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Top rated history books on Reddit rank no. 17
It looks like you are talking about the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
The book over the past years has become rather popular, which is hardly surprising since it is a good and entertaining read. It has reached the point that for some people it has sort of reached the status of gospel. On /r/history we noticed a trend where every time a question was asked that has even the slightest relation to the book a dozen or so people would jump in and recommending the book. Which in the context of history is a bit problematic and the reason this reply has been written.
Why it is problematic can be broken down into two reasons:
- In academic history there isn’t such thing as one definitive authority or work on things, there are often others who research the same subjects and people that dive into work of others to build on it or to see if it indeed holds up. This being critical of your sources and not relying on one source is actually a very important history skill often lacking when dozens of people just spam the same work over and over again as a definite guide and answer to “everything”.
- There are a good amount modern historians and anthropologists that are quite critical of Guns, Germs, and Steel and there are some very real issues with Diamond’s work. These issues are often overlooked or not noticed by the people reading his book. Which is understandable given the fact that for many it will be their first exposure to the subject. Considering the popularity of the book it is also the reason that we felt it was needed to create this response.
In an ideal world, every time the book was posted in /r/history, it would be accompanied by critical notes and other works covering the same subject. Lacking that a dozen other people would quickly respond and do the same. But simply put, that isn’t always going to happen and as a result, we have created this response so people can be made aware of these things. Does this mean that the /r/history mods hate the book or Diamond himself? No, if that was the case we would simply instruct the bot to remove every mention of it, this is just an attempt to bring some balance to a conversation that in popular history had become a bit unbalanced. It should also be noted that being critical of someone’s work isn’t that same as outright dismissing it. Historians are always critical of any work they examine, that is part of they core skill set and key in doing good research.
Below you’ll find a list of other works covering much of the same subject, further below you’ll find an explanation of why many historians and anthropologists are critical of Diamonds work.
Other works covering the same and similar subjects.
Criticism on Guns, Germs, and Steel
Many historians and anthropologists believe Diamond plays fast and loose with history by generalizing highly complex topics to provide an ecological/geographical determinist view of human history. There is a reason historians avoid grand theories of human history: those “just so stories” don’t adequately explain human history. It’s true however that it is an entertaining introductory text that forces people to look at world history from a different vantage point. That being said, Diamond writes a rather oversimplified narrative that seemingly ignores the human element of history.
Cherry-picked data while ignoring the complexity of issues
In his chapter “Lethal Gift of Livestock” on the origin of human crowd infections he picks 5 pathogens that best support his idea of domestic origins. However, when diving into the genetic and historic data, only two pathogens (maybe influenza and most likely measles) could possibly have jumped to humans through domestication. The majority were already a part of the human disease load before the origin of agriculture, domestication, and sedentary population centers. This is an example of Diamond ignoring the evidence that didn’t support his theory to explain conquest via disease spread to immunologically naive Native Americas.
A similar case of cherry-picking history is seen when discussing the conquest of the Inca.
> Pizarro’s military advantages lay in the Spaniards’ steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns, and horses… Such imbalances of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Europeans with Native Americans and other peoples. The sole Native Americans able to resist European conquest for many centuries were those tribes that reduced the military disparity by acquiring and mastering both guns and horses.
This is a very broad generalization that effectively makes it false. Conquest was not a simple matter of conquering a people, raising a Spanish flag, and calling “game over.” Conquest was a constant process of negotiation, accommodation, and rebellion played out through the ebbs and flows of power over the course of centuries. Some Yucatan Maya city-states maintained independence for two hundred years after contact, were “conquered”, and then immediately rebelled again. The Pueblos along the Rio Grande revolted in 1680, dislodged the Spanish for a decade, and instigated unrest that threatened the survival of the entire northern edge of the empire for decades to come. Technological “advantage”, in this case guns and steel, did not automatically equate to battlefield success in the face of resistance, rough terrain and vastly superior numbers. The story was far more nuanced, and conquest was never a cut and dry issue, which in the book is not really touched upon. In the book it seems to be case of the Inka being conquered when Pizarro says they were conquered.
Uncritical examining of the historical record surrounding conquest
Being critical of the sources you come across and being aware of their context, biases and agendas is a core skill of any historian.
Pizarro, Cortez and other conquistadores were biased authors who wrote for the sole purpose of supporting/justifying their claim on the territory, riches and peoples they subdued. To do so they elaborated their own sufferings, bravery, and outstanding deeds, while minimizing the work of native allies, pure dumb luck, and good timing. If you only read their accounts you walk away thinking a handful of adventurers conquered an empire thanks to guns and steel and a smattering of germs. No historian in the last half century would be so naive to argue this generalized view of conquest, but European technological supremacy is one keystone to Diamond’s thesis so he presents conquest at the hands of a handful of adventurers.
The construction of the arguments for GG&S paints Native Americans specifically, and the colonized world in general, as categorically inferior.
To believe the narrative you need to view Native Americans as fundamentally naive, unable to understand Spanish motivations and desires, unable react to new weapons/military tactics, unwilling to accommodate to a changing political landscape, incapable of mounting resistance once conquered, too stupid to invent the key technological advances used against them, and doomed to die because they failed to build cities, domesticate animals and thereby acquire infectious organisms. When viewed through this lens, we hope you can see why so many historians and anthropologists are livid that a popular writer is perpetuating a false interpretation of history while minimizing the agency of entire continents full of people.
If you are interested in reading more about what others think of Diamon’s book you can give these resources a go:
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