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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction, 1998

Guns, Germs and Steel examines the rise of civilization and the issues its development has raised throughout history.

Having done field work in New Guinea for more than 30 years, Jared Diamond presents the geographical and ecological factors that have shaped the modern world. From the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist, he highlights the broadest movements both literal and conceptual on every continent since the Ice Age, and examines societal advances such as writing, religion, government, and technology. Diamond also dissects racial theories of global history, and the resulting work—Guns, Germs and Steel—is a major contribution to our understanding the evolution of human societies.

©1997 Jared Diamond (P)2011 Random House

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  • 4.2 out of 5.0
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  • Ryan
  • Somerville, MA, United States
  • 03-07-12

An important account of civilization’s rise

Why are some human societies more advanced than others? It's a question that, well into the 20th century, was most often answered in racist terms. Naturally, it was thought, some people developed better technology than others because they were smarter. Diamond tears into such assumptions, making a persuasive case that human technological and cultural advancement have little to do with comparative intelligence, and lot to do with local conditions that put some cultures (or at least their neighbors) on a technological pathway a lot earlier than others. Diamond traces the ultimate keys for the shift from pre-modern to modern back to the areas of agriculture and animal domestication, which, as he explains, would have unlocked a succession of other innovations in centuries to follow. For people who ended a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settled down, the mere fact of one being in one place would have led to a host of other possibilities, such as increased tool use, the development of plant and animal husbandry, the specialization of jobs and religion, the centralization of government and the rise of an administrative class, the development of language, etc, etc.

Diamond explains in (sometimes boring) detail the many disadvantages that the continents of Africa, Australia, and the two Americas had as places for civilization to develop, such as a lack of domesticable flora and fauna, a difficulty in transferring lifestyles between north-south climate zones, and a lack of suitable geography. He points out cases in which African, American, and Australasian cultures progressed as far as was achievable for anyone in their circumstances, and observes that Europe’s disunity compared to China was actually an asset, though China had had a more advanced civilization and had given Europe a number of innovations, as did the Middle East. Then, of course, there is the all-important germs factor -- Europeans in their urban centers were exposed to a variety of pathogens, which were so instrumental in the decimation of New World Indians.

I’m aware that there are (somewhat controversial) books that seek to understand the rise of civilization in terms of genes, rather than geography, and you might consider Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn for that viewpoint. Grains of plausible truth there, but I found Diamond's thesis more convincing. Societies adapt more easily than genes.

I consider GGS an important work because it goes all the way back to human prehistory in establishing the chain of causes that brought about modern civilization, providing many compelling, illustrative refutations of the “genes are destiny” hypothesis. Yes, as some readers have complained, it's true that Diamond favors the distant past and glosses over a lot significant developments in more modern times. However, I don't think that really matters. GGS is a book about ultimate causes, not secondary ones. That is, it seeks to explain what the recently dominant societies of the world have in common in their long-term past, not the specific reasons that specific countries are the dominant geopolitical players at this specific instant in history. If you want insight into that question (or just want to hear someone credit all that is right in the world to your own chosen values), go read more books! But, I think that whatever those authors have to say, their arguments will be refinements to the intuitive truth of Diamond's ultimate causes. In my opinion, there’s a good reason that the phrase “guns, germs, and steel” is now part of the public consciousness.

On the audiobook experience: yes, unfortunately, the reader is really dry, even by my forgiving standards.

7 of 13 people found this review helpful

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speculative but powerful arguments

If you want to win the "human race" start food production early, share technology, and move to an area with relatively a long equilatitudinal axis. Also, the develop a writing system as soon as possible.

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Best book on regional developmental differences

Brilliant insight.

Excludes India from the analysis, a material exclusion...

Narrator is a bit boring.

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Information dense, but hard to listen to

Would you be willing to try another book from Jared Diamond? Why or why not?

Yes. Diamond is a brilliant analytical thinker. I would be interested in almost anything he had to say.

Would you listen to another book narrated by Doug Ordunio?

Maybe. I found the reading very monotone, but the text itself was also tedious, so it may be unfair to say he is the reason.

Any additional comments?

Though there is no real Aha moment in this book, the title tells much of the story and I already had a passive understanding of the material. But I enjoyed the detailed analysis of why white Europeans came to be so dominant in the world, when there is no inherent advantage. And I feel like the knowledge was worth the time.

This book confirmed that, indeed, a homo sapien is a homo sapien, regardless of race, creed, etc., but by the luck of the draw, the homo sapiens that staked in what is now Europe gained advantages that led to a quicker path towards abundance of food and technology, and resistance to diseases. It could also be called Food, Germs and Technology.

The text is very dry for an audio book and the reader's voice didn't help with that. I found it a slog to listen for long stretches so it took me forever to finish.

I gave the story 3 stars, not because it lacked the detail, but because there was little storytelling. It could have used more examples and fewer lists and charts. Even a story about his own discoveries and where they took him would have made for a more interesting "read."

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Title was the best part

Grabbing title. Read that and was ready for a super cool book. Unfortunately, this reads like a text book in anthropology. If that’s what you are looking for you will love it. Listening to it I could barely stay awake or pay attention due to the emotionless performance and monotone text.

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Similar to Sapiens

having red sapiens first this book was just a duplicate story in a lot of ways. Maybe it would have been better had it in the first time I read it

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Great material and research. kind of a core dump.

Great material and research. Kind of a core dump of very good information. There was an excess of facts to keep up with that made it less entertaining. On the other hand his research into the how and why the growth of human population progressed and why there are so many econimic disparities between the races is exemplary. This is a must read for history buffs. if you are looking for a entertaining story look elsewhere.

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Loved it

Interesting and enlightening content, with excellent narration. I usually listen to these kinds of books when I'm walking to work, and I looked forward to this every day. A must-have if you like history!

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Heavy to say the least.

I really enjoyed this book. If history is your thing, I think you'll like this book.

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extremely interesting

The content is fascinating and such a robust subject. But, so dry and read in a monotone that doesn't enable listening while driving.

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  • Mr. C. A. Martin
  • 03-14-16

great first 3/4

diamond puts forward an interesting hypothesis with plenty of evidence to match. however the last quarter of the book is dedicated solely to evidence with no new theories presented which does tend to drag

great book overall, and worth a listen but the last few chapters can probably be skipped

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  • Artur Szczypta
  • 11-02-15

Very Interesting

It has made me think differently about mankind. This book puts a lot of data for any tenis.

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  • Catherine
  • 09-05-15

A fascinating book

Not an easy read. A lot of dry facts to plough through. However the thesis of the book is very important and excellently argued. It helped me to understand why human society is the way it is.

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  • Alex
  • 03-23-15

Interesting but repetitive.

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

Well luckily I could speed it up to 1.5x and still understand it well so that shortened it somewhat. It was still an interesting book but dull at times.

Would you recommend Guns, Germs and Steel to your friends? Why or why not?

Yes it's an interesting opinion of history from a geographical point of view

Did the narration match the pace of the story?

The narration was a bit dull but I sped it up to 1.5x and that made it better.

Could you see Guns, Germs and Steel being made into a movie or a TV series? Who would the stars be?

It has been made into a National geographic documentary I think.

Any additional comments?

It was a good book and well worth a read but be prepared that it is repetative at times.

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  • Balor of the Evil Eye
  • 08-19-13

An excellent overview of how society developed

Buy this audiobook! Diamond has created a tour de force of a publication in Guns, Germs and Steel. His juxtaposition of the development rates in human societies on the different continents citing the possible reasons, unique contributory factors, etc. is a hugely informative method of educating his reader/listenership. Perhaps the only weakness is Diamond's persistent reversion to using New Guineans as the baseline comparative for many of his arguments (his contention that they may be more intellectually agile than others is a bit silly given his original idea that all are born with the same abilities, regardless of geographical location), but he is, I suppose, speaking about what he knows. The terminology used is accessible and the way in which he constructs his arguments is logical and persuasive. A great gateway book for those who may later dive into the more academic worlds of Dawkins and other gene theory biologists.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Glenn
  • 03-18-13

good book, bad narration

The content sounded good, but to be honest I'm not sure, because the narration is awful. He sounds half asleep, and his intonation and phrasing doesn't guide where you are in the structure of the book, so it's hard to follow. i gave up in the end - just couldn't stand it

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  • Maddy
  • 12-21-15

Interesting but repetitious

Firstly, I have to say that the reader is excellent. His voice is modulated, varied and clear and he handles what at times is like a text book, very well. I'm not sure who the book is aimed at, academics or the pubic. The basic ideas about why societies in some parts of the world flourished and developed and others did not and so got taken over by the developed ones, are very interesting and well presented. The problem is that they are presented again and again - and again; the book is VERY repetitious. It reminds me of American documentaries which do a recap every 10 minutes with the apparent assumption that the audience can't retain an idea for that long. There are many long lists to illustrate a point which you would just skim your eye over if you were reading the printed book but which of course all get read in an audiobook. It is as if the writer has bent over backwards to show that his theories have excellent foundations in field work and academic studies and have to be justified. His epilogue even includes a small passage on the philosophy of history which seems to confirm his academic insecurity. Historians may need all the detail but a lay reader doesn't and the repetition of the detail is tedious. I did persevere to the end but found myself not paying attention to a lot of it and I don't think I missed much as everything got repeated so often. I could have got most of the book from the introduction and the conclusion.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Rory
  • 04-04-13

More accurate than the bible

A brilliant foolproof guide to the history of man. Papua new Guinea probably gets a few too many mentions is the only fault.

0 of 2 people found this review helpful