Niall Ferguson’s Civilization v. Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel

I’ve been trying to get back here, to continue/reboot my work on this writing thing. I think what I will try is to list and review or give feedback on things I’ve been reading. Let’s give it a try.

Civilization by Niall Ferguson and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Civilization, which I listened to on audiobook from my local library, is kind of a response to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, where Ferguson asserts that it was not the eponymous triad in the other book, but a collection of six “killer applications” that the West developed to help them become the dominant force they are today. Ferguson mentions Diamond’s book in the intro and in the conclusion.

One thing I noticed is that, while Diamond’s book is titled the way it is, he goes back to try to explain why it is that those three things were in such great supply in the West. He spends a lot of time going way back, as I recall, talking about things such as why the animals that can be found in a given area don’t make good domesticated animals and therefore were not conducive to developing agrarian society. It seemed odd, a little bait-and-switchy on Diamond’s part to name his book Guns, Germs and Steel, then talk about animal domestication and landmass shapes and ecosystem that support or do not support hunter-gatherers, but it turns out to be a much more ambitious challenge. Indeed, it seems that the question of the influence of the 66.6% alliterative trio in the title is resolved and put to bed in the first chapter, or at least very early in the book before tackling the much larger question of why. Eventually, this revealed itself to be a much trickier question than I, as a layman, would initially think. It is such a challenge because he’s trying to answer questions on very little information.  He’s looking back at man before recorded history, before anything that we can really be sure of and trying to explain why Eurasia, as he refers to it, ended up the global winners. The factors that caused people to flourish in certain areas is quite fascinating and makes me want to check out his other book, The World Until Yesterday.

Because of Diamond’s focus on initial conditions, things that predate any civilization and were not subject to choice on the part of early man, I don’t see the two books as two sides of an argument. Ferguson spends almost the entire book explaining his six killer apps, then wraps it up with a look ahead. The main difference in the two books is the periods of time they are focused on. Diamond proves his titular thesis in the first part of the book and spends the rest of the book doing backstory. Ferguson focuses almost entirely on events from 1400-ish onward. He begins by setting up China as the superpower and makes it look somewhat like dominance was China’s to lose, which it did. He explains how that happened organically through political, technological and philosophical ways. Europe started colonizing the world, China and Japan, another prosperous society, remained exclusionist. In doing so, he tells a story that is quite captivating and, to my utterly uninformed eyes, pretty explanatory.

I disagree with the idea that these two books are in disagreement. They expand on the details of  different things, in very interesting ways. I prefer the storytelling style of Niall Ferguson. I found his book had more for humans of today to grab on to, especially in his look toward the future at the end. Diamond does not really have an opportunity for that with the way his book is set up. I really enjoyed both books and recommend them to anyone interested in history.


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