Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Polynesian Resource Center

The 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1998, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book, and produced by the National Geographic Society, was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.

For those interested in Polynesia; especially the often disasterous fate of Polynesians following European contact, this book is the best and most complete scientific and antropological explaination we currently possess. Jared Diamond worked for twenty years as an ornithologist in New Guinea, so he is reasonably conversant with Oceanic history and consequently Polynesian history and though his explaination of the total collape of non-European societies after contact with Europeans is mainly concerned with America and specifically South America he includes sections and references to Polynesian Island groups. The title Guns, Germs, and Steel refers to the major causes of collapse in populations of indigenous people following the introduction of European diseases and their subsequent conquest by Europeans using modern firearms and weapons. The Polynesian situation only differs in so far as the guns were not so much used on Polynesians by Europeans (though they were hundreds of occasions), but rather the greater damage was Europeans selling guns to Polynesians for them to use against each other in their inter-tribal conflicts. Which not untypically as in the case of the Maori of New Zealand resulted in the death or enslavement of up to one third of the population.

Diamond stays away from moral judgement with regard to these human disasters, but rather tries to present his case as anthopology, science and history. In this matter he is wise, as the Polynesians with regard to their use of firearms, especially against opposing tribes who lacked firearms were often deeply complicite in their own demise.

With regard to disease the likes of Captain Cook tried very hard to limit likely contamination of native people with European diseases, but 18th Century understanding if infection diseases was hopelessly inadequete. If critics are seeking truly vile examples of contamination of native peoples with European infection diseases, by far the best example is that of my own nationals introduction of Spainish Flu to Samoa in 1919 through deliberate breaking of a quarintene blockade that resulted in the death of one third of the population. At least Captain Cook and the early exploreres could claim at least partial ignorance.

Jared Diamond's book and the explaination it contains of the fate of indigious people is compeling. It discribes possibly the greatest extinction of human beings the world has ever seen. In drawing parrellels with the annialation of the Aztecs and Incas and the Polynesians, Mirconesians and Melenesians Jared Diamond is undoubtably correct. It is sobering that the horror most sensitive human beings feel in reading of the actions of the Conquestodors should be extented to the treatment of the peoples of the Pacific. Perhaps it was not done so deliberately, but never the less done it was.

Guns, Germs and Steel was also produced as a The National Geographic Society produced documentary by the same title based on the book in 2005, and it is currently available on Youtube; however, I dont recommend it. Jared Diamonds voice is far more compelling in the book and that I regard as a must read for anyone wishing to have a meaningful knowledge of Polynesia.

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