History Upside Down

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

by Jared Diamond
Norton, 480 pp., $27.50

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an artful, informative, and delightful book, full of surprises for a historian like myself who is unaccustomed to examining the human record from the vantage point of New Guinea and Australia, as Jared Diamond has set out to do. The book is oddly titled, for Diamond has little to say about guns and steel, though he devotes a chapter to the role of germs in human history. A better title would be History Upside Down: A Biological View of the Human Past. But the author, a researcher in “evolutionary biology and biogeography” specializing in birds, would surely object to such a description of his book, arguing instead that it is historians who err by approaching their subject downside up, thanks to their myopic concentration on literate societies and the last five thousand years of history. No matter: there is nothing like a radically new angle of vision for bringing out unsuspected dimensions of a subject, and that is what Jared Diamond has done.

Diamond frames his book around “Yali’s question.” Yali, a politician of some note in his native New Guinea, overtook Diamond while he was walking along a beach there in 1972, and during a lengthy conversation asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” “Cargo” means all the useful material objects—metal axes and the like—that Europeans introduced to New Guinea, whose peoples still used stone tools, resembling those of Europe’s Neolithic Age, when traders from Europe first showed up on the island’s coasts a few hundred years ago. As Diamond says, such

huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think would be obvious.

Yet Yali’s apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn’t have an answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solution; most are no longer even asking the question…. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali.

The easiest answer is to attribute differences in levels of human technology and culture to innate differences in the minds and bodies of the various peoples concerned. “Today,” Diamond explains, “segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many (perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or subconsciously.” But, according to Diamond, “modern ‘Stone Age’ peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples.” That, he suggests, is because biological selection in Eurasian civilized societies was mainly for body chemistry resistant to infectious diseases which “had little to do with intelligence,” whereas in New Guinea the major causes of death were “murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food. Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality,” with the result that “natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.