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Pet Sins January 2002

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

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, takes on the tough questions of "Why are some human societies less materially developed than others?", "Why did some societies reach high levels of social organization such as the nation state while others remain as nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers?", "Why did some societies develop writing and literature while others did not?"

Too often, in the common imagination, such discrepancies have been explained by biology: Aboriginal Australians and Amazonian Indians are just not naturally as intelligent as the English or the Japanese. And too often, avowed non-racists who reject these ideas secretly fear that they are true, for a plethora of pseudo-scientific "evidence" for "black and brown inferiority" exists out there, and while their critics are many, there are few who offer strong scientific evidence to the contrary.

Author Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, believes that Australians, New Guineans, Africans and indigenous Americans are not genetically inferior to or less intelligent than Europeans and Asians.

...from 33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies...they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is...it is easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners may be correct...

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involve genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry...

Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio and movies...In contrast, traditional New Guinea children... spend almost all their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development.

Why, then, do New Guineans and other peoples have less materially developed societies than Europeans and Asians? Diamond examines how societies are molded by geography. Drawing from his knowledge of plant and animal biology, Diamond constructs a model for understanding how natural conditions affecting population density, plant growth and domesticable animal species can influence everything from the evolution of germs to the development of writing and the organization of government.

The author's credentials as a scientist and a university professor should not distance the contents of this book from the general audience. Guns, Germs and Steel is neither boring nor pedantic. In fact, Diamond enlivens the text with engaging anecdotes from his field work in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea .

Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published in 1997 by W. W. Norton and Co. It became a national bestseller, and Professor Diamond received many awards, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.

Although the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel has been interviewed on National Public Radio, most everyday people are still unfamiliar with his ideas. It is unfortunate that not more people are reading Guns, Germs, and Steel because this great book has the explanatory power to challenge and dispel the modern racist ideas many of us hold so dear but yet are afraid even to admit to ourselves that we believe them.