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Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel 
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Post Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
A useful summary of the critical response to the book can be found at the following site: http://www.sarasotamilitaryacademy.com/ ... iamond.pdf

Another good tool, even for those not reading the book but wanting to know what it is about in essence, is a summary that can be found here: http://www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/gungermsteel.html



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Sat Dec 17, 2011 8:58 am
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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Here are just a few of the criticisms that lead off the summary of reactions from wikipedia.

Quote:
CRITICAL RESPONSES TO Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (from Wikipedia)
Guns, Germs and Steel met with a wide range of response, ranging from generally favorable to outright rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July 2005, produced by the National Geographic Society.

Criticism of Guns, Germs, and Steel:
Some critics of the book argue that it is derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julian Steward, and Ester Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.

Whether the work is derivative wouldn't matter to me, except that if he claims insights as his own that have been made by others...well, that would be a problem. If he is merely popularizing the conclusions of others, that is what a popular work of nonfiction often does. Since he doesn't footnote the text, we don't know what might be echoes of what other researchers have said.
Quote:
Criticism can be grouped into three main lines of reasoning, as follows.
Eurocentrist determinism: James Blaut has criticized Guns, Germs, and Steel for reviving the theory of environmental determinism, and described Diamond as an example of a modern Eurocentric historian. Blaut also criticizes Diamond's loose use of the terms "Eurasia" and "innovative", which he believes misleads the reader into presuming that Western Europe is responsible for technological inventions that actually arose in the Middle East and Asia. Blaut states that Diamond ignored or underestimated the nutritional value of several staple crops that grow naturally outside the temperate parts of Eurasia, overestimated the difficulty of adapting crops to new conditions by selective breeding, and ignored the separation of agriculturally productive regions within Eurasia's temperate belt by deserts and mountains. Blaut pointed out examples of North-South diffusion of crops, notably the cultivation of maize in both Peru and North America. He stated that in Europe, the major economic and technological developments of the last 500-600 years took place in Northern and Western Europe, which is generally flat, casting doubt on Diamond's suggestion that Europe benefitted by competition among societies that developed separately due to geographic barriers, such as mountains.

Undoubtedly, Diamond has a geographical-determinist view. But why this should automatically be a negative isn't clear to me. The brand of geographical determinism holding that geography shapes people to be either more or less intelligent or resourceful, I would consider discredited by lack of evidence. But that is exactly what Diamond says he is arguing against. It seems that Diamond isn't Eurocentric, either, for the reason that he grants no special qualities to Europeans. It would be hard to ignore the simple fact that European societies had the greatest impact on the entire world of any region over the last 600 years or so.

As for Diamond slighting the innovations of the Middle East and Asia, he gives full credit to China for innovating earlier than did Europe. It's true that he doesn't stress the technological innovations of the ancient world, which meant primarily the Middle East. He stresses instead the innovations in food production, which really do imply technical innovation as well. At the end of the passage is Blaut's statement that Europe was the center of innovation after 1500, so he seems to misdirect the criticism of Diamond.

The middle part of the passage contains points against Diamond that might be valid and that have been made in our discussion as well. I can't evaluate these without more support. I have the impression that we agree with the basics of Diamond's determinism--the plants and animals available--but when it comes to the determinism of land mass and orientation, that seems a more iffy factor.

Maize did succeed in a south to north migration, as Diamond recognizes. But its south-north diffusion was very slow due to the marginal utility of the first corn species that made its way to the eastern U.S. Only 700 years later could corn become a major crop in that region, with the appearance of a new variety adapted to shorter summers. (p. 151). Thus, Diamond says the diffusion was slowed by the north-south orientation of the hemisphere, and timing was everything when we are considering the later event of the arrival of the conquering Spaniards. Perhaps the new corn was created by selective breeding (it would seem so). Blaut says that Diamond doesn't take into account that other plants than the familiar ones today could have been selectively bred, and so Diamond's determinism on this point is suspect. Diamond has two answers to this: once good crops were established, the urge to develop others would diminish because the needs would have been met; and even modern, scientific attempts to improve other wild plants for domestication haven't been successful.



Fri Dec 23, 2011 8:31 pm
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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Thanks for that Dwill, because I couldn't get the link to work


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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Political factors: Military historian and conservative political columnist Victor Davis Hanson agrees with Diamond in that he rejects a racial explanation for Western dominance. But Hanson argues that certain fundamental aspects of Western culture are responsible, specifically political freedom, capitalism, individualism, republicanism, rationalism, and open debate.

I quoted this from the Wikipedia "Criticisms" piece. Diamond certainly doesn't waste much ink on capitalism and private sector contributions to technological advance, presumably he sees this as a by-product of centralized state government. But not all state governments are equal. William Easterly in his recent book "The Elusive Quest for Growth" asks "Does the government of each nation face incentives to create private sector growth, or does it face incentives to steal from-and thus repress-private business?" Depending on incentive, a state government may be superior to chiefdoms or tribal government in creating a good environment for tech development but that is only a 'may' - if a state government adopts the wrong policy direction, the advantage of state government over any other form of government with respect to tech development will just disappear.

Private sector growth, thus technological growth and development of markets for technology, requires investment and risk taking (Diamond mentions this in passing) and requires an understanding of how to develop and access markets. Some may think this is a recent circumstance but I don't think so. Without demand for a certain technology, hence incentive to develop, the technology will languish as a mere idea, and I think that was true long ago, before capitalism was even an idea, because human beings naturally look for a 'return' for their efforts, some sort of gain. My guess is that humans understood incentives at a gut level a long, long time before they made the first fire or the first wheel. And shortly after the wheel rolled its first few miles, I'm sure a few creative people were thinking up ways to make a buck (so to speak) ... right away they would have faced the 'incentive' question - and they would have 'invested' if the incentive existed or they perceived it to exist.

Maybe the 'market' for wheels and wheeled products was clear, but markets are not always obvious for various inventions, as the following quote from Easterly's book demonstrates:

"I think there is a market for maybe five computers."

Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943



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Fri Dec 30, 2011 8:43 pm
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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Further to Giselle's comment, it may be that modern imperialism, grounded in the surplus of Eurasian food production, provided the threshold for the emergence of free enterprise. I think a problem with Easterly's assertion that tribal norms could support capitalism just as well as a modern state can is that tribes define identity as collective, whereas the modern state enabled identity to be seen in individual terms. The legal framework of private property is fundamental to this shift. Unless a person can decide how to use their profit, and is supported by rule of law, there is no incentive for capitalism. Socialist and tribal societies ignore this market reality, leading to their pervasive economic stagnation. But on the other hand, capitalism produces an isolation of the individual that detracts from happiness. This is a tradeoff that traditional societies resolve by limiting individual freedom and emphasising collective belonging.

Another question I had is the book title. Guns and steel overlap in their function. A key innovation from agricultural surplus is writing, providing the ability to organize at state level. So the decisive advantages seem to be text, germs and steel. But maybe guns are sexier than text.


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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Whether we're talking about the specifics of contemporary culture or political systems, I haven't found that Diamond's geographic fundamentalism (if you will) informs us at this level. Clearly (to me), group viability depends on having the advantages that most of Diamond's basics confer. But guns, germs, steel, food production, writing, state-level societies,and technology get societies only to a certain tier of competitiveness. I have to think that matters such as whether the economic system is liberal capitalism (beloved by conservatives) or state-run capitalism (as in China today), has nothing directly to do with the "upstream" conditions that Diamond writes about. Yali wanted to know, after all, simply why Diamond and Westerners in general had so much more stuff than Yali and his countrymen had. (He could also ask today why the Chinese have so much more stuff.) To Diamond, that isn't a question that can be answered, in ultimate causes, by reviewing modern history. We have to go way back to answer the question, and it is here that I think Diamond is credible in asserting that the imprint of guns, germs, steel, etc. over the past 12,000 years is still clearly visible.



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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Robert Tulip wrote:
Further to Giselle's comment, it may be that modern imperialism, grounded in the surplus of Eurasian food production, provided the threshold for the emergence of free enterprise. I think a problem with Easterly's assertion that tribal norms could support capitalism just as well as a modern state can is that tribes define identity as collective, whereas the modern state enabled identity to be seen in individual terms. The legal framework of private property is fundamental to this shift. Unless a person can decide how to use their profit, and is supported by rule of law, there is no incentive for capitalism. Socialist and tribal societies ignore this market reality, leading to their pervasive economic stagnation. But on the other hand, capitalism produces an isolation of the individual that detracts from happiness. This is a tradeoff that traditional societies resolve by limiting individual freedom and emphasising collective belonging.

Just a couple points of clarification on my earlier post: The ‘assertion’ Robert refers to is my assertion not Easterly’s, I want to make sure Easterly doesn’t think I am misrepresenting him. And really, I did not assert this … what I said was that a state ‘may’ govern in a way that supports capitalism but not necessarily. I would add that tribal groups have become pretty sophisticated at overcoming the obstacles that hinder development.

For example, the Saskatchewan Federation of Indians with over 70 Indian Bands and representing more than 35,000 Indians is not a ‘state’ as such but is a hybrid of Diamond’s band/tribe/chiefdom classifications. This is a modern day example which parallels the Native American examples that Diamond provides from millennia ago. Indigenous peoples have been setting up creative forms of ‘government’ for a long time, and in recent times, some of these forms have been very successful at encouraging investor confidence and capitalism generally. I’m just suggesting there are more ways to skin this cat than ‘tribe’ or ‘state’ and some of them are proving to be quite successful.

Federation of Sask Indians website: http://www.fsin.com/

Regarding private ownership of land, I agree entirely, I did raise this point early in the GG&S discussion. Since almost all investment is tied one way or another to land, the security of land tenure and the incentive provided by the possibility of gain is a necessary pre-condition of investment. I think this would be true in capitalist and non- capitalist states. Furthermore, the security of income from either business or employment, is critical. If too much of one’s income is lost to taxes (or ‘tribute’ as Diamond says) or in the case of Melanesia and some others, expected to be shared with all of your wantoks, then incentive to work will be adversely affected.

Now that I’ve finished reading GG&S, I do find myself accepting Diamond’s basic idea and I like his methodology. I note that in the Epilogue he goes back to ‘Yali’s question’ again. I have some thoughts on Yali’s question and its context, which I will post later.



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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
When i was going for my history degree I first came across this book years ago, and then recently I just watched the 3 part documentary, and his general hypothesis still holds up to me. The limited domesticated animals and where they can be found contributes so much to why one society arises over another. The ability to have horses allows specialization. Once a society can attain food more easily, it can spend its efforts on other goals, and create greater things. Also the domesticated animals explains the germs element and natural immunities. Objections to him talking all the credit while he might have learned from the works of others are valid. But it doesn't change the answer he is presenting.

You can say really one of two things (I know breaking it down far too simple) either geography determined the way one society arose over others (like his point) or some groups of people are superior than other. The latter has to much subtle racism for me to entertain. I really do feel this work does explain the difference between the haves and have nots, and what other explanation than climate and weather can be used as to why a group of people of different races and cultures but share the same lattitudes have had so much success, and those in the temperate zones do not.



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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
drewdamato wrote:
You can say really one of two things (I know breaking it down far too simple) either geography determined the way one society arose over others (like his point) or some groups of people are superior than other. The latter has to much subtle racism for me to entertain. I really do feel this work does explain the difference between the haves and have nots, and what other explanation than climate and weather can be used as to why a group of people of different races and cultures but share the same lattitudes have had so much success, and those in the temperate zones do not.

It's my understanding that geographic determinism is considered racist too - because it implies that a lack of human creativity etc. existed to overcome geographic or biophysical disadvantages. So, if we accept this argument and if the choice of explanations is as you say, then are we not choosing between one racist explanantion and another?



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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
well i dont consider graphic determinism racist. its a different land area, climate, and resources. i believe if black people lived in europe and white people in africa, then black people would be more successful. so since i feel if you swapped races into different land area the people living in that area would be successful then no i don't think its racist.

i don't think its a lack of creativity (as in one race couldn't create what another did) i think its the lack of neccisity from living in one area over another.



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Post Re: Criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Diamond's geographic determinism isn't the same as the earlier version, which was racist. That one said that geography had a shaping influence on genetics, so that, for example, peoples of the tropics became essentially more laid-back or lazy than people from the cold north, who had to struggle against their environment and were improved by that. Diamond simply says that as chance ruled in the optimum climate for growing food and in the distribution of the best domesticatable plants and animals, the people who lived in these regions were the first to take advantage, through nothing more than accident. They used their innate abilities, but they had these in no greater amount than did people who moved slowly toward food production, or not at all, because of where they lived.



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