Rescuing Guns, Germs, and Steel from its worst detractors
I really enjoyed this essay.
About 6th months ago, I came across r/askhistorians writings on him and was quite surprised. As I first read him when I was a teenager, Diamond had a big impact on me, and though as I grew up and read more I did find some of his arguments had flaws, I always found that the basic insight was solid. It was interesting to hear their critiques, but they didn't sit right with me.
On a particular level, it does feel like Diamond's book has the simple disadvantage of being a hugely successful work doing something (big history) controversial around a topics that people are sensitive about. This invites a kind of vitriolic public criticism and 'exposure' of 'wrongness' that, especially on a site like Reddit, is very enjoyable for people to engage in. The issue with Reddit in particular is that it is not a space that is intended for reasoned academic debate, giving space only to controversialists and not to people who would point out that maybe Diamond isn't so bad.
Thank you for posting this essay. I have been sick and tired of the weirdly uneducated and overly emotional misreading and attacks on GSG, which isn't a perfect book but isn't what everyone says it is. It was always a pain to have to produce a fractional collection of rebuts each time so I'm glad you've done the work of putting them all in one place! A valuable reference for sure.
When I first came across Guns, Germs, and Steel in an airport bookstore 24 years ago I read it with a kind of intellectual excitement that I don't feel often. But I knew it was just one analysis by someone working out of their own field, so I hoped to read responses that really engaged with its arguments. What do experts on horse domestication think about the notion that it could never work for zebras? Are there ways to be more quantitative about how easily wheat cultivation could spread?
Instead what I found were objections that started from a stance of ideology, and only brought in historical arguments as backup. I would still like to see a serious review of his main arguments on their merits.
In the context of biological evolution, Darwin argued over a century earlier that evolution would be fastest, and effectively most "innovative", in the largest connected areas. Applying that same idea to cultural evolution, you would expect the likelihood of the industrial revolution to happen in Eurasia to out of proportion to its relative area because of the multiplier effect of greater interactions. You could argue most of Diamond's book boils down to multiple examples of how that size advantage plays out, but I would still like to see specific expertise brought to bear on those examples. And that does not seem to be happening.
Commenter Dan at <a href=https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2023/06/friday-assorted-links-421.html#comment-160619944>Marginal Revolution</a> has a cynical explanation:
"The complaint from the left seems to be that Guns, Germs, and Steel doesn't try to claim that white colonizers and capitalism were uniquely evil forces in history. On this view, his first misstep is asking why it was that, say, New Guineans didn't take over the world -- to which their answer would be, "of course they didn't, they're not evil white people." I wish I was making this up, but this honestly seems to be the beef they have with Guns, Germs, and Steel, despite the fact the whole point of the book is to explain why Europeans kind of just got lucky, and that's why they managed to take over the world (it's not that they're smarter or harder working or whatever)."
All the backlash against Diamond reminds me a lot of the rage from a lot of academic historians directed towards Barbara Tuchman when she became popular with the unwashed masses. Some people really don't like it when outsiders butt in on their special self-declared intellectual playground I guess.
This was a good read. Personally I never got most of the criticism surrounding GGS, I suspect much of it is due to people disliking the fact that Diamond is not a historian/economist/anthropologist by trade and typically academics don't react kindly to people outside their field suggesting new ideas (this does remind me of the reaction Alfred Wegener got for his ideas about continental drift). Not to say Diamond got it all right, his work, especially some of the recent stuff is ... odd. In my view the East-West axis part of Diamond's work is the weakest. Sure it is easier to travel east to west but that idea ignores local effects that lead to areas of the same latitude having vastly different climates (for instance Lyon is farther north than Vladivostok, a Köppen map shows even more problems). Regardless I still lean heavily towards accepting Diamond's ideas as opposed to rejecting them.
Dan Carlin's Hardcore History episode "Globalization Unto Death" starts out with the question "Are White People Special?" I think he references Diamond directly as a book that tried to answer this question. He then lays out two schools of thought:
1) Imperialist: White People are Special Good
2) Post-60s: White People are Special Bad
...and more of less offers his perspective that he thinks why people are no better or worse (morally) then anyone else. He kind of feels the same way about the Mongol's, etc. That most people and groups would be about as cruel to one another as their circumstances and times allowed, and that people with high body counts just head more power to do what they wanted. That the "great men" of history are all in a giant tie for cruelty.
I'm more or less in agreement with him.
Diamond doesn't take this view, but people who do think there is differential genetic potential between the races also reference different environments as the cause. So the same things Diamond uses to explain away world differences could also be used to explain them. Most of his critics probably aren't smart enough to make the inference, but its no doubt one reason for the hostility.
Having read GGS when it first came out, I was not aware that it had become controversial in the meantime. FWIW, it sounds as if many of the critics have a reductionist mindset rather than appreciating the complex interactions of many factors in human activities.
A very good work. I am not in contact with the anti-Diamond crowd you seem to be concerned to dismiss, so I have little understanding of whether or not such a dismissal of his critics is needed. But I am struck by the levels of violence and disrespect (in terms of the norms of academic discussion) that have been displayed against Diamond.
It's always been clear to me that Diamond's work is one of the most powerful argument ever against racism; against the superiority of any human culture, civilisation or "race"; and against the Eurocentric legacy of how historians have explained how Europe managed to conquer the world. And that is the fundamental question Diamond and yourself have underlined: it's not how Europe conquered, and it's not why Europe conquered, it's how the conquest entreprise could even work in the first place. Those who strive to focus the discussion only on the great crimes of the Euro-White civilisation and who claim to forbid looking at natural factors of all kinds, actually end up constructing European superiority: if it works, it's because of European will; if it doesn't, it's because of European flaws; if someone else does not succeed it's because Europeans don't want them to; etc. This is a much more dangerous form of Eurocentric obsession than the one that resulted from 2 centuries of academic work by people from Europe or from "New Europes" that simply didn't know anything else. By being too interested in proving how bad Europeans have been, they end up establishing Europeans as supreme gods of all things. Diamond on the other hand, helps to remind everyone that humans are no god, no matter their history, their civilization, their power, their greatness or pettiness.
Thanks, you just collected a new follower.
Using a moral stance to aggressively attack other research and theory is a blight and a threat to good debate. Especially when it comes to understanding wealth and power differences between countries or regions, models that are not centered around exploitation (which of course absolutely existed, often on a grandiose scale) are too often attacked with emotional and moral, not factual arguments. Which is unfortunate, since understanding wealth differences in all their complexity is important to overcome them.
I had the opposite critique of Yali's story: if New Guineans were that smart, why didn't their country develop more along the lines of nearby Indonesia or Northern Australia, which are pretty nice and don't require you to be a survivalist badass?
Also, the "greatest mistake" article was the greatest mistake of anthropologists in 1987. It was even sillier than Diamond's earlier study of penis sizes.
Diamond is a great storyteller and idea salesman but not a great thinker.
Yes, it was very briefly mentioned towards the end of the review, but I think most readers of this review would not realize the question Diamond was trying to answer. And most of Diamond’s critics also miss it as well.
Have you read this unreleased, "actively repellent" book?
A compelling defense of one of my all-time favorite books.
One important point that you missed is that Diamond is trying to explain differences in long-term development between EURASIA (not just Europe) and the rest of the world. So many people, particularly his critics, believe that he is trying to explain differences in development between Western Europe and the rest of the world. Then they call him "Euro-centric."
Until his critics come up with a better explanation, I will yield to Diamond.
I tend to think some (but certainly not all) of the disagreement between Diamond and his critics stems from different assumptions about what the word "determine" actually means. There is an old and analogous debate in the history of technology about "technological determinism"—an anathematization that grew wings in part because of the misinterpretation of Marx's translation into English. The German words in Marx's Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (to take one example) that translate to "determine" in English are "bedingt" and "bestimmt." Both of those words in German mean something much closer to the "setting of limits," or "conditioning" or "fixing in place." Hence, "determine" in Marx means something much closer to circumscribing the conditions of possibility, of material constraints, rather than "X causes Y to happen." Diamond clearly uses the term "enabled" rather than "caused" in quite a number of instances. One could also speak of "necessary" vs. "sufficient" causes. In any case, critics of technological determinism tend to rely on the definition "technical change causes social change." Analogously, critics of geographic determinism tend to rely on the definition "geographic differences cause social change." In both cases, it's a different definition from the older one where technical or material characteristics set limits upon the "conditions of possibility" for social action.
Another observation: much depends the choice of the unit of comparison. As Aaron Jakes points out later in the twitter thread you linked to, one could justifiably critique Diamond along those lines.
Finally, a question: Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson have a critique of GGS that on its face doesn't seem all that different from some of those you include here. Do you think Acemoglu et al misread Diamond? If not, what are the main differences between their critique and the ones you address here?
Doesn't China also have lots of coal, which they're mining now?
I recall that Michael H. Hart wrote "Understanding Human History" with the intent of criticizing GG&S, but he's interested in things like whether Eskimos have higher IQs than other Amerindians that are irrelevant to Diamond. At the same time, since the criticism that Diamond leaves intra-Eurasian differences unexplained has some merit, Hart can be credited with pointing out differences between North & South America and Africa even while all have a "vertical axis".