With as much notoriety this book usually gets to the present day, I was surprised to learn that it was published in 1997. That’s how long this book has been permeating through our culture as an end-all be-all authority on world history. But this is not a history book. It’s a science book. Maybe that’s why it spends hundreds of pages explaining the migration patterns of cereal grains and so few pages on cultures and global politics. The excruciatingly detailed teachings of weather patterns and land formation of the evolving world makes me doubt how many people have actually read this book. It approaches a level of mundane boredom that will challenge even the strongest eyelids to stay open. Dreadfully dull reading.
This book is so popular and the title is thrown out so often, I felt compelled to read it. I was expecting a much more fascinating book than what I found.
The most interesting section comes in the epilogue (yeah!), where Diamond writes about how societies in the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean unfortunately grew in ecologically fragile environments. “They committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base” (p. 395). But diamond fails to explain why they did so. But that fits as science is not supposed to explain “why.” He continues, “Northern and western Europe has been spared this fate, not because its inhabitants have been wiser but because they have had the good luck to live in a more robust environment with higher rainfall, in which vegetation regrows quickly.” No mention of ideas or philosophies or cultural worldviews as far as what these societies valued and why. He implies that all the fates of civilizations in human history rise and fall ONLY by the luck or misfortune of the food production of their geographic environment. If this is not geographic determinism, I don’t know what is.
According to Diamond medieval China actually led the world in technological advancement with their many technological firsts such as “cast iron, the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing” But ironically, because of their cultural unity the entire Chinese society rose or fell with the powers that held the reigns. And it was exactly because of Europe’s disunity that Columbus was able to “shop around” among all the competing royal powers to secure venture capital to set sail and discover the new world.
Diamond’s fear of racial insensitivity, I believe, stifled him from really exploring the different ideas, religions, and philosophies of ancient civilizations that truly led to their success or failure throughout history. As a scientist, he leans heavily into the realm of geography and food production to an extent that mars his historical research. His “open-minded,” relativistic worldview prohibits him from admitting that some civilizations’ ideas are just better than others. Democratic and libertarian ideas that lean towards inherent human rights and prosperity are better for human growth than despotism and tyranny, regardless of the race that promotes either of these ideas.
Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who is having trouble falling asleep at night. Honestly, a few hundred pages of food production of cereal crops will put you right to sleep. This is not a political or historical book. It’s a science book that looks only at the material, naturalistic impact of geography on different sects of the human creature. Yeah, it’s that boring. This is one “diamond” that is better left in the rough.