Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: confronting bad ideas in a sensitive topic

This post will be about three topics: human races, the book Guns, Germs and Steel and how to discuss sensitive topics.

Background: my interest in this topic

I attended the US Naval Academy and graduated in 1981. That that time, one of my better friends was an African American named Fred Lee. We spent many happy hours discussing whatever was on our minds. We complimented each other; he was history major whereas I majored in mathematics.

Eventually the uncomfortable topic of affirmative action came up. Where I held my own academically (final academic rank was 269/969, and that included a subpar first year when my GPA was somewhere around 2.7). my college board scores were somewhat weak for that institution (ACT was only 30).

So we talked and eventually I had to ask: “why did the people of European descent (white people) come to dominate”? In other words, why did they develop the technology and NOT his African ancestors or my Aztec ancestors? Why were my Spanish ancestors able to come over and dominate my Aztec ones even though they were grossly outnumbered?

Were the racists really right in that white people just had more going for them mentally?

Before you get angry with me for asking the question, remember that I was an intellectually curious but also intellectually immature and naive.

Fred didn’t get upset; he spent a few hours in the library and photocopied some standard material (no internet in those days!)
His answer was twofold:
1. I was seeing things through the “eyes of the victor” so to speak; at that time who was in charge of the school history curriculum?
2. I had to remember the times we lived in. Fred pointed out that humans had been around for a heck of a long time (50,000 to 200,000 years, depending on when you started counting) and that civilizations rise and fall. We were living in the time of European dominance; things were very different 1000 years ago and 2000 years ago…and might be different 1000 years from now.

We guessed is that the next group of people to dominate would be the Chinese…as they had once before.

His answer was a very good one: he didn’t call me names or call me a “self hating sell out”. Instead he calmly answered my question and backed up his answer with facts and reason.

Guns, Germs and Steel
(PBS link to Guns, Germs and Steel)
I sure wish that I had Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel to read, but it wasn’t to be published until 1997. But this book deals with the topic: why do human civilizations develop the way that they do?

The best thing I can say is “read the book”. But I can summarize the basic argument as follows (and this is just a bare-bones summary; it doesn’t do the argument justice):

Basically, a human society can advance (in terms of technology development) when the society reaches a point in which the society can afford to support a class of people that doesn’t devote all of its time to simple survival (hunting, gathering, making basic shelter and other necessities of survival). This point is usually reached when the society becomes efficient with agriculture.

When society reaches this point, then subgroups of the population form which are devoted to organization, literacy, governmental functions and thinking about technology.

So what factors are important? This is an incomplete list but here are some major ones:

1. Which wild plants of the region are suitable for cultivation? This differs wildly by region.
2. Which local animals, especially large animals, are suitable for being tamed? Example: the Aztecs knew about the wheel and used it for toys, but they never took the wheel seriously as they had no animals in the region that were suitable to be tamed (to pull large carts).
3. What was the geometry of the larger landmass? If this seems like a strange factor, consider this: if a group of people settled in a land mass that had a long “East-West” axis, then there was the opportunity for other groups of people to settle at a similar latitude in a different location. Then these two groups of people could share ideas on how to farm since latitude is a major factor on what works. On the other hand if the major landmass has a “North-South” axis, such a flow of ideas is far more difficult, as what works in northern climates might not work in more southern ones, and visa versa.
4. Idea flow: are there natural obstacles to the flow of ideas (e. g., large mountain chains between populations?)

Obviously, there is much more in the book; for example Diamond eventually tackles “why Africa is black” (why did the darker skinned farmers eventually dominate the hunter-gathering Pygmies and Bush-people) and why China “lost its lead” in being advanced, even though it developed sea worth ships earlier than the Europeans. As far as the latter idea: it turns out that while groups of people having easy access to one another allows for an easier exchange of ideas; on the other hand it makes it easier for this group of people to fall under a unified government and therefore be subject to the whims of a central government. Hence a decision to “not explore” could be made and applied to all. On the other hand, if there is some “moderately difficult to overcome but not tough enough to stop idea flow” obstacles between people, local but somewhat connected governments can crop up and these entities can compete with each other and try out different ideas; Diamond notes the Columbus went to several different governments with his exploration ideas before one of them (Spain) finally decided to back it.

But Diamond’s book isn’t only “backward looking conjecture”. He reports on populations of people who fan out to settle different areas; he finds that the subsequent societies tended to develop as the geography of the areas might predict (e. g., some became hunter-gathers whereas others developed an agricultural society and then higher layers of organization). Note that in these cases, the genetic make up of the peoples were exactly the same!

Anyway, I see this book as an example of how to properly conduct cold-blooded research on a sensitive topic. It doesn’t dodge uncomfortable conjectures but rather just lays out facts connected by reason and shows how the “backwards experiments” work.

I consider Guns, Germs and Steel as a book which will have a life long intellectual impact on the reader who doesn’t already know these things.

A less effective approach to these type of topics

Of course, questions of “is this race of people more advanced than another race of people” have been discussed for a long time, and one of the better known books in this area is the late Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man. This is NOT a bad book; in fact it makes Jerry Coyne’s “best books on evolution” list.

Sure, this book is very different in focus that Guns, Germs and Steel; Mismeasure of Man takes aim at the pseudoscience of “race science” (and the branch of eugenics devoted to furthering racist causes).

One of the best aspects of the book is that it drives home that the “scientific racists” were not scientists at all; basically they START with the premise that “race X is superior to race Y” and then look for evidence to back up their position; they are more advocates for a self-serving idea than a bold explorer who is looking for “the truth”. For example, Gould points out that some photos of “inferior groups of white people” were doctored to make the faces “look stupid” (e. g., the eyes were touched up to give a more “mentally retarded” look). Old books gave illustrations that made white people look “more noble” and “black people” more primitive. The book is still worth reading.

But there was something about the book that made me uncomfortable; this book too started with a premise (that “race science” is junk) and then went about advocating for that idea; where I came away convinced that the “race scientists” were not scientists I did NOT come away with the idea that their ideas had been proven wrong and that there were better, more plausable explanations out there. Instead I came away with the following message: “the racists have NOT proved their point” (certainly true) and “their ideas are wrong because I don’t like them”.

And sure enough, Gould has been attacked for some of his own sloppiness. Jerry Coyne’s take on this makes for uncomfortable, but intellectually honest reading:

I always thought that among Steve Gould’s “real” (non-essay-collection) books, The Mismeasure of Man was the best. Yes, it was tendentious, written to show that scientists could be as biased and racist as anyone else, but it rang true. And the two-page epilogue, about the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” black woman, is one of the most eloquent bits of scientific writing I’ve ever seen.

How sad, then, to find that, in a new paper in PLoS Biology (access free), a group of scholars has reanalyzed a piece of Gould’s own analysis—his attack on Samuel Morton’s 1839 study of skull volumes of ethnic groups—and found Gould’s analysis even more flawed that Morton’s. If you’ve read Gould’s book, you’ll remember that a substantial chunk involved reanalyzing Morton’s study to show that Morton had finagled his data, making Native American skulls smaller than those of Caucasians, all to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the latter.

Lewis et al. took a few years to actually re-measure Morton’s skulls and compare those with Gould’s analysis; they also looked at how Gould himself analyzed the data. Lo and behold, they showed that Gould was far sloppier than Morton. Morton had apparently not cooked his figures to put white folks on top, but Gould had done the opposite, selectively analyzing data to support his own conclusions about skull-volume equality.

I recommend reading Coyne’s article. Conclusion: even great scientists are “package deals” complete with strengths and weaknesses.

So I’ll summarize what I am trying to say here: Gould’s argument did a good job of showing that “they didn’t make their case” but Diamond’s arguments presented sound, plausible explanations of what we see, and provided some “backwards experiments” to give evidence for his hypothesis.

Final note: I am not suggesting that “they didn’t even come close to making their case” arguments can’t be effective in some cases. You might remember the “Black women are less attractive” “study” in Psychology Today. It turns out that Barry Kaufman effectively argued that the data used to draw the conclusion didn’t even remotely suggest the conjecture to begin with!

In short, the conjecture was more of less “just made up” to begin with and didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Update I posted this at Daily Kos and the conversation has ranged between brisk and heated. Unfortunately I have no training in this field; hence it is not always easy for me to distinguish meaningful criticism (that I ought to take seriously) from crack-pot level criticism (that I ought to just laugh off). Some clearly know that they are talking about and some merely think that they know what they are talking about. Example: consider some of the “criticisms” of evolution from creationists.

The evolution/creationism “debate” is easy to resolve; scientists (who all but universally accept evolution) have produced meaningful results; ID/creationists haven’t produced diddly-squat.

In the debate over GGS, it isn’t as easy for a non-specialist to see.

June 24, 2011 - Posted by | books, evolution, racism, science


  1. I’ve had Guns, Germs and Steel on my planned reading list for years, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Maybe I’ll see if our local library has a copy. Thanks for the review. A skiing buddy of mine has raved about it for years, but I’ve been lazy in getting to it.

    Comment by Damon | June 24, 2011 | Reply

    • I posted this blog on Daily Kos and some have been very negative on the book; some have been positive. I was surprised to see the negative comments.

      Comment by blueollie | June 24, 2011 | Reply

  2. I loved the book, but it was clear he didn’t really have much evidence for many of his assumptions. One valid criticism of much (but luckily not all) of evolutionary biology is that it consists of “just-so” stories, where a plausible, but unfalsifiable, explanation is given for an observation. Also, while Diamond is a great writer and a smart guy, it is clear that he accepts the proposition that environmental not genetic factors explain differences between races a priori. One can’t really imagine any set of data would have led him to conclude that it was actually genetics not environmental factors that underlie differences in races “success”. He also omits any discussion (as I recall) of whether initial environmental differences could have led to genetic changes as, for example, whatever traits are beneficial to farmers, are selected for.

    Ollie, you might enjoy “A farewell to alms” by Gregory Clark. It addresses a similar question (more or less how did humans go from subsistence to wealth) from an economic perspective.


    Comment by Dr. Andy | June 24, 2011 | Reply

    • “Also, while Diamond is a great writer and a smart guy, it is clear that he accepts the proposition that environmental not genetic factors explain differences between races a priori. ”

      I wouldn’t go that far; I’d say that he claims that environmental factors play a major role. Obviously, things like genetic adaptation to environment (e. g., lighter skin color in Europeans, sickle cell anemia in Africans) exist. Yes, I know that many claim that “race” is an artificial construct and I find such claims to be silly; after all it would be huge waste of time to screen a Swede for sickle cell.

      And yes, I viewed his book as a gross simplification for non-experts (like me 🙂 )

      PS: I posted this on Daily Kos; Diamond is taking a beating in some of the comments. Unfortunately my lack of knowledge in this field hampers me from distinguishing legitimate criticism from “crackpot” criticism.

      Comment by blueollie | June 24, 2011 | Reply

  3. Like you, I am a non-expert in the field of anthropology or agriculture or African history, but I liked the book – as well as ‘Collapse’ and ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ very much and I think he is correct in much of what he says. Of course his arguments are in some ways incomplete, particularly as new evidence comes to light, but that doen’t make them fundamentally fallacious.
    In terms of what sort of criticism to shrug off, here’s a clue: Anyone who starts off calling him an ‘idiot’ or similar term, or suggests he is clearly ignorant. . .can safely be ignored. This is a man who won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant back in 1985 and they don’t give them out to dummies.

    Comment by MichiganChet | June 29, 2011 | Reply

  4. Blueollie,

    As an anthropologist, I can tell you that Diamond’s work is not credible. His assertions are made up stories based on conjecture (and ignorance), not science. He isn’t even an anthropologist, which means he has had no training in archaeology or archaeological analysis. If you’re interested in the spread of ideas and/or traditions or the collapse of ancient societies, you should look at scholarly articles in journals.

    Comment by anthrogirl | November 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment. When you say “not credible” do you mean: “his work is false, even at the level of pop simplification”?

      My interest is in the rise of technology in various human societies; specifically: did the different environment (available plants, available animals, waterways…contact with other groups of people) influence the development of things like science and technology? If so, then the book did its job even if it gets some of the reasons wrong.

      Scholarly articles: sure, that is the gold standard. But those would be too much for the non-expert, no?

      Comment by blueollie | November 14, 2011 | Reply

  5. […] Capitalism and morality Jonathan Haidt suggests that capitalism has contributed positively to our morality in that we now have the luxury of considering certain moral issues. I think that this fits in well with some of the stuff that Jared Diamond wrote about (society reaching a stage where people have time to think) […]

    Pingback by Intellectual and Emotional Potpourri « blueollie | September 30, 2015 | Reply

  6. […] But..does it appear that liberals, in an attempt to be “fair” to minority groups with less power, refuse to acknowledge tough truths? I had very similar questions along those lines 35-40 years ago! (yes, I can recommend the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond) […]

    Pingback by SJWs and Alt-right: two sides of the same ignorant coin? « blueollie | January 14, 2018 | Reply

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