As part of my summer reading I am going to finish a few books I started months (or years) ago, but either lost interest in or did not have time to finish. For the month of July, I picked Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. I started this book months ago, during the first semester of my last year of college; once I was overwhelmed by schoolwork, however, my desire to read a research-heavy book became nonexistent. I was less than 50 pages into the book at the beginning of the month, and as evident by the fact that today is now July 31st, I struggled with finishing it.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My difficulties finishing the book are not a negative reflection on the topic or theories, but rather a reflection of my short attention span and embarrassment over not knowing much world history. Despite the wide variety of books I’ve read and the fact that I have always enjoyed school, any sort of well-structured study of world history just has not happened. This book covered topics and cultures I had either never heard of or never studied before, so I loved learning so much about history from one book!

Guns, Germs, and Steel begins with a question: Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Was it a problem with the people, or their environment? From there, Diamond breaks the book into several sections. First he explains how and when people spread out to populate the continents; second, he explains how people domesticated plants and made the transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to farmers, along with how animals were domesticated in that process; and third, he explains the role that technology (the development of epidemic germs, metallurgy, written language, ect.) played in the colonization and conquest of some cultures over others. As Diamond immediately says in the book’s introduction, his research and the book are not based upon racist or ethnocentric ideology. His ultimate conclusions about why some people and cultures survived better over the span of human history is based upon scientific and historic evidence. Essentially, Diamond proves that it was their environment and natural resources, not any lack of intelligence or effort on the part of people, that allowed some cultures to succeed more than others.

While I struggled the most over the plant section (which also happened to be the longest) because I have no background in plant genetics, the chapters on animals and technology were incredibly interesting. There was even a chapter called “Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle!” My favorite section by far was on the development and spread of language. Through examining what words languages had in common and when in history words for non-native crops and animals were added, he was able to prove when cultures first started to interact with each other (of course, he then went back and proved through archeological evidence that the dates were accurate, but I liked the language part better). In my job at the college library I have skimmed over books on the history of languages before, but this book really sparked my interest in the subject.

Overall, this book was extremely informative and educational. The amount of research that went into this book is amazing, and I can only imagine how long the original manuscript must have been. While this book (for me at least) was not good for casual reading, I know many people who love history and science. This book is great for anyone who loves to learn and has a strong interest in world history and  plant or animal domestication. Although a bit outdated today (the book was published in 1997), it provides a great foundation for more recent research on these topics.