Guns, Germs, and Steel

Posted in reviews at 8:50 am by danvk

I recently picked up a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a self-described “short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years.” This book should have been right up my alley: it’s all about history, specifically early human history, which I don’t know much about.

Diamond’s goal is to explain why civilizations on the “Eurasian” continent developed to a much greater extent than they did in Africa, Australia or the Americas. Why did Europeans conquer the Americas and not the other way around? He wants to do this by looking for ultimate causes, not proximate ones like “Europeans had guns, while Americans didn’t.” He wants to explain this with environmental factors, not genetic ones. This seems like a nobel goal and an interesting subject for a book.

After about fifty pages, I was growing increasingly skeptical. He would make a point, present a very specious argument against it, then counter this argument. The old Straw man!

Then came the snippet that did this book in:

On the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the Moriori people in December 1835. On November 19 of that year, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori. Groups of Maori began to walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those who objected…

Moriori and Maori history constitutes a brief, small-scale natural experiment that tests how environments affect human societies. Before you read a whole book examining environmental effects on a very large scale—effects on human societies around the world for the last 13,000 years—you might reasonably want assurance, from smaller tests, that such effects really are significant…

He’s holding this up as a small-scale example of how environmental factors can take two civilizations in different directions. The Maori (of New Zealand) and the Moriori (of the Chathams) were only separated around AD 1500. But by 1835, the Maori conquered the Moriori using disproportionate force! Diamond argues that they were able to do this because they were a stratified, agricultural society while the Moriori were loosely-organized hunter-gatherers. Such a short time-span! No western influences! Such a clean sociological experiment!

But this is incredibly misleading. The giveaway should have been “armed with guns”. The Maori did not develop guns independently. But I skimmed over this. The bit that did jump out at me was “November 19, 1835″ and “December 5″. How do we have such precise dates for an interaction between native peoples? It was enough to send me racing to the Wikipedia article on The Chathams.

Those 500 Maori came to the Chathams on a British whaling ship. They were armed with British guns. They were told of the existence of the Chathams by the sailors on the same whaling vessel. There are no hints of ultimate causes here. If the British had armed the Moriori instead, things would have turned out very differently.

I try to retain a healthy sense of skepticism when reading any non-fiction book that presents a thesis. But it stops being fun when you know that the author is willing to deliberately mislead.

I’m curious how this book won a Pulitzer Prize. Did any of the reviewers actually read it?


  1. Ryan Moulton said,

    October 27, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Was he actually suggesting that the Maori developed firearms in that period of time, or does he allow it to be more indirect? Perhaps their agrarian society is what allowed them to effectively trade with the British whaling ship.

  2. danvk said,

    October 27, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    No, he wasn’t that disingenuous. He’s presenting this as a nice, clean example of two genetically-identical populations developing in isolation with only environmental factors differing. And that’s true. It’s just that the Maori conquering the Moriori doesn’t follow from that, and he’s acting as though it did. The British involvement is very, very relevant!

  3. danvk.org » Books I Read in 2009 said,

    December 30, 2009 at 10:01 am

    [...] Guns, Germs, Steel, Jered Diamond My thoughts on why this is a really bad book are documented in another blog post. [...]