answered with racist bias that had no proof and didn't help anyone explain anything, it just justified wrongs.  Then it became taboo to even discuss such an issue, probably because we still assumed that the answer was buried in race and ability and we wanted to avoid racism.  Jared Diamond tackled this topic head on and with little bias and looked to see what history, archeology, and science could tell us about why civilizations ended up at such differing levels of technology before the modern time when transportation and globalization began to level the playing field.  It was a great and enlightening read and I eagerly look forward to reading The World Until Yesterday soon.

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