Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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1 Comment

  1. Sarenth said,

    April 20, 2010 at 9:22 am

    I think he does a good job of exposing the imbalances of power and wealth out by asking the questions he does at the beginning, namely the cargo questions and how cultures rose and fell with each of the title’s subjects. This book, and those related to it, should help give us understanding of how things got the way they are, and make us think on ways to effect change that works, not just throwing money, resources, etc. at a problem and trying to make it go away. His exposure to Guinea that informs a good chunk of the premise of the questions the book tries to answer, to me, permeated the material and the questions the people asked were repeated often enough in the text that it made me think on it even as I continued to read.

    I would agree with your assessment that he has a Eurocentric bias in some of his text, but I think, too, that he veers well enough away from too much dipping into noble savage or vile technology stereotypes. In reading this, what he does uncover made me think, and made me question previously held thoughts and beliefs about how things got the way they did.


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