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Book review: Guns, Germs & Steel

Jared Diamond’s book is a wonderful read because it demonstrates the utility of integrating ideas and information from a huge number of fields in order to try to get a handle on questions such as “why did domestication of plants and animals occur where it did, when it did?” and the symmetric “why did such events not take place earlier or later or elsewhere?”. The text showcases an active curiosity as well as the value of gathering information–and determining what information can illuminate a question. All the pieces are assembled to argue that the titular elements arose as consequences of… lots of food.

The issues of domestication are the prelude/underpinning to Diamond’s central thesis that the advantages in guns, infectious disease (both presence of and resistance to) and steel weapons of some societies arose from the excess time and high population densities afforded by agriculture… which then begs the question of why domestication and cultivation occurred here and not there.

For me, one of the highlights of the book is that it asks interesting questions–questions that are all around us, but that if we don’t stop and think, we fail to even notice. In my experience as a teacher, this is one of the hardest thing to convey to students: there are things to be wondered at all around us, and mysteries that each of us has the tools to approach if we’ll only notice that there is a question, and assemble the tools available to us. As wonderful as the fingertip availability of Google and Wikipedia are, I fear that they have the potential to shrink the horizons of young scientists (heck, young people): if a ‘question’ is something that you type into your phone and accept its two-sentence wisdom and move on, then there’s no point in doing research, developing expertise, noticing the natural world…

Before I wax too gloomy, let me say that this book is a wonderfully diverse, thoughtful assembly of cogent arguments based on information culled from a wide array of areas of inquiry.

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