Posted by on September 20, 2012

(This review first appeared in the review section of Amazon.  I have made some grammatical corrections in the text below. )

Although it may merely reflect my level of ignorance of many of the subjects covered by this book, I found myself intially impressed by the number of “of course!” moments I had when reading.  The book is full of interesting  little observations,  like why all our animals domesticated for consumption are herbivores, the ease of movement of techniques east-west as opposed to north-south, the data on the distribution of domesticable species, the theory that late-arriving humans wiped out the large animals of the Americas, etc.

But as I read on, it became quickly obvious that Diamond’s desire to “justify” the backward state of his friends like Yali has overcome any attempt at objective analysis: His constant references to the endowment advantages of “Euroasia” accounting for the dominance of this continent, when in fact there was nothing “Euroasian” about it and when it was only a “Eur” phenomenon. His absurd attempt to explain the failure of China to maintain its early advances, which he ultimately attributes to geographical factors creating “too much” centralization, as opposed to the “just right” centralization of Europe — a kind of Goldilocks view of history. His failure to even attempt to explain the failures of other Euroasian civilizations, such as the Ottomon one, which had enormous endowment and other advantages and still collapsed before Europe. His insistence that American civilizations were hampered by a relatively small east-west axis of only 3,000 miles — sure, smaller than Eurasia’s 8,000 miles, but hard to believe that 3,000 (or even a much lower number) isn’t sufficient. His nearly offhand comment at one point that Japan could take advantage of the invention of the transistor better than, for example, Kenya, due to Japan’s thousands of years of preceding advantages, although there is nothing in Diamond’s theory that would account for the persistence of these initial endowment advantages in today’s “flat” world. His habit — seen most clearly in his chapter on technology — to extrapolate from a limited amount of evidence that supports his view, while ignoring all the contrary evidence. And the list goes on….

Diamond argues passionately that the relative backwardness of certain people and continents cannot be attributed to genetic differences. But here he is pushing on an open door; almost no intelligent commentator makes this argument. European civilization grew to dominate the world not because it was superior genetically, but because it was — and in many ways, still is — superior culturally (in the widest sense of that word). To attempt to explain the relative speed of human advancement without emphasizing the cultural, political and economic factors affecting innovation and investment is an impossible task, both at the continental level and at the level of individual societies (and sub-societies). Diamond ultimately does his friend Yali no favors by diverting him from the absorption of “Western” ideas about rule of law, property rights, mutual trust, delayed gratification, formal education, economic and political freedom, etc., by granting him an in-built excuse for his current status.

Roger Barris, Switzerland

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Posted in: General Culture

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