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Andrew Barrett

Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

January 01, 2008

Andrew Barrett book review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, Amazon subtitle: ‘Curing our blindness’ 5/5, 2005 Vintage reprint of 1 st edition (1997), 480 pages.

This is another of the twenty books Charlie Munger recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie’s Almanack (the most useful book I have read) along with Diamond's first book, The Third Chimpanzee.

The Third Chimpanzee is the story of how humans became 'different' to other animals and what the future might hold for us, as evidenced by our recent past. It contains a section on why some peoples and societies came to dominate others. Guns, Germs and Steel is that section made into a book.

I found this detracted from my interest somewhat, as I was already aware of Diamond's broad conclusions and why he had reached them before starting the book (conversely, I found that section of The Third Chimpanzee very interesting). I have no regrets, though. Reading the books in the order they were published allows us to understand Diamond's thoughts and research better, as we get to follow his progress.

I talked in my earlier review of The Third Chimpanzee about the dangers of man-with-a-hammer syndrome (those who focus only on a narrow discipline are likely to interpret all findings through a single, distorted lens – just as a man equipped only with a hammer tends to see everything as a nail). Jared Diamond is an exemplar of the opposite: he started off in medical research, then pursued a parallel second career in bird ecology, evolution and biogeography and is (or was) learning his twelfth language. I greatly admire the way he synthesizes huge amounts of data across several disciplines to arrive at his striking conclusions.

Guns, Germs and Steel – as with another book on Munger's list of twenty recommended books, Garrett Hardin's Living Within Limits - is both a terrific book on its specific subject but also provides a superb broader example of how to think critically.

A couple of examples might help to illustrate what I mean. The first is a theme of both of Diamond's first two books: searching always for the ultimate rather than the proximate explanation. Eurasian technology, germs and societal structure were key factors that allowed Eurasian societies to dominate the others. However, Diamond asserts that underlying these proximate factors were the ultimate factors of the plant and animal species available for domestication and the general geography.

The availability of far better plant and animal species allowed farming and animal husbandry to take hold much earlier in Eurasia . This allowed much higher population densities – both of humans and their domesticated animals. This in turn led to a larger incidence of powerful human epidemic diseases – which in a number of cases originated from the domesticated animals. The more efficient food production and higher population densities in their turn allowed for specialisation, as societal classes could exist whose practitioners did not have to provide their own food (including professional soldiers).

Thus, the ultimate factors determine the existence of the proximate factors. Most people never see beyond the proximate factors – which appear to explain the outcomes, but in fact do not. This is an extremely important lesson.

Charlie Munger's mental models, for example, can be best viewed as an attempt to distil the way the world works to the simplest underlying (ultimate) reasons. This approach carries two massive benefits: if ultimate explanations exist we cannot understand how the world works (become 'wise') without knowing what they are (or even knowing that we should be searching for them). And secondly, it is much easier to remember and make use of fewer, simpler underlying factors.

Once you begin looking for ultimate factors, you begin to see them everywhere. The search for underlying reasons is usually explicit (or at least implicit) in all of the really good books. Karen Pryor shows this clearly in ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ (one of my favourite books that I have just re-read):

“These principles [of training with reinforcement] are laws, like the laws of physics. They underlie all learning-teaching situations as surely as the law of gravity underlies the falling of an apple. Whenever we attempt to change behaviour, in ourselves or others, we are using these laws, whether we know it or not.”

The second excellent example of an approach to problem solving from Diamond is one of Charlie Munger’s favourites. Diamond calls it the Anna Karenina principle, after the first sentence in Tolstoy’s novel:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Diamond explains what Tolstoy means: in order for a marriage to be a success, it must succeed in many different respects. The failure of any one of, for example, sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline or religion can doom a marriage - no matter how positive all the other factors.

Diamond then uses this principle to show us why so few animals have been successfully domesticated (because every one of at least six significant factors must be present for a species to be a suitable candidate for human domestication):

“This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. 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.”

This principle underlies the reasoning behind the Harvard School Commencement speech Charlie Munger gave in 1986 (included in Poor Charlie’s Almanack). In it Munger inverts the problem of achieving a good and successful life by telling his audience how to virtually guarantee a miserable and unsuccessful life. By avoiding the key causes of failure, one is likely to end up with success by default: sometimes difficult problems are best solved (or even can only be solved) backwards.

As Sertillanges says: “What is knowledge, but the slow and gradual cure of our blindness?” I am grateful to Diamond (and Munger, who pointed me towards him) for helping me to see a little better.

About the author:

Andrew Barrett
Charlie Tian, Ph.D., is the founder of GuruFocus. You can now order his book Invest Like a Guru on Amazon.

Rating: 3.4/5 (12 votes)


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