30 Days of Books: Day Five
Posted by Jen Moore
Day 05 – A book or series you hate
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I was an anthropology major as an undergrad; it’s practically required that I hate this book.
There are a couple of problems with this (alas) apparent modern classic of popular anthropology, but the big one is that it takes history for granted. It assumes that everything that happened — specifically, that European domination of the world — was inevitable, and attempts to justify it with science. The problem is, science doesn’t work that way. We don’t know that recorded human history was inevitable (and it’s not exactly a repeatable experiment). Probably it wasn’t. Probably there were a million tiny accidents that could have happened differently that might have led, say, to Mayan colonies in the Pacific Northwest by 1502 under different circumstances. We don’t even currently understand how the Americas were first inhabited — how can we say it was inevitable that they would eventually be colonized by Europeans?
The second problem I have with this book is that it’s a very environmentally determinist argument: it treats the physical environment as the most important (practically the only) factor in determining events, leaving no room for human culture or accidents of history to influence things. Now, this is to a certain extent a legitimate perspective to look at things from. But I’ve never liked it, and most anthropologists seem to think that Diamond takes it too far in any case. History may seem like a steamrolling force of nature, but in its finest grain it consists of people, and people are inherently unpredictable.
I wish there were a good rebuttal of Guns, Germs and Steel, written for the same kind of popular audience, but there just isn’t. Instead I have to recommend other kinds of popular history and anthropology all together and hope that people will notice that Diamond is not necessarily all he’s cracked up to be. (This is, in fact, why I created the reading list that I did for the Middleton Public Library. I wanted to be able to have a list of popular anthropology books to recommend people instead of just saying, “Well, Guns, Germs and Steel kind of sucks.”)