Thursday, April 28, 2005

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

First, the book: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Binary review: thumbs up!

Every time I sat down with this book, I learned something that made me grin somewhere in my head.

The idea behind this book is pretty simple: try to explain how throughout history various cultures have advanced at different rates and in different ways than other cultures, how they conquered or squeezed out those other cultures, and how that led us to where we are today. It does so using all the branches of historical science and does an excellent job tying it all together.

I think I feel in love with this book when I read a line about how the difference between two primitive grain crops could explain much of the way our world was today. Manifest destiny my ass -- we're just lucky.

To point out some flaws, I guess I would say that the book has trouble finding an audience it really wants to talk to. As a serious scholar, I would need to dive into more detail. You could probably write a book based on each chapter in his book. But as a casual observer, I could probably have used less detail. The book could have been half its length and I would still have believed him :).

That doesn't mean the book is too long. Nor is it too detailed. It's just a very hard market to nail. I, personally, didn't need as much information as he gave. But I'm glad it's there, because it reassures me that he isn't some quack just out to make a buck.

The other flaw with the book is that I sometimes feel, reading it, as if he's preaching to the choir. He isn't just documenting history here, he's trying to change the minds of people who feel that somehow the fact that western civ has conquered the world shows some kind of "specialness" on the part of our culture (or worse, our people). What he doesn't realize (or chooses to ignore) is that the people he's railing against are the people who will turn around and say that "God"
granted XYZ culture dominance over the others and that his scientific mumbo jumbo is just the mechanism for that. In other words, it's enlightening and educating, but I don't think he's "converting" any closed-minded racists or xenophobes with his work. Meh, I don't know.

I should also be fair and point out the fact that the author comes across as a bit biased, both towards his own theories and perhaps against western civ at large. Hard to explain, but you'll see what I mean if you read it. Something of an overcompensation, perhaps?

Anyway. I only point these flaws out because I feel the need to be complete. I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone with a critical mind.

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