Popular nonfiction is a tricky beast. It's one thing for someone to write a memoir, or a long-form investigation that the journalist-author has personally researched and reported. But it's hard to boil down complex science into readable prose for laypeople that omits the jargon, math, and much of the technical evidence but still manages to get the scholarship right. Arguably the most popular current nonfiction writer is Malcolm Gladwell, each of whose four books is on the New York Times's nonfiction bestseller lists. Gladwell's books all follow the same pattern: he uses a serious of anecdotes about interesting people to illustrate a Big Idea about the way the world works. (His last book, a collection of New Yorker essays, follows this pattern 22 times.) They're frustrating, however, because he sacrifices methodology to readability: they're fun to read, but they aren't very convincing. They read like a guy telling stories and then saying, "And that's why the world works the way it does." With Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond manages the impressive feat of articulating a huge idea, a theory of the environmental determinism of human evolution, in both understandable and persuasive terms. It's a masterful work.
The scope of the book is almost comically huge: he intends to explain the reasons for the divergence of human societies, by examining the history of humanity around the world over the past 10,000 years or so. His ultimate goal is to explain why Eurasian societies developed at a much rapider pace than native populations in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Ocean, enabling the historical conquest of one people by another. His basic argument is that the evolution of human technology has been driven by the availability of domesticable protein-rich vegetation and large animals, and the presence or absence of geographic barriers to trade and technology transfer. Hunter-gatherers laid roots and became farmers in areas where they could domesticate native wild flora, or receive already-domesticated crops from a nearby society (in a similar climate) that are capable of being transplanted. Farming allows populations to expand and create settled roles for elites, inventors, and other non-food producers, which permits the expansion of technology. Pretty soon, they have an unbeatable advantage over any hunter-gatherers they run into, who weren't lucky enough to be able to produce food that plentiful and nutritious. Over the course of a few millennia, that winds up being pretty decisive.
The writing style is, naturally, overbroad, and can be a little dry. He rarely sources his evidence, and because it's for a mass audience he writes without footnotes. (His endnotes are rather detailed.) His assertions seem plausible, and his arguments are tight and well-structured -- unlike Gladwell's -- but there's often a nagging question of exactly where he got it from; he identifies his sources in the endnotes, but he rarely engages with the other scientists, except in the rare cases when he disagrees with one. Still, there's really no way to get around being overbroad when you're trying to write a history of 10,000 years of humanity across the globe in 400 pages or so -- it's basically the human equivalent of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (rating: 95). It's miraculous he was able to pull it off at all. There's a reason this won the Pulitzer Prize and became a bestseller -- it's the rare piece of popular science that is actually both popular and science.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.
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