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Guns, Germs and Steel

The Fate of Human Societies
Narrated by: Doug Ordunio
Length: 16 hrs and 20 mins
Categories: History, World
4.5 out of 5 stars (977 ratings)

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Summary

Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction, 1998

Guns, Germs and Steel examines the rise of civilization and the issues its development has raised throughout history.

Having done field work in New Guinea for more than 30 years, Jared Diamond presents the geographical and ecological factors that have shaped the modern world. From the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist, he highlights the broadest movements both literal and conceptual on every continent since the Ice Age, and examines societal advances such as writing, religion, government, and technology. Diamond also dissects racial theories of global history, and the resulting work—Guns, Germs and Steel—is a major contribution to our understanding the evolution of human societies.

©1997 Jared Diamond (P)2011 Random House
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The definitive Audible purchase

I was defeteated by the text version of this listen despite finding the topic interesting and generally being happy to stick with challenging reads. I don't know whether it was Diamond's prose style or the relatively slow start but for whatever reason I just couldn't get past the first 50 pages. The audible version though was an entirely different proposition. It's well narrated; I stuck with early sections that did a good job of scene setting but gave me problems in print and by the end I was so fascinated by the combination of detailed research and sweeping vision that I listened to it again. Can't recommend this too highly for fans of non-fiction

33 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Really interesting take on World history

Jared Diamond approaches World History in a refreshing and entirely original way in this work. Rather than looking simply at what happened or even why it happened, he goes right back to first principles to examine why the circumstances arose that led to peoples of one part of the World essentially dominating the others. I think the macro view is a little simplistic but it is undeniably compelling and a strong counter-argument to more reductionist arguments of racial superiority or cultural differences.

I listen to a lot of history books on Audible and few, if any, have brought to light as many new realisations about the World. Not so much telling me things I didn't already know but highlighting the importance of facts that I was already aware of.

It has to be said that it is not a perfect work and Jared Diamond's ego does get in the way somewhat. He simply can't resist interposing his personal experience and special insights into the narrative rather than simply let the story stand on it's own. A certain number of these personal anecdotes would be fine but it feels at times like he is desperate for the reader/listener to acknowledge just how special and clever his insights are and how uniquely positioned he is to draw them.

Overall a really interesting and engaging listen but I can see how the writer's style might really grate with some.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Controversial and Judgemental

I really enjoyed this audiobook, my wife, who studied anthropology did not! As with so many debates, the lack of accessible specialist literature on a subject of widespread interest leads to other specialisms filling the void, from an anthropologists view this happened here.



The mashing of the huge historical period and the geographical themes is understandable here, Diamond is a Geographer, and sees life in those terms, much as Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail, examine life as economists. Obviously, real life is more complicated, but by simplifying the discussions and applying a consistent paradigm,I felt I understood more about development than before.



Yes, I can see why Survival International don't like some of Diamond's narrative, there is certainly less sympathy for native peoples, but so what? If you download this you'll possibly move on to others of this type.



If anthropologists would suggest something to broaden my views I would be happy to access it, otherwise my reading list includes: Ian Morris, Niall Ferguson, Charles C. Mann, and David Landes!

22 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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A scientist makes history dull with lists

This is considered a classic and a milestone for some reason, and it's not entirely without merit but overall is a very dull read and a wasted opportunity.

Whether or not you agree with the politics of Diamond's argument - that it was the environmental conditions in which early populations of humans found themselves that dictated whether they would go on to become 'advanced modern societies' or remain hunter gatherers (I think the argument is fairly coherent and compelling but some have a real problem with it) the problem I have with the book is not its argument but its very dull and unengaging articulation of this argument.

The book is dull and dry, written without a shred of charisma. It reads like a university thesis stretched out to 80+ thousand words and feels like it was written for an academic, not a popular audience.

The argument Diamond makes is actually quite simple and could be simply proved in about 20,000 words, but for some reason Diamond feels the need to give us chapters and chapters of filler, cataloguing every plant domesticated in every setting, and then every animal found naturally and then domesticated in each setting, and then every disease that arose in each setting, and then every population migration that occurred and at what time, and what feels like details of every language ever to involve and how they are all inter-related - when actually one or two examples of each would have been enough to prove the point.

The book therefore reads like a lists of lists in many places - lists of continents, languages, societies, plants, diseases, animals, and other things, all presented and read out without a shred of personality to be found either in the text itself or in the narrator's performance, which is also dull and sounds like a school information video not a popular science narration.
To make matters worse, these lists often seem entirely unconnected to the central argument of the book - for example a huge section on the history of plant domestication (of what seems like every conceivable plant in every continent) is provided without it being clear, until the very end of the chapter, how this links to the argument about the environment with the most favourable conditions leading to the domestication of most plants.

The book finally gets to the simple, and to me it seems, sensible, point that the naturally occurring features (indigenous plant and animal species, geography, climate, latitude, idea diffusion, etc) of a region were instrumental in determining how quickly the local humans were able to develop agriculture, which then allowed them to go on to dominate in cultural and imperial terms. But while this seems obviously true for ancient societies, Diamond says very little about the reasons why different parts of the world that did develop agriculture at similar times then went on to develop into 'modern' societies at different rates, or why some were more competitive than others. i.e. why did China stagnate for so long? Why didn't Islamic culture conquer the new world instead of Christian culture? What gave Europe the advantage? He speculates on some of these points but seems content to leave it at that.

The language evolution section is particularly dull, given that it relies on discussing huge numbers of individual languages which are all related to each other, none of which you will have ever heard of before, all of which have strange names, and all of which will be repeated in quick succession and the relationships between them described, without any realisation that the reader, almost certainly having no interest in linguistic nomenclature per se, will not keep up or care about why any of this matters.

Diamond makes a big thing of how the practice of history could learn from the approach taken in the sciences, but fatally undermines his own argument by writing a science history in a much duller and less engaging way that a good popular historian would have done. Diamond really should have teamed up with a historian and a good, engaging writer, to produce this book as an engaging popular history instead of attempting it alone and writing it like a scientist's PhD thesis.

It is also probably one of the most humourless books I have ever read. It's rare to read a book which really lacks a trace of wit or humour throughout - any sort of wry remarks or hints at the personality of the author - but Diamond manages it, giving no hint of himself and apparently deliberately avoiding anything lighthearted or endearing. Even anecdotes about the typewriter keyboard and the unexpected purposes to which human inventions were put -
which have the potential to engage, and build some common ground behind reader and author - are treated in a completely lifeless, factual way when they could have been written to entertain.

Which I suppose is my key criticism of the book. Diamond may be a good scientist but he's not a good popular writer, and while he seems to have a compelling thesis it's crying out to be communicated in a better, more coherent and more engaging way. I - and I think many others - read popular science or history mainly to be informed and to learn, yes, but also crucially to be entertained - and if you're after entertainment, this aint it.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

An excellent work slightly spoilt

As a scientist myself I have always like Jarad Diamond as he opens up areas I have an non-professional interests. In this work Diamond deals this the differences between the various levels of development between various groups of peoples. Why is European/Asian culture so dominate? Diamond lays out his evidence and arguments well and does not fall into to the trap of push one reason for our current situation over another. However, the audio book is let down with poor narration with almost no inflection in his voice, which made it unpleasant and dry to listen to.

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

A Magnum Opus - in every sense.

This is a "magnum opus" in all senses of the phrase, and deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The question at the centre of the book is one asked by a New Guinea tribesman "How did your culture and peoples come to dominate us?", and the book opens with the defeat of several thousand Mayan warriors and their God-King, by a few hundred Spanish Conquistadors, armed with guns. Diamond rightly rejects the 19th Century explanation that white Europeans are innately superior, citing examples of the often greater inventiveness, adaptability and intelligence of "aboriginal" peoples. Dismissed too are notions of superior culture (e.g. Niall Fergason's 6 "killer apps" in his book "Civilisation"). Diamond instead looks to geography, and natural history for explanations. We conquered other continents, because we carried more lethal diseases (germs), and had better technology (guns & steel). This in turn was because the continent of Eurasia has many more animals and plants that could be domesticated, carried more diseases (to which we developed immunity) and that both of these, along with cultural advances, spread more easily East-West along similar temperate zones, leading to our earlier abandonment of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, in favour of farming, specialisation and technological advancement. Though the book paints a broad brush history, it delves very specifically into details of the development and clashes among numerous world cultures, and the evidence left to us today in language, technology, lifestyle, diseases and diet. Sometimes, the level of detail he goes into becomes almost overwhelming. The narration is very clear and concise, but the intonation is sometimes flat, and I found myself drifting off at times. It would have been great if the author had narrated it himself. In summary, this is a major and important work, but a long and sometimes difficult book. It is hard, but well worth the effort, if you, like me, seek to understand how and why we got here.

9 people found this helpful

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Fascinating insights into long-term history

What did you like most about Guns, Germs and Steel?

The ambition of this book is immense, crisscrossing the globe, and human societies throughout history and prehistory. It's one of those rare mind expanding books that changes the way you look at the world.

3 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Interesting in parts, too repetitive, some bias

What disappointed you about Guns, Germs and Steel?

I felt like the author started off by a) telling me what he thought I believed (that 'westeners' were more intelligent than non westerners) and b) then telling me how I was wrong. I didn't actually believe the thing that I felt the author was accusing me of so that was a bad start. The book was extremely repetitive. It was very much, tell them what you are going to tell them x10, tell them x10, tell them what you just told them x 10. There was no need for all the repetition. I got it the 1st, 2nd and 3rd time. Some of the analyisis seemed quite flawed when compared with other books like Chip Walters' Last Ape Standing, and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Overall some interesting snippets of information within spoiled by a biased writer who writes as if his readrer has the memory retention of a goldfish. Disappointing!

Has Guns, Germs and Steel put you off other books in this genre?

No

How could the performance have been better?

Performance was OK

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Guns, Germs and Steel?

Much of the repetition

3 people found this helpful

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one of my favourite books

jared diamond connects the factors that underly "history's broadest patterns" and paints a fascinating and compelling picture. in fact, many of his arguments are so well-structured and obviously reasonable that, in hindsight, i felt stupid for not connecting the dots by myself.

the book is very well written, with colorful anecdotes and cleverly placed questions for the reader/listener to pause and consider how he/she would answer this question.

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Amazing work

It is a classic for a reason. Books of that scale not only expand your knowledge but also create a framework for future historians.
I highly recommend to buy fast and listen to it slowly.

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  • Nick M.
  • 27-03-16

Great book, poor narration

This is a great and thought provoking book, just what I've come to appreciate and expect from Jared Diamond.
Unfortunately, the narration is so dull it makes it incredibly difficult to keep engaged with the story. His voice is monotone and devoid of meaningful inflections, and throaty, I keep waiting for him to clear his throat, it turns this in to a very dry listen. Significantly reduces my enjoyment of this incredible book.

27 people found this helpful

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  • Jimmy Mak
  • 02-02-16

Poor preformance

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

Unfortunately the narrator was completely unable to capture the drama of this book. I read it shortly after it came out in hardback and lent my copy one too many times so I was excited to read it again. This was not the experience I hoped for.

What other book might you compare Guns, Germs and Steel to and why?

Kon Tiki, Rapa Nui. Similar cultures.

What didn’t you like about Doug Ordunio’s performance?

You get the feeling he isn't hearing the words that he is saying.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

I do love this book. The ease with which the author relays his information is astounding. When on paper the pages fly by, when narrated it's like setting through a lecture. Such a shame that this book was presented by someone as disinterested as Doug Ordunio.

19 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Doug
  • 25-08-11

Compelling pre-history and emergent history

This is a fascinating and foundational work that takes a topic (for me) shrouded in obscurity (how and why did civilization emerge in the pattern it did around the globe), and provides a vivid, detailed, and substantially convincing explanation. Thanks to GGS, I see world and cultural history with new eyes. That is pretty much the highest praise I can think of for a book.

I have a personal policy of ignoring (or at least trying to ignore) negative narrator reviews, as I find them always overstated. This reading is on the dry/flat/dull side, but it is still professional. The book is great and one of the most stimulating I have ever listened to. It is dense, but if you don't like fact, analysis, and theory, you wouldn't seek out this sort of book. Extremely highly recommended. It will change the way you see the world.

71 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Daniel
  • 19-12-11

A story all should know, not all can endure

What a wealth of information! So amazing to think about the inevitabilities and chance occurrences that shaped our world. I wish I could recommend this book to all since it should be standard reading(listening). The down side is that its a bit of an endurance challenge to get through. There are a lot of numbers lists and .. vocally read charts. I doubt most could make it through this entire book. An abridged version might be more digestible.

Regardless, give it a try. You'll think about the world in a completely different way. But take your time, or else you'll burn out on this anvil of a book.

73 people found this helpful

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  • Steven
  • 19-11-11

So much potential, so little craft

With all the field work and research available to him Diamond stands at the brink of what could be the most fascinating and significant popular science book of the era. He brings together so many disciplines to show macro trends, chaos theory, the power of germs in fashioning human history. It could all havee been absolutely mind changing. Sadly Diamond is not Bill Bryson. He has a scientific mind and a scientific compulsion for being comprehensive. Where Bryson can spin a story out of a proton, Diamond gets mired in a repetitive catalogue of insights applied meticulously yet tediously to every possible place, time and civilisation. I would really love someone else to re-tell this - someone who has the ability to convert the linear into the prosaic. I gave up after about 50%.

50 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Jeremy
  • 16-02-11

Informing, Interesting, and Boring all in one

His point of view is compelling, and gives definite weight to the view that all men are created equal, and 'Whites' for example aren't 'better' than anyone else, but that they had a better deck of cards than other peoples and cultures at a time when it mattered. I have heard others talk on the same issues and topics and make it much more engaging however. And while he titles the book "Guns, germs and steel", given what takes up the majority of the book it should be titled, "Grains, Vegetables and Domestic-able animals".

74 people found this helpful

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  • firstrich1
  • 22-09-15

interesting but dry

I had some difficulty staying focused on the subjects due to the fact that the narrator was a bit on the side of sleep inducing. A soothing voice but dry in the reading, often coming across as methodical and like a recitation of facts. Much of the information is interesting but it was hard to stay focused. I think I got about 50% of what the author was saying just due to the dry expression of the narrator.

20 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Neil Chisholm
  • 26-03-13

Anthropology? Compelling? This book is!

The Fates of Human Societies is the subheading of this book and it grabbed me. I've recently listened to histories of several societies and I thought this might be interesting in doing some comparisons. What I wasn't ready for was a gallop through the history of man from our first bands of hunter gatherers wandering out of Africa to detailed explanations of why Eurasia was by its geography destined to be more successful than either the Americas and Africa.

If you had told me I was going to be left gaping by linguistic analysis, natural experiments or the result of reviews by evolutionary biologists I wouldn't have believed you but I am agog as what I've heard and the implications it has meant for all the histories of different societies.

I am still digesting what I've heard and I know I shall be back to listen to parts if not all of it again. This book is highly recommended if you want to know why Eurasia came to dominate the world and to understand early civilisations destinies from their geography and biology. It really is compelling listening.

13 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Darwin8u
  • 01-09-15

Location, location, location...

“In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

This is one of those books that once you finish, you sit back and say "yeah, um, duh". Since I'm reading this about 18 years after it was first published and probably 14 years since I bought and first perused it, it never seemed very shocking to me. Look, certain civilizations came to dominate based on a couple random, accidental, and nonracially based situations that combined to give the Eurasian people a slight advantage once these civilizations came into contact with each other.

First, the domesticated food and animals of Eurasiaa contained more protein and more varieties of domesticated animals (pigs, cows, goats, etc) that allowed the people on the Eurasian continent to achieve a certain population density that allowed them to move from band > tribe > chiefdom > state > empire first. This density also allowed for more technological advances, more exposure and protection against herd diseases, so that when cultures collided, the more advanced societies were able to dominate. End of book. Q.E.D.

Is it still worth reading? Certainly. Just because you get the basic premise of Natural Selection does not mean you shouldn't read Darwin's classics. I'm to going to compare Jared Diamond to Charles Darwin. This book isn't that good, but the apparent simplicity of the book's premise only appears simple. The argument that Diamond delivers is tight and simple but hides a lot of work.

** Just a note. This audiobook does NOT include the newer edition's chapter on Japan or the 2003 author's Afterword.

40 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • 'Nathan
  • 01-09-14

Dreadful presentation

Any joy that might have been found in the knowledge of this audiobook was completely removed by the performance. My husband and I enjoy listening to nonfiction while we take long car rides, and we had a five hour trip to New York State coming up, and nabbed this title. We barely made it an hour before he asked me to pick something else to play, since the dull monotonous performance was actually making him tired at the wheel.

It's unfortunate. The information is interesting, and though the author is perhaps a bit dry and academic in his delivery, it could have been presented much better by someone with a more engaging range of voice. It took a very long time to struggle our way through this one, in tiny bites, and I often found myself drifting away from it, completely disengaged from the uninspiring performance.

22 people found this helpful