Mon 25 Jul 2005
Ozma over at Savage Minds has posted a fantastic take on Jard Diamond's irritatingly popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. If you're wondering, the book has been thrust recently back into the spotlight because of a multi-part PBS special.
Ozma basically nails most of the scholarly reasons to question GG&S. I don't need to cover that here. I think the popular fascination with the GG&S story is much more interesting. The book feeds into that popular yearning for grand explanations, even when the explanation doesn't quite hold together. Like most creation myths, Diamond's argument is part fact, part fiction, and part leap of faith.
The really curious part is that the popular conception seems to have worked its way back into academia as well. For lots of folks GG&S has become a defining text in cultural anthropology – one of those books that folks who aren't in the discipline expect you to have read if you are, and your colleagues talk about as a way to open up the sticky paths of common knowledge (and name dropping). As I moved away from communities of anthropologists and started working with groups of sociologists, economists, computer scientists (etc., etc…) last year I ran into far more people who said 'Oh, have you read Diamond's book? Isn't it awesome!' As more and more said it, though, I started to wonder how many had actually read it, and how many just knew they ought to say they had. Hell, I (like Ozma) haven't even been able to get all the way through it despite trying several times. (There's some discussion of this phenomenon in the comments for the above linked post.)
Ultimately I think Jared Diamond is a bit like Gilderoy Lockhart (for all you Harry Potter fans): we're all so wrapped up with his charm and celebrity that it doesn't quite seem appropriate to start questioning his substance.