Understanding History With 'Guns, Germs, And Steel'
Freshmen "common reads" are becoming increasingly popular at American colleges and universities. Incoming freshmen are assigned the same book over the summer and are asked to come prepared to discuss the book in their first week on campus.
One of the more popular 2011 common read assignments is Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society. In it, Diamond explores why some civilizations became more economically and politically dominant than others. He rejects the idea that racial superiority or intellectual ability enabled the West to triumph over other civilizations. Instead, Diamond argues that the hegemony of the West can be attributed to the confluence of certain geographic and environmental factors.
Diamond joins NPR's Neal Conan to discuss what Guns, Germs and Steel can teach young people about the complex web of factors that have shaped human history.
On what college readers can learn from Guns, Germs and Steel
"It has to offer freshmen what it had to offer me when I decided to write the book. It starts out with a familiar observation, mainly that different people have fared very differently in history — some people conquering other people. ... But this biggest fact of history is one that historians don't talk much about, don't offer an answer to, and in fact are rather embarrassed by. ...
"Students have no difficultly understanding it, because the answers are understandable and surprising. And they're full of surprising facts that will make you the life of cocktail parties. For example, why have walnut trees been domesticated, while oak trees have never been domesticated, despite acorns being edible? And why have European sheep been domesticated, but bighorn sheep never domesticated? Those are some of the cocktail party facts that turn out to be basic to understanding why history went the way it did."
On why the book has had such broad appeal
"College faculty like to assign the book to freshmen because it is interdisciplinary. On the one hand, it's about questions of history, drawing upon anthropology and archaeology. And on the other hand, it attempts to answer these questions of history by drawing on linguistics and genetics and animal behavior. So instead of forcing all freshmen to read a book in one field ... it is interdisciplinary — it pools many fields together."
On how students push him to work harder
"My basic living comes from teaching undergrads at the University of California, and they're also the people who ask me questions that show me that I don't really understand something that I'm lecturing to them about. Therefore, I have to go learn more about it, and write books that will then be scrutinized by college students and high school students — and even middle school students."
On how the book pushes students to look for complex explanations to difficult questions
"To talk about why some societies conquered others, it's not nice. History is full of lots of horrible stuff, and many people — including historians — not surprisingly feel uncomfortable even acknowledging or discussing the subject. But that's a shame. Because if you don't provide what the actual explanation is, people are going to fall back on the transparent racist explanations — mainly, they'll say some people have different colored skin and ... different eyes. We can see that, and therefore it's natural to assume ... even though there's no evidence for it."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neil Conan in Washington. And now we continue the TOTN Freshman Reads series. The fall semester is under way. Some freshmen are discussing common reads - books all the first year students are expected to read over the summer. "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society" has been on the reading list at many colleges and universities. It won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998. In the book, author Jared Diamond argues that geography goes a long way to explain the dominance of Europe.
If you've read it, what does "Guns, Germs, and Steel" offer for college freshmen? Just a reminder, it's a rebroadcast today. We're not going to be able to take any new calls in this program. And Jared Diamond is on the phone with us from his home in Los Angeles. Nice to speak with you again.
JARED DIAMOND: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you. I just wonder, is there any summer reading book that you remember from your student days?
DIAMOND: Gosh. I read so many books during the summer, but we were never assigned a specific book to read during the summer. And, interestingly, when I was talking with some Cornell freshmen who had my book assigned, they said, on the one hand, they enjoyed the book. On the other hand, they hated or being told to read one book during the summer. That just went against the bone of the sense that one should be free to follow one's interests.
CONAN: And the summertime should be the - well, lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. I hated summer assignments too, but I did enjoy "Guns, Germs, and Steel." It wasn't assigned to me. But what do you think it has to offer for incoming freshmen?
DIAMOND: Well, it has to offer the incoming freshmen what it had to offer to me when I started to write the book, which is that it starts off with a familiar observation, namely that different people have fared very differently in history, some people conquering other people. So that's the big stack of history, but this bigger stack, that history is one that historians don't talk much about, don't offer an answer to, in fact rather embarrassed by. And the explanation turns out to be interesting, but it's one that people couldn't readily understand. So that's what I found fascinating about it, and that's what, I think, college freshmen also enjoy about it.
CONAN: And you often, as you mentioned, at Cornell and other schools, go up and talk to them about the book, after they've spent some time of their summer chained to a chair to read it. And do they get it?
DIAMOND: Yes. Students have no difficulty understanding it because the answers are understandable and surprising, and they are full of surprising facts that will make you the life of cocktail parties. For example, why have walnut trees been domesticated while oak trees have never been domesticated despite acorns being edible? And why have European sheep been domesticated but bighorn sheep never domesticated? Those are some of the cocktail party facts that turn out to be basic to understanding why history went the way it did.
CONAN: So why aren't oak trees domesticated?
DIAMOND: Well, in the case of walnut trees versus oak trees, walnut trees and almond trees have rather simple genetics. That's to say, in the wild, they contain bitter compounds and toxins. And, occasionally, you get a tree in which the poison is absent because of a genetic change, but it's a simple genetic change. With oak trees, it's different.
Oak acorns are usually bitter, but occasionally you get what's called a sweet oak tree, which is naturally what people and animals like to eat. But the genetics of bitterness and poisons in oak trees are complicated, involving several genes. And it turns out to be easy to select for change if you got just one gene, but difficult if you got several genes. So there's a simple fact biology that has had big consequences for human history.
CONAN: We're talking with Jared Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel." A lot of freshman students are asked to read one book to come in and discuss on their first weeks as college students. If you've read the book, what did you get out of it? And let's start with Nathan. Nathan is on the line with us from Denver.
NATHAN: Hi, Neal. First of all, I'd like to say I love the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
NATHAN: Yeah. I thought that the book really highlighted - or by highlighting how these cultural inequalities came about, it really, you know, just sort of made it apparent how silly racism is. And by saying, you know, that, like, you know, by not having, for example, any ungulates in some areas and that, you know, lack of animal power didn't let them grow enough food to, you know, produce other things in other areas and concentrate in different arenas. It kind of just, you know, highlighted why racism is silly, and that it's just more of a product of these cultural inequalities - or rather, geographical.
CONAN: Jared Diamond, has he remembered the lesson of ungulates properly?
DIAMOND: Yes, yes. And, in fact, let me give you a specific example: Australia, where there are no native ungulates, Australia is the only continent where everybody in modern times, aboriginal Australians, all hunter-gatherers and no farmers. And there were plenty of racists who would like to say, well, that's because of something the matter with aboriginal Australians. But as our caller has just said, Australia has no native ungulates. It's got marsupials, including kangaroos, which are wonderful to eat, but you cannot herd kangaroos.
Kangaroo ranchers have to shoot them one by one because you can't get them to follow each other. So the basic facts of Australian animals and Australian plants resulted in there being no native farmers in Australia. And even today, European farmers and European ranchers haven't been able to domesticate kangaroos, and they haven't been able to domesticate any native Australian plant except for macadamia nuts. But you can't found a civilization on macadamia nuts alone.
CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much for the call.
NATHAN: Thank you very much. He's much more eloquent than I, but I appreciate my chance to...
CONAN: He's much more eloquent than most of us, so don't be embarrassed.
NATHAN: All right. Thanks very much. Bye.
CONAN: And, Jared Diamond, just to follow up on another thing that Nathan said and something that you said earlier, the racial aspect of this, is that why you say historians are somewhat embarrassed by trying to explain why some societies conquered others?
DIAMOND: I think that's part of it. To talk about why some societies conquered others, it's not nice. History is full of lots of horrible stuff. And many people - including historians, not surprisingly - feel uncomfortable about even acknowledging or discussing the subject. But that's a shame because if you don't provide what the actual explanation is, people are going to fall back on the transparent racist explanation. Mainly, they'll say some people have different colored skins and different forms of hair and different eyes.
We can see that, and, therefore, it's natural to assume that inside those skins, there are different brains. And therefore, people fall back on the transparent racist explanation even though there's no evidence for it.
CONAN: Here's an email from Paul in Grand Rapids: This book is a terrific new approach to historic trends. It combines delicate biology with an environmental history Fernand Braudel would be proud of. This book should be - teach freshmen how to think outside the box and look for new reasons for the current state of affairs. In addition, as Diamond has done, this book is a great example of how you can see the forest in spite of the trees, that is take clear and available information and make it applicable.
And another rave review from Zach, says, beautiful critical thinking and data analysis. This book was written some years ago. Have you issued revisions? Have you updated it any?
DIAMOND: Yes. I've updated it and produced a couple of new additions which have had added chapters. For example, the new edition has a whole chapter on Japan, which I scarcely discussed in the first version of the book. Since the book was published, we've gotten new information that has enriched the picture, but hasn't basically changed the picture. So I would say, to put it simply, that the basic thesis of the book, I would say, is correct. But we now know more details about it.
CONAN: If you don't mind my asking a business question because of things like freshmen reading lists - and I'm sure it's assigned in some class courses as well - do you still make a good living from "Guns, Germs, and Steel?"
DIAMOND: Do I make a good living from "Guns, Germs, and Steel?" Well, my basic living comes from teaching undergraduates at the University of California. And they're also the people who ask me questions that show me that I don't really understand something that I'm lecturing to them about. And, therefore, I have to go learn more about it and write books that will then be scrutinized by college students and high school students and even middle school students like my own sons, who, to their horror, were assigned their daddy's book in middle school.
CONAN: Oh, there's - how - that's awful.
DIAMOND: That's what they thought. I was really surprised. My twin sons came home one day and said, daddy, why did you do this? And I didn't know what I had done. And they said, your book has been assigned to us in seventh grade, and we haven't read it. But we know that your book is a bad book. So why do we have to read your bad book? And eventually, when they - they were embarrassed. But eventually, when they saw that their classmates loved the book, they started to get proud of their father, and now they'll defend my book.
CONAN: Jared Diamond's book, we're talking about his "Guns, Germs, and Steel," one of the Freshmen Reads. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Alex, and Alex is calling from Jacksonville.
CONAN: Hi, Alex.
ALEX: I could probably go on for a while about Mr. Diamond's book. I'm a fan. But one thing I'd like to highlight is the integration across the social and physical sciences. I'm a senior in college. I'm a - one of my major is international studies, and so I'm all about the interdisciplinary. And I think a lot of students could tend to get locked into one field and that can really be a disadvantage when you're trying to look at global problems and global issues.
DIAMOND: Alex, I think that's a really interesting point that you make. And I think it's also part of the reason why college faculty like to assign book to freshmen because, as you say, it is interdisciplinary. On the one hand, it's about questions of history drawing on anthropology and archeology. And on the other hand, it attempts to answer these questions of history by drawing on linguistics and genetics and animal behavior and, as we talked about before, plants genetics. So instead of forcing all freshmen to read a book in one field, in which case faculty in all other fields would scream in horror about it, it is interdisciplinary. It pulls many fields together.
CONAN: On the other hand, does that not open you to sniping from anthropologists and geneticists?
DIAMOND: Yes, indeed. In academia, in colleges, one is encouraged, one is under severe pressure if you want to get promoted, to work on your own specialty. And, in fact, for 30 years, I was one of the world's five specialists in salt absorption by the gall bladder, which didn't give me a large audience of people wanting to read my stuff. But it is interesting to learn about other fields. We all, as children, our interests in other fields and those of us who go into academia, are gradually told we shouldn't do it. We should just work on gall bladders. And so it's fun to have an opportunity to learn about and explain these other fields.
CONAN: Alex, thanks very much for the call.
ALEX: Thank you, and thank you for your work, Mr. Diamond.
DIAMOND: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Carolyn in Napa, California: I was teaching undergraduate courses, and several graduate students from UC Davis took my class. They raved about "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and I mean raved, so I read it and I've given it as a gift to many of my friends.
So let's see if we can get Yanica(ph) on the line. Yanica with us from North Central, Washington.
YANICA: Yes. I'm very disappointed that "Collapse" wasn't the book that was chosen, because of the difficulty of the American public to not only understand global warming, theoretically, but to understand the connections of how our country is collapsing as a result of our use of oil, by the droughts and fires of the south, by the floods, in the north, hurricanes in places we haven't had hurricanes. And people still are unable to make these connections. And I think that if they had read the book "Collapse," it would make it a lot easier for them.
CONAN: And we should hasten to point out - also written by Jared Diamond, but we'll let the author comment.
DIAMOND: Thank you. Thank you for that plug. You are obviously a person of great wisdom and good judgment. "Collapse" was my more recent book after "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and it's a more practical one in that it discusses why societies in the past have either succeeded or failed to master their problems and why the same sorts of problems, including climate change and over exploitation of resources are facing us today and why we're making some of the same mistakes as in the past and how we can learn from our past mistakes. So I, too, like the subject of my book "Collapse." I should hasten to add that despite that depressing title, the subtitle is "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," so the book isn't just about bad news. It's about good news as well.
CONAN: Yanica, thanks very much for the call and for the recommendation.
YANICA: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And, Jared Diamond, thank you so much for your time today.
DIAMOND: You are welcome. As always, it's nice to talk with you. Jared Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," a professor of geography and physiology at UCLA. He joined us from his home in Los Angeles. Next week, we'll continue our freshman read series with Max Brooks and "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War." Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.