Can One Book Sum Up 13,000 Years of Human History?

Zachary Walston

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“What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.”

It took two business trips and most evenings over a couple of weeks, but I finally finished one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a beast of a book but well worth the read

Taking on 13,000 years of human history in a 400-page book is a bold endeavor, but Jared Diamond manages to capture big picture lessons while using specific details to support his arguments. In the beginning, he provides a one-sentence summary of the book: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

The book sought to determine why some regions of the world (e.g. Eurasia) developed faster than others (e.g. North America). He boils down the reasons to four primary themes:

  1. Food production (availability of domestic animals and plant species)
  2. Migration rates (east-west continental orientation is superior to north-south)
  3. Isolation of continents (ability to collaborate and build off neighboring technological advances)
  4. Continental and area population size (rapidity of farming and governmental growth and invention capacity.
“All other things being equal, technology develops fastest in large productive regions with large human populations, many potential inventors, and many competing societies.”

At the end of the book, Diamond acknowledges human history cannot be explained with only four broad themes. Yet, the larger the time scale you observe, the easier it is to notice and understand trends. This information can be useful in understanding human behavior and potential future actions. By no means is history a perfect blueprint of the future, but the lessons learned from history are valuable, nonetheless.

This is one of many books recommended by Charlie Munger at the end of his invaluable book, Poor Charlie's Almanack. Munger nailed this selection and I highly recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel.

9/10 rating

“We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure.”

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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