HackerNews Readings
40,000 HackerNews book recommendations identified using NLP and deep learning

Scroll down for comments...

Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems

Martin Kleppmann

4.8 on Amazon

241 HN comments

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond Ph.D.

4.5 on Amazon

239 HN comments

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Cal Newport

4.6 on Amazon

239 HN comments

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

Robert C. Martin

4.7 on Amazon

232 HN comments

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

David Allen and Simon & Schuster Audio

4.5 on Amazon

231 HN comments

The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu, Luke Daniels, et al.

4.3 on Amazon

225 HN comments


William Gibson, Robertson Dean, et al.

4.4 on Amazon

218 HN comments

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Hardcover Journal and Elder Wand Pen Set

Insight Editions

4.8 on Amazon

212 HN comments

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software

Erich Gamma , Richard Helm , et al.

4.7 on Amazon

208 HN comments

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

4.5 on Amazon

193 HN comments

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari, Derek Perkins, et al.

4.6 on Amazon

191 HN comments

The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel (Revised Edition)

Benjamin Graham , Jason Zweig , et al.

4.7 on Amazon

188 HN comments

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

Charles Petzold

4.6 on Amazon

186 HN comments

Seveneves: A Novel

Neal Stephenson, Mary Robinette Kowal, et al.

4.1 on Amazon

184 HN comments

Cracking the Coding Interview: 189 Programming Questions and Solutions

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

4.7 on Amazon

180 HN comments

Prev Page 2/180 Next
Sorted by relevance

purephaseonNov 18, 2019

I like "Guns, Germs and Steel" but the book has received quite a bit of criticism over the years which may account for not including it in the list.

Don't know for sure! Just my theory on why it might be excluded.

ChuckMcMonAug 17, 2020

Adding food storage to countries where that capability doesn't exist is a huge multiplier in their agronomic efficiency. There is some excellent discussion of this in the book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" which discusses how these forces shaped the changes in human civilizations.

unmoleonAug 15, 2017

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is the best book I've read in a while. It's like Guns, Germs and Steel but better argued and far greater in scope.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was a great read too. A bit of a slog in some places but otherwise brilliant and insightful.

elpakalonFeb 5, 2019

Guns, Germs and Steel by Diamond. Also Foundation Trilogy by Asimov because of the incredible creativity needed to tell that story

__JokeronAug 8, 2015

While no doubt Guns, Germs, and Steel is a good work, I will be hesitant to subscribe to ideas it presents, carte blanche. Please see this reddit discussion[1]

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/AskAnthropology/comments/1rzm07/wha...

test1235onApr 30, 2014

You should read 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond.

It's a very interesting book about how the civilised world came to be the way it is, for example, why Europe discovered America, and not vice versa.


clapasonSep 11, 2016

Guns, germs and steel - Jared Diamond

History and evolution of man kind. Hihgly recommended.

ryanmarshonDec 29, 2013

If you liked "Guns Germs and Steel" you'll also enjoy Diamond's latest book "The World until Yesterday". Everything I've learned about organizational dynamics can be gleaned from this book.

myth_busteronMar 26, 2015

Surely you are joking Mr Feynman - for a glimpse into a great mind and their outlook towards life & nature.

Gun, Germs, and Steel - For the valuable history of our culture and society.

Atlas Shrugged - for showing the entrepreneurial way and the necessity for hard work

woobyonMay 24, 2010

If you're into this article, you might like "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. I'm reading it on the recommendation of my favorite anthropology professor, and it's great.

omarchowdhuryonDec 22, 2008

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey


Market Wizards: Interviews with Top Traders by Jack D. Schwager (1993)

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (history)

logjamonJuly 17, 2008

Uh, no.

May I recommend "Guns, Germs, and Steel" to you.

That book effectively destroys any idea that studiousness, or intelligence, at the group level (like your example of "Asians", whatever the hell "Asians" means), has anything to do with genetics.

albertcardonaonFeb 28, 2009

Try books by Jared Diamond about world history:

"Guns, Germs and Steel"


They are not just informative: they change the way one looks at the world. And their prose is excellent.

paraschopraonJan 2, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel - still reading it but one of the best I 've read so far..

trevelyanonJan 24, 2010

Jarod Diamond wrote about this in Guns, Germs and Steel. Excellent book.

richardwonJuly 24, 2011

I love, love love the book Guns, Germs and Steel. It's not perfect but the author throws in so many great ideas as to why certain groups did better than others. None because any group is inherently superior.


tcdowneyonAug 23, 2013

I'm pretty sure biology falls within the S in STEM. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is a pop-science book, surely you could have used a more literary example to represent "the arts."

markheloonNov 30, 2015

Professor Jared Diamond explains more of this beautifully in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. Definitely a great read and there is also a Nat Geo documentary narrated by him.

DarmanionDec 5, 2007

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (out of print, yet much more worthwhile in my opinion than other dystopic novels)
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Books of the Fey by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
The Deathgate Cycle by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis

BootvisonDec 8, 2019

I found his name in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, I’m halfway and it’s an interesting read about how the world became to be as it is and generally interesting tidbits.

oiwejuvoiaonMay 11, 2019

The Selfish Gene and Guns, Germs, and Steel are pop science, not "serious non-fiction tomes".

As for books not working, that's absurd. 1) Some books work better than others. 2) To a large extent, you get more out of books the more you put into them.

setronAug 3, 2019

When the time came to read Guns, Germs and Steel, I had bought into Plagues and Peoples (William McNeill) instead -- similar accounts, but more controlled in scope (which made it more trustworthy, imo); as a result, I guess I missed a very convenient confirmation :)

corbetonMar 29, 2018

I came here to recommend 1491, it's a mind-blowing book in general. (Guns, Germs, and Steel is also good).

ChrisMarshallNYonAug 30, 2019

They mentioned Guns, Germs and Steel, and how Jared Diamond gave concrete examples of this with domesticated animals.

One of the most awesome books ever written.


There's an entire generation that hasn't read it. Probably worth a shufti.

maxlambonJan 5, 2020

Whatever that list of 1000 must-reads books, I would include "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, and "A General Theory of Love" by Thomas Lewis et al.

achowonNov 18, 2019

Hmm.. discovered couple of books, but not sure whether everyone would agree to this list.

Just as an example, 'Guns Germs and Steel' (1997) is absent.

lexcorvusonNov 3, 2015

Understanding Human History is one of my favorite books. I finished it and immediately reread it. This was especially instructive given that a decade ago I read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel twice as well, quite innocent of the political subtext.

kesonNov 22, 2009

Perhaps Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond would be a good book to pick up.

Although it doesn't directly apply to any of the subjects you listed, I think that knowing a bit about world history is a good way to make connections in the philosophies of different areas.

pupeonJuly 27, 2019

Guns, Germs and Steel is pseudo-anthropology, and pretty much all anthropologists are extremely critical of it. Please be aware of this while you read it.

enkidonSep 3, 2017

By the way,Guns, Germs, and Steel, while an interesting book, and brings an interesting perspective, is largely discredited from what I've read.

pgbovineonNov 23, 2010

i hate to be 'that guy' who says "me too", but i felt the same way when reading it 5 years ago. i had far higher expectations of a pulitzer prize winning book in non-fiction. another pulitzer prize winner that's almost as long but far more engaging is Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

jcranmeronSep 22, 2020

I always recommend Charles Mann's 1491 as the antidote to Guns, Germs, and Steel. (Although note that this focuses entirely on pre-Columbian America.)

myth_busteronJan 12, 2018

If this fascinates you as it does for me, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies [0] is an equally fascinating read, although there are arguments against the hypothesis.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Guns-Germs-Steel-Fates-Societies/dp/0...

sliverstormonOct 14, 2010

This mostly just reminds me I need to finish reading Guns, Germs, and Steel

moultanoonJune 1, 2015

I usually hear it compared to 1491, which I think is much better regarded. (I loved it. I haven't read Guns Germs and Steel.)

maxlambonJan 7, 2020

The book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond pretty much answers this question, pretty convincingly to me at least. The book "Sapiens" does provide additional insight as well on this subject.

oseityphelysiolonJuly 3, 2020

Probably known to most people, but "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond turned me on to a lot of things. The work covers many topics, including history, geography, evolution, giving a very wide view, which serves as a good starting point to start exploring some of these topics deeper.

endlessvoid94onSep 20, 2007

Guns Germs and Steel is possibly one of the most fascinating books I've read in years. No wonder it won a Pulitzer.

Also I have to add a Carl Sagan book. "Varieties of Scientific Experience" is fantastic. "pale blue dot", as well.

dalkeonMar 10, 2015

1) they sure did advance technologically. Compare the Clovis culture of the Lithic stage to the Aztecs of the Post-Classic stage.

2) The book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" goes into this topic in detail, without starting from the wrong premise that Native Americans made no technological advancements.

meliponeonSep 15, 2013

Not sure, but I heard that the book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond addresses this question.

wnorrisonDec 16, 2019

Agree on this one. Why Nations Fail is a fabulous book. I recommend reading Guns, Germs, and Steel first if you are going to read both. Highly recommend both.

commandlinefanonMay 11, 2019

Yeah... if he read Guns, Germs and Steel in 9 hours, I’m not surprised he didn’t retain much of it.

mtrimpeonAug 25, 2016

If you ever interested in this sort of stuff then the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" [1] explores all these trade-offs in great depth (and places them in the larger context of the development of human societies in general.)

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1842.Guns_Germs_and_Stee...

plandisonJan 16, 2017

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a decent introduction (at least the arguments were fairly compelling)

icefoxonSep 24, 2013

If your interested in this in more detail I just finished "guns germs and steel" which I would recommend for a enjoyable (to me) overview of old history.

aaaaaatttuyyonFeb 6, 2019

Guns, Germs and Steel is an absolute garbage book. It's pseudoscience, plain and simple. It's teaching unacceptable ways to think about culture, by any anthropologist's standards.

olifanteonJan 7, 2010

no it's not. It's a good read, but not as seminal or breath taking as Guns, Germs and Steel, a true modern classic.

TichyonJune 24, 2009

My issues are primarily with the "tech tree" (including cultural advances). I would recommend to at least read "Guns, Germs and Steel" alongside playing Civ ;-)

salusinarduisonApr 9, 2015

Currently reading:

* Machine Learning - Peter Flach

* Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond

* Dune ( for the third time, I love it :) ) - Frank Herbert

I usually read some of pg's, sama's, avc's or some other prominant essayist in the bath each week.

skowmunkonOct 3, 2010

I had heard much about this book earlier :Guns, Germs and Steel ,

But only recently did I watch a documentary (hmm, probably on hulu.com) which was completely based on that book.


iamwilonMay 6, 2018

Your last question was touched upon in "Guns, Germs, and Steel"--though I don't remember the book giving a reason, other than, if it was easy to domesticate [presumably compared to domesticating an alternative species, or just getting other humans to do the work], people would have done so by now.

ShorelonJuly 30, 2014

Even Eduardo Galeano himself dismisses that book as shortsighted.


If you want a good view of the matter, please read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

misiti3780onAug 8, 2016

Antifragile by Taleb

The Black Swan by Taleb

Thinking Fast & Slow by Kahneman

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Diamond

The World According To Monsanto by Robin

The Organized Mind by Levitin

The Vital Question by Lane

Life Ascending by Lane

Chasing the Scream by Hari

Anything By Gladwell.

orsenthilonJuly 14, 2018

I read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It will go down as the one of the best books I have read in my life. I have written the review for that book here - http://xtoinfinity.com/posts/2018/05/04/book-review-guns-ger...

OoTheNigerianonJune 3, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by
Jared M. Diamond
(courtesy of a HN recommendation on this kind of thread)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (courtesy PG's tweet and retweets of that tweet).

I am now loving my kindle because I can switch between books easily without the accompanying load

heratyianonMar 3, 2020

Related book: “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

olifanteonOct 12, 2009

Frederick Bodmer's "The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages", an oldie but goodie from 1944.

Douglas Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid".

Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies".

sthnblllIIonMay 6, 2021

This is quite the caveat. "Its a good book, except that all the testable claims made are false". Shouldn't that discredit the untestable "narrative" claims? Guns Germs and Steel is a Talmudic exercise in making stuff up to support the author's biases. Its only usefulness is as an example of how to make a superficially convincing case for something totally wrong.


LeifCarrotsononMar 3, 2020

Yes. Two other sources for this are the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, [1] and the video Americapox by CGPGrey. [2]

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

[2]: https://youtu.be/JEYh5WACqEk

k__onAug 11, 2021

I'm just reading "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and one of the central theses of that book is that discovery was always random and only later was applied useful.

So, usless knowledge might only be useless when initially found and have some application later.

gluponSep 26, 2018

Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) worked as a field ornithologist in his twenties. The samples (=dead birds) he collected from New Guinea are notoriously poorly labeled and poorly prepared (e.g. bits or flesh, missing feathers, etc.).

nicostouchonJan 17, 2017

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

One of the most enlightening reads out there. Read both Why Nations Fail and Guns, Germs and Steel.

RaRiconDec 6, 2010

The first book I searched for (Guns, Germs and Steel) shows up in the auto suggest, but not in the search results. Disappointing.

achowonMay 12, 2020

Guns, Germs and Steel.

Actually, any well researched history book. View on the world gets changed drastically, and usually for better.

colson04onJune 10, 2011

Fiction: tie between Of Human Bondage by W.Somerset Maugham or The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Non-Fiction: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Business: Rework by Jason Fried - one of the best in a long time

dota_fanaticonJan 21, 2016

Perhaps you're thinking of Jared Diamond's (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race? Which can be read here: http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html

karuneshkaushalonJune 7, 2015

I read 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond in College and it is single handedly the most insightful book I have ever read.

One of these days I will buy all of Jared Diamond's and Robert Greene's books and read them multiple times.

kirpekaronOct 12, 2009

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid; Douglas Hofstadter.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies; Jared Diamond.

dmmonAug 3, 2010

So your hypothesis is that what differentiates agriculturists and hunter-gatherers is intelligence?

That's an extremely strong statement. Do you have any proof of significant differences in human intelligence amongst populations?

Basically I'm saying you're full of shit. You should read the book "Guns, Germs, and Steel". It was written by someone who took the time to research the issue and develop some convincing arguments.

keeganjwonJan 5, 2017

Hmmm, maybe the book Guns, Germs, and Steel would be an interesting start. It's a beefy and detailed book, but interesting. Definitely a broad overview. Also, I think the made it into a movie. That might be more digestible.

I've always like Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. He covers a broad range of subjects but they're ways great!

Ancient China is also really awesome to learn about. It's not studied so much in the west but they had some extraordinarily advanced civilizations and cities well before those in Europe. Japan, Egypt, the Middle East all have pretty mind-blowing histories.

axplusbonAug 3, 2017

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond offers an interesting and academically quite solid perspective.

scott_sonJuly 20, 2009

Current: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Last: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

The best recent: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamon.

atulatulonDec 19, 2017

:) I was rather hoping that reading a single page (instead of a couple of pages) and then stopping would qualify.

Anyway, what I meant was that the plan was tentative. (I have read Guns, Germs and Steel and a few reviews seemed to liken Sapiens to that book. So was looking for some other perspectives.)

micheljansenonJune 25, 2013

For those interested in a broad account of history that does not try to explain what happened, but why things happen, I highly recommend Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel"[1]. It resonates well with the hacker's desire to understand what makes the world tick :)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

btillyonJune 6, 2018

If you read Guns, Germs and Steel you will find the same information, with citations of anthropological research supporting it.

unotionJune 22, 2020

Political institutions are part of it, but probably not the most important part. The excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel[1] lays out very well researched reasons for the disparities we see today. Highly recommended reading!

Spoiler: What kind of crops and livestock you have paired to your climate over history is a big factor (number of calories you can raise per acre). What kind of livestock you had or didn't have also relates to what kinds of diseases might wipe you out (see Aztecs). And what kinds of raw materials you have available impacts what kind of commerce you can engage in. These factors over time have a huge impact on how civilizations advanced relative to each other.

There's a summary of the book on Wikipedia[2], along with some interesting criticisms.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Guns-Germs-Steel-Fates-Societies/dp/0...
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

pizzaonOct 13, 2010

Plus, 0 (yeah zero) of the 50 domesticatable candidate large animals were ever domesticated. As well as very few storable domesticated plants. Read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel

ahoyonMay 6, 2021

I think any discussion of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" needs to come with the caveat that the author (Jared Diamond) is widely criticized by the greater historical/anthropological/poli-sci community for prioritizing narrative in his books over scientific accuracy.

"Guns" is still a good read, as long as you don't stop there.

ptaipaleonApr 16, 2018

They were indeed impressive navigators - I think the most amazing feat is that they were the ones who first settled Madagascar, and just look at the distance from Southeast Asia - but I think they lacked most of the technological and societal prerequisites for building actual empires. Particularly, writing.

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is obviously the go-to book in this area for introduction of why some people built empires and others did not.

soapdogonJuly 2, 2021

> Europeans defeated indigenous peoples throughout history, by superior technology and numbers.

Oh boi, not this horrible and flawed argument again. People have learned nothing from recent research into the impact of diseases in that history? Popular books like "Guns, Germs, and Steel", and "1491" give you a view into these matters and provide one with references for their sources for research.

This idea of "Europe won because it is good at tech" really needs to die. The best weapon Europe had when fighting indigenous people in the Americas was actually various kinds of pox.

couchandonJuly 23, 2018

I'm pretty sure that this essay is farcical, sarcastic, and/or ironic.

Also, I'm guessing from the style and topic this is the same Jared Diamond who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel? Particularly the clock idea I believe is repeated there.

It's also curious to note that this copy seems to have been OCRed, given that there's at least one occurrence of "fanners" instead of "farmers".

rndmizeonJan 3, 2013

I think not. This is very much in line with what I know from cultural anthropology, and the writer is Jared Diamond, who you might know as the author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse".

scott_sonJuly 27, 2009

Read "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond. He talks a lot about the rise of agriculture.

When we look at how the average lifespan is increasing, we're only looking at the lifespan since the start of civilization as we know it - allowed by agriculture. It's possible that our quality of life is only now catching up to what our hunter-gathered ancestors had.

tmortononJune 11, 2010

Agriculture (and the associated civilization) has one big advantage over hunting and gathering: It can support more people per acre, even if the lifestyle is worse. As a result, agricultural civilizations can overwhelm hunter-gatherers with sheer force of numbers.

Source: Jared Diamond covers this in "Guns, Germs and Steel". Excellent book.

hackinthebochsonMay 2, 2013

Farming promoted "development", but it was also the cause of the majority of social inequality in society. Those who controlled the food supply had an inordinate amount of power over the population, far more than could be achieved in hunter-gatherer societies. Read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for a decent introduction regarding this.

elektromekatrononSep 9, 2015

"Why did such a culture develop in these societies?"

'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond is probably the best attempt at answering that that I have read. His version of the Needham Question was put to him by a member of the John Frum cargo cult, and it is basically "How did your people end up with all the cargo?".

johnnycerberusonJan 14, 2021

Dominion by Tom Holland, actually everything by this author

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

klenwellonApr 19, 2019

Smaller vocabularies in some areas. Probably much richer in some others. As an example, I'll cite one of my favorite passages from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel:

One day, when my companions of the Fore tribe and I were starving in the jungle because another tribe was blocking our return to our supply base, a Fore man returned to camp with a large rucksack full of mushrooms he had found, and started to roast them. Dinner at last! But then I had an unsettling thought: what if the mushrooms were poisonous? I patiently explained to my Fore companions that I had read about some mushrooms' being poisonous, that I had heard of even expert American mushroom collectors' dying because of the difficulty of distinguishing safe from dangerous mushrooms, and that although we were all hungry, it just wasn't worth the risk. At that point my companions got angry and told me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me. After I had been quizzing them for years about names of hundreds of trees and birds, how could I insult them by assuming they didn't have names for different mushrooms? Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse poisonous mushrooms with safe ones. They went on to lecture me about 29 types of edible mushroom species, each species' name in the Fore language, and where in the forest one should look for it. This one, the tanti, grew on trees, and it was delicious and perfectly edible.


FolcononJuly 2, 2021

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" is a good book, really enjoyable read. But speaking to historian friends of mine has given me the impression that it's not highly regarded in those circles.

Unfortunately I can't give any criticisms beyond that because it has been a long time since I had those discussions and the details just don't come to mind, so I guess really what I'm saying is though it's a popular and enjoyable read, perhaps take the narrative it gives with a pinch of salt, perhaps dig into the current historical perspective and see where it differs?

mrtimoonJan 24, 2020

I heard Clayton Christensen speak at an "honors dinner" my freshman year of university in 2000. I asked him what interesting things he did when he was a university student. He said he would get together with his friends once a week - and each would take 10-15 minutes to present the most interesting thing they had learned that week.

He also organized a university wide book club - including making books available at designated tables in the cafeteria, and hosting the author for a speaking event. "Guns Germs and Steel" was popular at the time, and he used that as an example of the type of book they would read.

Everyone knows about the Disruptive Innovation, but he also wrote "Disrupting Class" on how disruptive innovations would change universities/education - and put some out of business. On this vein he founded the Christensen Institute [1] a non-profit (in Redwood City, CA). I don't know a ton about it, but I've really enjoyed the research/ideas posted on their blog over the years!

Some here have posted about his faith. I've always thought it was bold that he had a four page PDF on his personal website [2] about his faith [3].

[1]: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/
[2]: http://claytonchristensen.com/
[3]: http://claytonchristensen.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Why...

jessedhillononJan 31, 2013

Strangely not mentioned at all, so I'll put it here: Jared Diamond is the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, his most famous work. It addresses the question of how and why European societies were able to advance themselves so much farther ahead of all other civilizations. There is also an excellent four-part series streaming on Netflix.

euroqonJan 8, 2016

Anyone who is glorifying hunter-gatherers needs to look at the hard evidence, of which we actually have. There are plenty of recorded evidence of hunter gatherers societies and there are still many that exist, such as in Papa New Guinea for example.

Their lives are full of incredible violence and murders happen all the time. There is a reason that the populations do not exceed a certain capacity. Because they kill each other. (Sometimes it's because there is only so much food in a certain area to support them) There are plenty of sources. Guns, Germs, and Steel is a great book that can explain some of this.

radu_floricicaonFeb 18, 2020

Why The West Rules, by Ian Morris - pretty much a continuation of Guns Germs and Steel that takes over where GGS ended: Eurasia rules because geography, but why Europe and not China?

Part of the book is a system of points that tracks civilization progress, and it peaks in Roman times but fails to reach exponential.

TichyonApr 28, 2008

I didn't read Guns Germs and Steels like that. I read it as portraying an alternative explanation to the "genetic superiority" explanation. It seemed quite plausible to me, but I am not sure if it is true. It was good enough for me to prove that "genetic superiority" is not the only possible solution - a lot of people don't seem to think so, so I think the book is important.

I will read "The Blank Slate" - I have been meaning to read another one of Pinker's books for ages.

Obviously, there are genetic differences between people. Their effect is another question. Also, the environment is involved in computing the phenotype from the gene. So one and the same gene could produce stupid people in one environment, and in another one smart people (as an example).

I haven't read the book yet, but perhaps you can provide some really compelling evidence for genes (of a "race") making a difference. True, pygmies probably won't make great basketballers, but that is not the kind of example we are looking for, or is it?

Typically sports is being mentioned in that context, but I don't think it is a very compelling example (safe for the pygmies example). It might just as well be percentages of people choosing to take up sports, for whatever reasons (like maybe, because it offers them the best opportunities).

sademaonJuly 13, 2018

[1] We Are Legion We Are Bob (Bobiverse 1-3) - Just finished this trilogy and really enjoyed it! It's well paced, has a very likable protagonist and has a nice sprinkling of programming/CS humor.

[2] Guns, Germs and Steel - Can't believe I waited so long to check this off my list. Very thorough and well written argument about how geography and environment shaped the modern world.

[3] Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion - Scientific and philosophical reasoning for why the self is an illusion. Covers a lot of ground without getting too heavy: Buddhism, mediation, neuroscience, religion, and more.

HoushalteronJan 17, 2016

I was just reading Guns Germs and Steel, and Jared Diamond made a convincing argument that humans are most likely responsible. Wherever humans go, the large megafauna seem to die shortly afterwards. Humans are pretty effective hunters, and hunt in different ways than other animals. Animals evolved to defend themselves from wolves, not spears or being chased off cliffs.

The reason megafauna didn't die off in Africa is because humans evolved alongside them. As humans gradually became better hunters, the animals had time to adapt. But now that humans have guns, and that's starting to change too.

The alternative hypothesis of climate change doesn't really make sense, because there have been many periods of climate change in the past that didn't wipe out all the megafauna.

alanctgardner2onAug 23, 2013

Why do people assume that making more engineering majors = making more people analytical and reasonable? A whole bunch of things:

- doing engineering isn't magically going to change your thought process. Some people don't think the same way as others - they probably wouldn't enjoy engineering if they did it (I don't doubt they could apply themselves to get a degree). You think if Obama did a BEng the world would immediately be black and white and he could just make the "right" decisions?

- engineers aren't the only people who contribute to society, by a long shot. Besides a world with movies, graphic art or music, an all-engineer world would lack all the scholarly products of the modern world. "Guns, Germs and Steel" is an awesome book which is very accessible, and engineers seem to love it. But it was written by a biologist, on the backs of 100s of academics who did the original research he cites. A work like that couldn't exist without "the arts"

k__onMar 18, 2021

I'm currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book about the rise of civilization explained by their ecological starting points.

It's interesting how much luck people from Mediterranean had with all the crops and animals they could domesticate thousands of years before the humans in other places.

In light of what I read, we can only hope that we will belong to the first who will colonize the galaxy.

beatonDec 12, 2018

Recommendations from my reading this year:

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. #1 with a bullet! This is the best, most useful book I've read in many years, and totally changed how I think about my thinking, and how other people (especially smart people) think. This is a must-read for anyone who thinks they're engaged and well-informed.

The Cooking Gene, by Michael Twitty. This was recommended to me by a very smart friend as the best book she read in 2017. It's behind only Factfulness for me. Ostensibly a history of African-American cooking in the South, it's a sprawling yet deeply personal work of history, genealogy, multiculturalism, and of course food. A masterpiece, full of knowledge, wisdom, and heart.

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall. An overview of political geography, and how the physical structure of land and water affects the cultures living there, their opportunities, and their place in the world. It caused a total rethink about why Europe and the US have been so successful, and why Africa and South America have suffered. A worthy companion to the classic Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), by Jeff Tweedy. An autobiography by the Wilco frontman, talking about a lot of stuff I find intensely interesting - depression, being a bandleader, and being a parent and husband.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. An outstanding science fiction novella from an entirely different perspective - an African future.

The Ethics of Ambiguity, by Simone de Beauvoir. A mid-century philosophy classic, tackling ethics from an existentialist perspective. Dense and difficult, but also highly entertaining and brilliant. Highly recommended if you read philosophy regularly (if you don't, start with something a little lighter!).

hgaonFeb 21, 2015

Heh. You don't get to choose who decides to bring along their moral capital, something that I'm glad to see people in this discussion realize is just as important as any other of these areas, and I would argue more important, in that without it, you aren't going to get very far with anything else.

E.g. too many of these things require fixed assets and a framework where nomadic raiders are kept from totally despoiling those and the people working on them, the classic example being agriculture and farmers. Sans that, you might have something called "civilization", but it won't support very many people, and it won't be pretty. Or you might collapse all the way down to small, hostile to each other bands of hunter-gatherers. I seem to remember reading in Guns, Germs and Steel that the Australian aborigines came from a civilization that farmed....

hackinthebochsonMay 2, 2013

The point is that the existence of agriculture leads to many things, of which even more centralized control is the result. Agriculture by its nature supports more people than necessary to produce the food. This surplus necessarily begets an underclass and an a ruling class. The book Guns, Germs, and Steel has some very interesting case studies of societies that grew into very stratified political societies based on the discovery of agriculture. The cause/effect implication is clear because of analysis of cultures with a recent common origin who where the difference in outcomes were only a matter of properties of the land which encouraged or precluded agriculture.

TichyonApr 27, 2008

You could carry that further and say "African = loser by definition, so anybody who is successful can not be representative of Africa". It wouldn't be very useful, though.

What point exactly are you trying to make?

You might want to read "Guns, Germs and Steel" for another perspective on human history.

commandlinefanonSep 22, 2020

I've only read one of those books: Guns, Germs and Steel, and I learned and retained a _lot_ from it. Now, whether what I learned and retained was accurate and worth retaining is a subject of great dispute - there are a lot of people who really hate this book because they disagree with it, but that's not the author of this post's point. He's saying that books are a bad way of conveying knowledge, not that books contain bad knowledge. Maybe he's just not a great reader?

jtrafficonMay 28, 2017

I find that, ironically, professors are far too cavalier with posting other people's content online without permission.

The only real basis for my opinion is seeing .edu somewhere in the URL when these things are posted. So, I could be wrong, but I can remember two other recent examples: an HBS case, and a couple of chapters from Jared Dimond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

contingenciesonDec 13, 2020

Guns, Germs and Steel. A modern classic, since followed up with many other works. The author's perspective is notable both because of his academic credentials and his predisposition for anthropology in Papua New Guinea (a still surviving geography of many traditional tribes) where he was resident for many years.

The Sea Craft of Prehistory. Still an authoritative tome with respect to the overall nature of watercraft in global prehistory and their fantastic capacity to transport our ancestors vast distances. In some ways I would place more faith in the contents of this book than conventional prehistoric narratives.

Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World: From Australasia to Taiwan. A syncretic prehistoric prespective on one of the more interesting groups of prehistory.

ytersonFeb 25, 2008

Sorry, I accidentally downmodded you. Hopefully adding to your thread will get you more recognition and increased upmods.

Anyways, this is awesome! Precisely the flat earth effect that Friedman foretold.

I just read Guns, Germs, and Steel recently. The underlying principle of all the ultimate causes that Diamond identifies is the auto-catalyst, where disparate entities collaborate and build on each other creating yet more possibilities for collaborating and building. That's why I see stuff like this and get so excited - we're creating a worldwide auto-catalyst and who can tell what the future holds!

anigbrowlonDec 17, 2009

The atmos in the Bay Area is part of the reason SV is where it is.

I would say it's more to do with money than atmosphere.

The Bay area is uber-rich because of a) gold and b) highly favorable geography. The natural harbor created by the bay made San Francisco the major port on the west coast until the early 20th century. At the time that the US wrested California from Mexico, SF was effectively the capital city in the state. Add to that the beneficial agricultural conditions stretching down from the Sacremento Delta (where the city's water still comes from) and it's the kind of perfect setup you read about in books like Guns, Germs and Steel.

arethuzaonOct 3, 2010

Someone mentions Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" below - which is very good. However, can I strongly recommend his book "Collapse" - which is rather thought provoking.


On a related note, a novel that looks at some interesting very long lived organizations and has some interesting philosophical components I'd recommend Neal Stephenson's Anathem:


klenwellonDec 5, 2017

Interesting point. Reminds me of one of the major arguments in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steels as to why the Old World conquered the New and not vice-versa.

Eurasia is a "landscraper" (oriented longitudinally) allowing for easier trade and exchange of innovations (especially related to agriculture and animal domestication) along a broad expanse of land.

The Americas are a skyscraper (more latitudinal orientation) with greater diversity of climate and topology that impeded the spread of some innovations and technologies.

leto_iionOct 23, 2019

...ok, Wikipedia it is:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence_quotient#Criticis...

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bell_Curve#Criticisms

3. You can also find various comments on ideas of intellectual superiority in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

My bottom line is that I see no reason to believe humans can diverge in terms of intelligence over the span of a few generations. Social darwinism is a ridiculous pseudo-scientific idea that gets traction only with people that think they fall on the right side of the IQ divide.

Btw, could you give some examples of researchers that treat IQ seriously and consider it has a strong genetic component?

rossdavidhonSep 22, 2020

I started off thinking he had a good point, but when he came to textbooks, I realized that it doesn't match reality. If what he claims were true, then books like Selfish Gene; Guns, Germs, and Steel, etc. should leave me with LESS knowledge than a typical textbook, which at least has questions, tests, etc. associated with it. But, in fact, I'm pretty sure that most textbooks have taught me precisely nothing, or at least nothing that I retained a year later, whereas Pinker, Taleb, Dawkins, Diamond, and other such authors have absolutely taught me things that stayed with me. So, there must be something missing, and I think it's this: good books stay with you a while. I think about them a lot, for some time after reading them I keep revisiting the ideas.

If I never did that, perhaps I would learn as little from them as the author of this post. But, for textbooks, this almost never happens, and that is probably why textbooks do worse than other non-fiction, even though by his analysis here the reverse should be the case.

ChuckMcMonAug 17, 2020

Okay. But I'm having a hard time connecting the dots between the way in which crop storage amplifies the agronomic output of a group, and the points you raise.

If you're just trying to point out that "Guns, Germs, and Steel" isn't an all inclusive guide to the rise of civilization, or that different people may have made different choices in their analysis, okay I get that too. Every book is just a single voice in the choir of a genre.

Is that what you're trying to say? That you didn't like the book?

rankoonDec 12, 2014

If you want a thoughtful and interesting analysis of why you're wrong, read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. While it's (of course) a simplification of the real world, Diamond looks at questions like "Why did Spaniards conquer Peru, rather than Peruvians invading Spain?". Not surprisingly (to most, I'd hope) it's not because of innate differences between cultures.

klenwellonMar 20, 2019

I feel Jared Diamond illustrated this beautifully in his prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel:

From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners. Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.

The whole prologue is worth reading when contemplating the fraught question of nature and nurture and the importance of IQ.


jbrunonMay 12, 2020

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky
Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Picketty

Both dramatically formed by world view.

porpoiselyonFeb 5, 2019

I read Freakonomics and Guns, Germs and Steel in college and was initially 'amazed' by it. Now, I see it as mass market rubbish used to influence a particular demographic.

But that goes for pretty much everything really. Catcher in the Rye in high school. Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People".

I think books can "change the way you think about almost everything" when you are younger, naive and idealistic. As you grow older, wiser and understand the world more, you leave those childish things behind.

Also, as einstein said : "Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking."

I'm sure I'm not the only one that used reading as a crutch and a form of escapism and to waste time.

But if you want a book that left an impression on me, K&R's C Programming Language is one. It showed me that a technical book can be concise, well written and enjoyable to read.

mvindahlonMar 28, 2017

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond. When I read it in the late 90s, I had already read complete accounts of world history and thought myself well-informed on the topic, yet virtually every chapter blew my mind.

The book is about the patterns that drive human history, both the written history that we know and the vast period of prehistory which we have a pretty good idea about these days due to genetics and linguistics. A recurring pattern has been people moving around, displacing less fortunate people. Further, Diamond looks for root causes to explain why some tribes or nations would gain an edge over their neigbours, and a lot of the explanation is ultimately found in technology and animal farming.

Before I read "Guns, Germs, and Steel", I had been under the impression that the world was a fairly static and ecologically stable place until the European age of discovery started uprooting everything. In reality it was nothing like that. Almost every strip of land is inhabited be people whose ancestors fought off other people, and cultures expanding beyond ecological sustainability and suddenly collapsing is a common event.

Runner-up: anything by Hunter S Thompson

lovemenotonApr 17, 2021

At a different scale and time Japan was indeed blessed with natural resources.

In the revised edition of Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond tells us that the "agriculture package" sent from the Fertile Crescent 5kya arrived here late: 2.3kya - perhaps 1,000 years later than expected.

The purported reason: Jomon was perhaps the most sophisticated hunter-gatherer society ever. For instance, pottery was created by Jomon hunter-gatherers earlier than anywhere else.

In part, because of the sheer abundance of natural resources in Japan, the Jomon peoples had developed a rich society that agriculturism for a long time simply couldn't compete with.

mulationonMar 9, 2011

I suppose this idea has been stated in Jared Diamond's 1997 book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies"

anonymousDanonDec 21, 2010

Another good book along this line is Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'. One of the theories he puts forward for China's failure to keep up with Europe is its homogeneity. The fact that there were so many different european countries competing against each other meant that none could afford to ignore new innovative ideas.

bajsejohannesonSep 30, 2018

This is a plausible story, but that doesn't mean it's true. Anecdotally I felt more productive living in a warmer place than when living in Scandinavia. I think it completely depends on your situation and an actual study is needed to prove it one way or the other.

I also recall Jared Diamond debunking this as a theory for why "the west" got ahead in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

chubotonJune 8, 2015

I don't normally get involved in these types of discussions on the Internet, but I met you when you presented Urbit in SF a couple years ago, and thought your work was very interesting.

Have you heard of "Yali's question"? [1] This is the framing of Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. I believe this is a question that you think people are dodging, perhaps with politically correct wish-wash.

Apparently you think the answer is that some races are genetically superior to others. Jared Diamond of course has a different answer than you.

I tend to believe Diamond, as he lived among various tribes of New Guinea, studied them professionally, and wrote multiple well considered books about the topic. He also speaks simply and plainly, whereas you have a penchant for sophisticated arguments, whether they are true or not.

Let me also say that this type of thinking isn't exactly unique to whites. In my family are various Chinese academics (professors, Ph.D.'s, etc.) In this company, it's not unusual to hear an assertion that the Chinese are genetically superior to other races.

I think you should recant, but only if you have arrived at the conclusion honestly. I think you should also consider the possibility that some past emotional experience is driving all these rationalizations.

[1] http://www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/gungermsteel.html

Y_YonMay 6, 2021

Did you read about this in Guns, Germs, and Steel by any chance?

munificentonSep 22, 2020

There's an unstated assumption here that the reason people read books (especially popular non-fiction) is to extract the maximum usable information content from them over the long-term and that anything less than that is a failure. I think that is fundamentally misconceived. The primary goal of popular non-fiction is to entertain. It is read for pleasure and the only reason it happens to be about things that are true is that readers derive a little extra pleasure from prose that they think may have some relevance to the outside world.

If you read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and recall nothing but find it 6-9 hours of time well-spent, the book has completely achieved its goal. If you get a couple of good anecdotes out of it that you can use at parties later, even better. Not to mention the social cachet of being an intellectual who reads non-fiction for fun.

This otherwise very intelligent essay falls into a common failure mode I see. If you look out in the world and see everyone obviously "doing it wrong", the odds of them all being stupid while you have sole insight are very slim. Instead, it is most often the case that they are doing it right for a goal that is different from the one you presume they have.

(There is also the obvious criticism that if the author feels linear narrative is a poor medium... why did they use it for their essay?)

nemoniaconFeb 27, 2018

It does return results containing "guns". If you search for "germs" and "steel", it returns the book "Guns, Germs and Steel". However it does not appear to return results if you search for "guns".

ubernostrumonJune 18, 2018

If you read Guns, Germs and Steel, it doesn't argue that the specific sequence of observed history was inevitable. In fact, it argues against an "inevitability" position.

The book's goal is to present a coherent explanation of the observed course of history for the general public, without resorting to and in fact debunking "western Europeans dominated because they are a superior breed of human and their culture is superior to other cultures, and superior people win" arguments.

Thus, it argues that the environments in which different groups of humans found themselves influenced the course of observed history (things like climate, geography, availability of domesticable species, etc. all can provide advantages or disadvantages to people in a particular area), but does not argue that these factors made the specific sequence of actual human history inevitable. I suspect the author would agree that if you could re-run human history a huge number of times, you'd see variation in the results; he'd just argue that the factors he covers make certain outcomes more probable than others, so they would occur more frequently in such a mass simulation of possible histories.

duanebonJuly 7, 2015

Jared Diamond may be a celebrated author, but he's a terrible scientist. His "Guns, Germs, and Steel" carefully selects evidence supporting his geo-determinism theory. He was partially right—a civilization's resources have immense impact on the future—but the effects he's talking of are far, far too large to be supported in any serious way by archaeological and historical evidence. It's like pretending to teach macro-economics, but really teaching Marx.

He seems to have drawn very far fetched conclusions from vague anthropological and archeological signals. I fear greatly for those who listen to his hypotheses about the present.

zafkaonJuly 26, 2019

I really liked this article also. I just happen to be reading "Guns, Germs, and steel" so it was fun to actually get some close up perspective from someone doing field work. The discussion about the changing relationships was quite interesting. I am grateful that Mead reported on herself and the other scientists along with the supposed subjects of their field trips.

jtheoryonMay 23, 2014

If that were the only factor, then the diseases of the Americans would likewise have wiped out the arriving Europeans.

The Europeans had much more hard-core diseases because of a mix of factors (including animal domestication), but the chief one was population density.

European diseases evolved in tandem with the people themselves -- each time something swept through the population and crippled/scarred/killed large numbers of the people, the folks with some level of natural immunity would be favored. The diseases would evolve (at a rapid pace, due to reproducing at enormous scale...), as would the people (very painfully).

People in the Americas were mostly more widely spread out. A nasty variant on a disease that wipes out a village and stops there goes extinct.

There were some cities, trading between areas, etc., but not on a European scale.

(Source: "Guns, Germs and Steel", which went into this all in fascinating detail... though admittedly I read it years ago now).

eneveuonFeb 5, 2011

Reminds me of "Guns, Germs, and Steel". I've started reading it a few weeks ago, following recommendations on another HN thread. Great book so far.

Part of the book focuses on diseases, and how epidemic diseases only spread in large populations. Problem appears when small tribes with no immunization are exposed to these "common" diseases...

liftbigweightsonSep 14, 2018

> Guns, Germs, and Steel is a really good book.

It really isn't. It's more mass market fiction than anything to sell books and take your money than a serious book on history. Nobody in academia takes it seriously.

> Another hypothesis I would posit about the evolution of world powers is that WWII Axis members later reached population maximums and declines before Allied powers, and that that somehow shaped their political and situational values to align them together.

No. What aligned axis powers together was the existence of dominant empires like the US and Britain. Had nothing to do with population. When most of the world is controlled by the US and Britain and you are a small power wanting to create an empire of your own, it makes sense to join forces against much larger and stronger powers.

> It's not obvious until you see population graphs of Japan, Italy and other Axis countries are nearly all in population decline unless other unqiue factors like immigration bolster their numbers.

The same applies to the US, Britain, China, Soviet Union ( they were ultimately allies ), etc. The only thing keeping the US population growing is immigration and high immigrant birth rates. The native-born US birth rate has been below replacement since the 1970s.

btillyonMay 9, 2011

The thesis that nobody has every popularized any branch of science is wrong. There used to be a tradition of having seminal books like The Origin of the Species being aimed at being understandable to a large audience of educated people. And books in that vein still do appear, for instance Guns, Germs and Steel is both a popular book and a serious academic work.

ErikCorryonAug 2, 2019

This is basically the "plot" of "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond.

samtonJan 17, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel is worth reading.

thegabezonFeb 5, 2019

1) Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

2) Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

king_nothingonJuly 16, 2018

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is a mind-expanding read. Furthermore, it should be noted that many civilizations have problems roughly around the 250 year / 10 generation time, and the US is quite close to that. Combined with climate change and peak population, things gradually getting more than unpleasant might be the understatement of the millennium. I seriously doubt many civilizations went under quickly, and that most were “frogs” boiled slowly. The time for a dramatic, practical course-correction is now... not tomorrow, not soon and not later.

ericbonApr 23, 2012

I think SETI is horribly misguided. It may be there are other civilizations, but that they are smart enough to avoid each other.

I posit that the only aliens we want to meet are ones that are not interested in us. Any interest, given the likely difference in technological levels, is unlikely to end well for us. The book Guns, Germs, and Steel painted a not-so-rosy picture of the meetings of societies at even small differences of technological advances. These differences are likely to be magnified for races without a common ancestral history and similar starting point in time.

The wishful thinking of people hoping to meet alien civilizations includes assumptions like:

* Alien civilization began just like ours.

* Time passed.

* ????????

* Magically altruistic alien society arises.

If this is true, great. But do I want to bet humanity on it? Hell no.

arjieonFeb 17, 2017

Does the question make sense? The idea of a unified Europe is modern. Rome conquered Gaul, Serbia was in the Ottoman Empire, the Mongols traveled quite far west. The idea that Holland invading and capturing Britain meant different things then than it does now. Now they're both European nations. Then they were just two different nations.

At least two books that provide hypotheses with some supporting evidence are: Guns, Germs, and Steel; and A Splendid Exchange.

One thing that I found incredibly interesting in common was superior technology and the positive feedback loop with that. By this, I mean financial technology (loans, trade, financial derivatives) as well as weapons and mills.

sgarrityonJan 7, 2020

While I'm not sure it goes back nearly as far as 100,000 years (it's been a while since I read it), the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns%2C_Germs%2C_and_Steel) does a compelling job of exploring why complex civilizations arose in some times and places and not in others.

An aspect I found particularly interesting was the idea that basic physical geography could have played a strong role in determining when and where complex civilizations arose.

jdonaldsononFeb 21, 2015

I don't know enough about tides and atmospheres to say whether or not this sort of arrangement would be more conducive towards generating life.

However, there's plenty of evidence that our rotating Earth gives a lot of benefits. There's the jet stream, which helps to spread moisture, there's the tides themselves, which helped create thriving transition zones between aquatic and terrestrial life (tide pools, etc.)

I'm also thinking of Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel. In our own case of planet Earth, we had pretty big geographic obstacles that both enabled and prevented the spread of certain forms of life (Deer can easily migrate within the larger temperate zones, enabling their species to spread easily. Viruses can't easily cross oceans, making it unlikely that they wipe out an entire species.)

rankoonMar 6, 2017

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: why, for example, did the Spanish conquer South America and not vice versa?

narratoronApr 2, 2012

Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse Of Complex Societies is a bit academic but very good study of civilizational collapse. It has a lot of data, studies many different civilizations and examines all popular theories of civilizational collapse. It points to diminshing marginal returns on increasing complexity in civilizations as the mechanism of collapse.

It's far better than the trendy Jared Diamond writing. IMHO, Jared Diamond's collapse is a book written from end to beginning, much like Guns, Germs and Steel to simply reconfirm existing left of center ideas by torturing and cherry picking the data to ignore anything that doesn't reconfirm accepted and popular political narratives.

dionidiumonMar 15, 2021

I followed the second link and while I can't evaluate all the claims made there (many of which seem to be substantive), there are enough that are silly and transparently political so as to cast doubt on the project of "discrediting" his work. Stuff like this:

"Arguments such as these have made him a darling of bourgeois intellectuals, who have grown tired of looking meanspirited and self-serving when they make their transparently desperate efforts to displace histories of imperialism back on its victims. They need a pseudointellectual explanation for inequality in order to sustain the bourgeois social order that guarantees their privilege. This they found in Guns, Germs and Steel."

This kind of psychologizing looks pretty silly to me and I'm not sure what any of it has to do with the arguments made in the actual book.

cpachonJuly 4, 2020

Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

AcerbicZeroonJan 31, 2019

I tried to read Guns, Germs and Steel several years ago, as it was popular, and required by a collage class I was taking. I finished maybe a third of the book before it became clear the author had lost the plot entirely, and all my independent reading on the subject seemed to indicate the author was at best ambitious with his conclusions; At worst, actively spreading misinformation.

carterklein13onJuly 16, 2020

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

famousactressonDec 11, 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a super compelling read. It addresses productivity in the large (not in the small), but not laziness I think. I'm not sure how relevant it is to exploring individuals in a population as it is to looking at productivity of larger populations throughout history.

Spoiler: GG&S ends up arguing that the answer to why some countries are more productive than others is historical geographical circumstance, particularly because of access to large grains and domesticate-able animals which propelled some early cultures into agriculture and the rest is history.

codeulikeonJan 4, 2018

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond has a lot to say on this topic.

caoxuwenonOct 16, 2013

There is a fantastic book - "Why the west rules, for now" that deals with this question (the name sounds quite right-wingish, but it's actually a great history book). I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic to read it.

If I can bring some interesting observations of the author to this discussion, it's that West (including mid east+europe+later america) and East (mostly China+later japan) led at different times. West had a 2000 year head start and reached its peak during Roman empire. East finally caught up around 600 AD and was ahead till the eve of western industrial revolution. Backwardness in some period of history (whether it's in nature resource, technology, social organization), became advantages in others. So you see the power shift constantly happening.

The ultimate reason (obviously i'm doing a huge reduction here) the writer claimed that caused the last shift of power between East and West was simply that America was too far from China. China got the thoughts/technology it needed. Europe found a flood of new problems and solved them with new thoughts/technology.

While I don't completely agree with his arguments, it's nonetheless an interesting and well supported point of view and much better than many other books out there that deals with big history topic (eg. "Guns, Germs and Steel")

wavefunctiononJan 5, 2017

Read 'Guns, Germs and Steel' then. I think its engaging and broad enough in it's scope of the development of different parts of the world to illuminate what more particular aspects of human history you're interested in. The main subject is technological development and its spread across the globe, so it may appeal to a technology-oriented person.

matt4077onJan 15, 2017

The most ambitious book in that regard must be Guns, Germs, and Steel (http://amzn.to/2jKq9ku) by Jared Diamond. It aims to answer the question: "Why did Europeans end up killing/conquering/... American Indians, and not the other way around?

You'll find lots of people saying Diamond has been "debunked" but by that they mean "here's some criticism someone posted online". It's a remarkable work of analysis tracing the causes of human progress over thousands of years.

jallmannonAug 25, 2015

Very interesting! Another book that touches on food history is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which talks a bit about the domestication of agricultural crops. So much of what we grow today bears little to no resemblance to their wild varieties. Eg, cabbage, broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts all come from the same wild plant. Organic and GMO fuss aside, humans have been very, very good at manipulating our environment and food sources for a long time...

sshumakeronMar 29, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel - It will change the way you think about the course of human development and the forces of history.

The Innovator's Dilemma can be summed up in two paragraphs but is still worth reading - it explains why giant companies fail to keep innovating.

Stumbling upon happiness - how people's perception of what makes them happy has little basis in what actually makes them happy - and why.

SymmetryonJune 7, 2015

I'm just going to answer with the books that rearranged my understanding of the world the most. In no particular order.

"Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman.

"Quantum Computing since Democritus" by Scott Aaronson.

"The Strategy of Conflict" by Thomas Schelling.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "The World until Yesterday" by Jared Diamond.

"The Retreat To Commitment" by W. W. Bartley.

"The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan. Despite the name it made me appreciate democracy a lot more.

"Wars, Guns, and Votes" by Paul Collier.

tubeliteonJan 3, 2013

The author is Jared Diamond - IMHO one of the great thinkers of our time, who certainly deserves serious consideration. His books, "Guns, Germs and Steel", "Collapse", "The Third Chimpanzee" are excellent, thought-provoking (even worldview-altering) reads.

That said.. he is right, but from the vantage point of someone in this day and age, who loves science and technology, who has benefitted from the efforts of the billions of post-agricultural humans, I selfishly prefer this outcome to sitting around gathering nuts in uncomfortable underwear, waging endless war with neighbouring bands and tribes.

Sure, agriculture produced a Long Dip in living standards, with population increases outstripping any gains made in production. But the whole point of a large population - perhaps the only redeeming feature of civilization - is that one can trawl the probabilistic waters and produce the few very mad, very interesting geniuses who make it all worthwhile.

I've always thought that the Matrix really came about due to the natural tendency of civilization to increase population density. From the open savannah to cubicles, cars and capsule hotels.. the Matrix is just highly aggressive telecommuting.

And it worked, too. Humans maintained ever higher population densities, produced lots of crazy geniuses who kept improving the interfaces, until significant bits of personalities could jump across from brain to brain. "AIs" were nothing more than mobile multiple-personality disorders. Morpheus' crowd were basically scavengers, helping keep the Matrix clean of dangerous personalities while maintaining a reserve pool of free-range human at Zion, in case the Matrix needed to be repopulated... which it did, from time to time, after epic meme-virus infections which killed off most of the existing inhabitants. The whole "AI vs humans" story and attempts to kill Morpheus & co was a big piece of drama to keep them righteously motivated rather than relaxing with the blue pill.

watwutonSep 22, 2020

> Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?

Maybe those books are specifically bad? I haven't read them, but I had long monologues about some historical books I read giving people basically lectures on topic.

And my brain recalls facts and situations from them when it is associated in unrelated discussions too.

akkartikonDec 27, 2007

"In low tech warfare, the fiercest and most cohesive side wins, even if they're outnumbered 10 to 1.. Industrialization changed the balance."

I'm not sure who's more 'fierce' between the Romans and the Germans. Technological advantage existed long before industrialization: the macedonian pike, the persian archers, the roman phalanx.

Has anybody read "The Fates of Nations" by Paul Colinvaux? Recommended. Especially if you've read Guns, Germs and Steel.

pedrosbmartinsonJune 22, 2020

I agree that Guns, Germs, and Steel is an excellent book, but it does not explain modern economical disparities. It basically explains why Europeans were the ones to conquer the African and American continents in the 15th and 16th centuries, and not the other way around (and the arguments are solid). But it clearly does not explain why modern countries have large economical disparities today, or why some countries colonized by Europeans are highly developed economically (e.g. the US, Australia) while others are not (e.g. Brazil, South Africa).

As for the article, I believe there is more to economical success than political institutions as well, it is such a complex process that it cannot be reduced to any single factor.

astrodustonApr 12, 2016

Africa has more than its fair share of important historical achievements, and given time to recover from the mess that colonial influence has caused, it may likely contribute a whole lot more.

You really need to read Guns, Germs and Steel to realize how handicapped Africa has been historically speaking. Going forward they're very well situated. The economic power of sub-saharan Africa could very well eclipse Europe if it has a chance to develop.

three14onNov 1, 2010

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Karenina_principle:

The Anna Karenina principle was popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel to describe an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one in which every last one of the possible deficiencies has been avoided.

wodenokotoonJune 1, 2015

> Jared Diamond speculates various reasons for why the people there didn't develop into a post-hunter-gatherer civilization (or much beyond that). While much of his work has been disputed

So it would be a waste of time to read Guns Germs and Steel, since it is mostly disputed? What would be a good alternative then?

maxprogramonSep 2, 2017

Poor Charlie's Almanac -- can't beat Charlie Munger when it comes to explaining how the world works.

Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan, Antifragile -- Nassim Taleb reviles lots of new ways to think, first in finance, then everything in later books.

The Origin of Wealth -- Similar to Antifragile with a lot of mental models packed in on many different subjects: economics, business, biology, ...

The Design of Everyday Things -- the bible of design. Read it to know why everyday frustrations with tech are probably not your fault. His book Emotional Design is a good compliment.

The Essential Drucker -- "essential" reading for anyone in management or scaling a startup.

History, and why the world is the way it is today:

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

The Birth of Plenty, William Bernstein

They Made America, Harold Evans -- fantastic history book with each chapter telling the detailed story of a businessperson or inventor in U.S. history

radu_floricicaonFeb 16, 2009

You may want to read Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. You'll definitely enjoy it. The short answer is yes, the long answer starts with geography and how Europe's facilitated lots of small countries and China's one big empire. My favorite example is how Columbus asked three kings to sponsor his voyage to America. In China the first "no" would have been final.

praptakonNov 8, 2012

There is a book that connects large-scale geology with the human-scale history by arguing how the former affects the later. It's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond.

chubotonAug 22, 2020

See my comment below, and the book "Breath" by Nestor:


And this one about the book "Jaws" by Kahn:


The short answer is that two big changes in human history led to this problem:

1. Agriculture. Our diets drastically changed when we started growing food, and that had enormous impact on our jaw, breathing, and facial structure.

If you've read Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) or more recently Sapiens, you'll understand this. They describe agriculture as an advance for the human race, but a setback for individual humans!

2. The industrial revolution. There was a huge population explosion, and we fed all those mouths with even more monotonous diets (more bread, rice, corn, factory farms, etc.) This is taking agriculture to the next level. We replaced animal power with machines in many cases.


If you want a visual, the book "Jaws" tells about Europeans who came to the Americas in ~1600. The Europeans had the benefits of technology that let them travel across the sea, but were closer to 5 feet tall, and they had terrible teeth, and malnutrition.

There was a dentist by the name of Price who observed the Native Americans. Basically he was like "WOW they are 6 feet tall and they have beautiful jaws! They breathe through their nose and not their mouth. They don't sleep with their mouths wide open, and they don't snore."

Mouth breathing is a sign of poor breathing. Just like a boxer knows to breathe through his nose, but when he gets hit too much and tired, he starts breathing through his mouth.

When you're sleeping, you're supposed to breathe through your nose as well (because the organ is made for it), but many people breathe through their mouths due to having obstructed airways. Which are result of diet, weight, and lifestyle.

tom_mellioronMar 29, 2018

There is a good book that deals with the question of why it was Europeans that colonized the Americas (and other places) and not the other way round: "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

One of the main points is that the geography of Eurasia allowed easier transfer of staple crops and useful animals between cultures. More, higher quality food than elsewhere allowed a better division of labor, and among other things it made it possible to send flotillas across the ocean.

(I should add that all the other points made in the book are also non-racist. There is nothing inherent in European humans that made them the explorers and colonizers; it was simply winning the geographic lottery.)

joshuaellingeronSep 26, 2013

In order to be motivated enough to kill other people, you have to get your head into a pretty weird place. Religion is one path there. The religion that happens to dominate countries full of desperate people is... Islam.

I think Christians have a bigger body count than Muslims over the course of human history, primarily because the Europeans happen to be Christian. Hard to think of any religion that hasn't been used to justify a bunch of violence and murder. The violence by people quoting Islam today is mice nuts compared to (a) the crusades, (b) the protestant reformation, (c) the colonization of the new world.

You should really read Guns, Germs, and Steel before claiming that there is something special about this particular religion. Get a little sense of history. Islam in the 600s was amazingly progressive. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_inheritance_jurispruden....

baddoxonFeb 27, 2012

I'm quite familiar with that article, and I really like the hypothesis. I suppose it really comes down to what "satisfaction" or "happiness" or "better off" actually means. The popular book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" discusses this a lot as well, although the author seems to realize the futility in calling certain lifestyles/societies/governments "better" than others.

jcranmeronApr 11, 2021

Charles Mann's 1492 is a better book than Guns, Germs, and Steel for anything pre-Columbian Americas.

The Mayans had a complete, complex logosyllabic writing system. (I believe the syllabic components are more common than logographic components, but I'm not certain). Individual syllables (or logograms) could be combined into a single glyph block in a variety of ways. This writing system, I believe, is connected to Zapotec and epi-Olmec writing systems, but disentangling who created what and who borrowed from whom in Mesoamerica is challenging.

The Aztecs had what appears to be a proto-writing system, largely capable of only recording proper nouns (predominantly place names); most of the writing would instead be conveyed pictographically. Before the Aztecs, in Classical Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan (which was the major power in the Central Mexico Valley at that time period) appears to have never used any form of writing, despite having conquered Classic Maya city-states which were in full florescence of their writing systems.

Quipus originate at least as early as the Wari culture in the Andes, although (again) people only recognize the final Andean civilization, the Inca. Whether or not they are a writing system is debatable--it's known they encode more than just numeric values (such as place names), but whether they can convey enough information to be considered writing is unknown.

Post-contact, Sequoya developed a syllabary for the Cherokee language based only on the knowledge of the existence of the Latin alphabet (he couldn't read English or any European language, but he did have access to European-language materials--that's why several Cherokee letterforms look like Latin ones but have completely different meanings). Missionaries in Canada developed a syllabary for several aboriginal languages that remains in use by many Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut speakers.

bubblewraponMay 11, 2019

It's been years since I read Guns, Germs and Steel, but I think I remember the one or other thing.

Off the top of my head: north/south axis of the Americas vs East/West of Europe/Axis - same crops can grow everywhere. No big mammals suitable for herding had survived in the Americas, sweetcorn only crop suitable for breeding for agriculture.

Writing may have been discovered in some places for fun, but discarded because it was useless - only became established when it was needed for bookkeeping.

One thing I think about a lot, actually, especially with all the discussion here in Europe about the European union: China didn't conquer the other continents because at some point in time, some emperor simply decided China would abandon sailing the high oceans, and China stuck to the decision for hundreds of years. Same thing couldn't happen in Europe because of competition between all the small kingdoms.

In general I seem to remember things from Jared Diamond's books. For many other books I would have to admit the article has a point.

juanreonJuly 19, 2015

Don't miss Harari's "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind". He talks quite a bit about Göbeklitepe, and explains some fascinating hypotheses about it and about its possible role in sparking the agricultural revolution.

A spoiler in a nutshell: conventional wisdom has it that a time of plenty allowed us to settle down and figure out the technology for feeding lots of settlers, and that in turn created a surplus that made it possible to sustain non-productive groups like religious leaders.

It might, however, have been the other way around: it may be that a shared fiction ---possibly a set of beliefs, what today we'd call a religion--- forced people to stay in a place ---maybe Göbeklitepe--- for long enough that new techniques for ensuring sustenance had to be developed. Anyway, do read that book. It's the best on the subject since Guns, Germs and Steel.

raphtonFeb 6, 2019

I have seen Harari's "Sapiens" and Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" in the comments.

Both are nice reads but Harari's book is shallow from multiple respects, and Diamond's book omits important counter-examples.

To me the book that made everything fall into place with respect to political history (and at some point, political philosophy) - and that I actually read before Harari and Diamond - was Francis Fukuyama's "The Origins of Political Order". An absolute must-read.

ubernostrumonNov 11, 2009

Not everyone particularly likes him, but Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" explores pretty much this exact question (as part of a suite of "why did Europeans conquer the Americas instead of the other way around" issues). Glossing over a lot of the details and specifics, the argument he makes is that various factors -- geography, indigenous flora/fauna, etc. -- allowed densely-packed settled human populations to develop in Europe/Africa/Asia before the Americas. And such densely-packed populations are far more conducive to the development of epidemic diseases, which would be why diseases brought by Europeans wrought such havoc on the Americas but not vice-versa (except possibly for syphilis, but that one's still being debated).

LeifCarrotsononNov 13, 2020

I'd love to read an academic analysis of modern cultural, economic, and political trends, and am intrigued by the idea that we can study history scientifically.

But as an outsider, I have a limited awareness for arguments that might appear to be purely factual to this layman but would be controversial to an expert, and don't want to be radicalized by reading some extreme socialist or libertarian academic writing as if it were politically neutral and unbiased. Where do the worldviews and ideologies of authors in this space like like Turchin, Taleb, or Milanovic fall on the political spectrum? What can I read to get an overview of the subject?

I really enjoyed reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel", but was disappointed and surprised when I went to fact-check it later and found that that many of the neat and tidy organic-feeling arguments it contained were heavily disputed by many anthropologists.

jonvillageonDec 26, 2017

This year I've read:

Maxims - Epictetus

The road to serfdom - Friedrich Hayek

De officiis - Cicero

De divinatione - Cicero

Lives of eminent philosophers - Diogenes Laertius

Confessions - Al ghazali

Illiad - Homer

Odyssey - Homer

Influence - Robert Cialdini

Guns, Germs and steel - Jared Diamond

Poor Charlie's Almanack - Charlie Munger - 2nd reading

Andrew Carnegie's Biography - Joseph Frazier

Fooled by Randomness - Nassim Taleb - 2nd reading

Bed of Procrustes - Nassim Taleb

Never Split the Difference - Christopher Voss

The intelligent investor - Benjamin Graham

Autobiography - Benjamin Franklin

I always remember this quote:

"In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn't read all the time -- none, zero." Charlie Munger

myth_busteronAug 8, 2015

For me it was

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

It blew my mind on almost every section! I loved it I suppose coz it answered a lot of questions I'd growing up and a bit more. I've recommended it to everyone in my family.

One critique I received was that there is repetition of ideas but I think its because primarily humans carry past successes anf failures so most of the changes are evolutionary to what worked previously and second this book is akin to a thesis and every chapter is essential to building up the case.

By far the best non-fiction I've read.

rahonJan 17, 2010

1. The Lever of Riches, by Joel Mokyr
2. Guns Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
3. A Farewell to Alms, by Gregory Clark
4. Power and Prosperity, by Mancur Olsen
5. Carnage and Culture, Victor Davis Hanson
6. Capital Ideas, by Peter Bernstein
7. The Geodesic Network, by Peter Huber

jacquesmonDec 29, 2012

> While I can easily sympathize with your position, rich western corporations don't owe jack shit to third world people.

Wow that is so wrong it is terrible. Rich western corporations are rich western corporations because of the 1400s to date absolute rape of the rest of the world by the west.

We, collectively including our corporations owe third world people in a way that we will likely never be able to make good on.

> I believe that you and other people with the same attitude as you should put your money where your mouth is and lead the way for the rest of us.

And I believe that people with your attitude should go and read a few history books. You can start with 'Guns, Germs and Steel', proceed to the VOC company history (the UK version and the Dutch one) as well as the history of India.

Maybe that will change your mind on this. In case you don't feel like reading I'll give you a short preview of one possible conclusion: The 'West' is where it is today because it is standing on the broken backs and bloody remains of millions of people slaughtered, robbed and raped for profit.

btillyonMar 23, 2018

Citation needed.

My understanding of primitive agrarian societies are that they have hard work, hard lives, poor diet, and a population that is generally at the edge of starvation. (In good times, population grows. In bad times...) You might want to read Guns, Germs and Steel as an example of a reference backing this view up. Or read through random snippets of history like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_of_1315%E2%80%931... and get a sense for the very real struggles that people faced.

ktizoonApr 2, 2012

The best answer to this question I have ever found is in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

It takes a look at the question of why one group of people ended up with the tech first and largely comes to the conclusion that it is part of a complex interaction involving the environmental availability of species and geography neccessary for the development of sedentry existence and then also a maximally heterogeneous cultural development.

[edit] the explantation I just gave is a massive oversimplification of his argument, but it would be very hard to fit his book into a post.

PeterWhittakeronSep 5, 2013

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Should be read by all who wonder how our minds work - and how much happens "behind the scenes", "under the covers".

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett. Should be read by all curious to know the full implications of mechanistic evolution (hint: think about what came before life).

The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller. Must-read for anyone in marketing, or anyone wondering why the other guy got laid and you didn't.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Why are we rich and they poor? Why so few domesticated African animals? Why one big China and a many-state Europe?

The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press, by Ben Wilson. Great read about an early 19th C. struggle against unjust laws used to gag journalism. Relevant in today's age of bloggers, etc.

habndsonDec 16, 2019

A book to read immediately after Guns Germs and Steel is Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu.

It's also useful to know that Diamond does not have a degree in Geography and many geographers aren't particularly on board with his ideas.

I think of him the same way I do Malcom Gladwell, a good story teller but he does this by cherrypicking anecdotes more than by a robust assessment of reality.

6renonMay 9, 2012

> Normal people are pessimists [about new ideas]

It's not that they're pessimists, it's just that they aren't interested in new ideas.

I'm reading Guns, germs and steel, and it notes one advantage of European civilization was that it had access to large mammals that were easily domesticated, and one of the ways in which they were easy to domesticate was that they are hierarchically organized socially, and "follow the leader". This helps, because humans just needed to insert themselves at the top of the hierarchy to control the herd/pack.

I'd realized some time ago that we ourselves are also domesticated, but just this morning, in watching a dog cross the road following its owner, I realized that human beings themselves are socially hierarchical, and this makes us easier to domesticate, and easier to control.

We have been controlled by gods/priests, within militaries, within corporations, within sports, taste in movies, TV, reddit memes, pop music, pop psychology, political movements, the habit of obedience we have towards the law, scientific paradigms, by intellectual ideas, by principles - even free-thinking intellectual radicals have leaders they read and follow. Marketers try to identify influencers, thought-leaders, trend-setters. If you control the top of the hierarchy, the rest will follow.

So it's not that normal people are pessimists about new ideas, it's just that they follow what the leader of their hierarchy follows. It takes time for an idea to get to that point, and by then it's no longer "new". Even within startups, there is a great deal of this - people follow the popular companies, brands, products, personalities, from Apple to vim to lisp to Alan Kay. They have religious wars.

The human being who really does follow a new idea for its own sake is rare and in a straightforward biological sense, is not normal.

egivaonSep 11, 2011

Thanks for this comment. Humans certainly are predisposed to equality, but it might better be termed as "reciprocity".

You may have read a very famous book by Jared Diamond called "Guns, Germs and Steel" which won the '98 Pulitzer in nonfiction. A lot of these conversations about wealth and equality (and why they are not equal among different sets of society, or among countries) are addressed in the book. This is definitely a life-changing read worth looking into.

Because you might be really (really) busy, I also recommend a short article that sumarizes a lot of the themes in an interesting way: http://www.umass.edu/preferen/gintis/SocJusticeRes.pdf
Cheers - Jamison

brian_cloutieronJuly 2, 2021

This comment is worded in such a way that I initially disbelieved it. After all, two of the three items in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" are technologies. I remember the book spending a lot of time on diseases, but also remember a lengthy description of Cortes' conquest of the Aztec's who had far superior numbers.

Apparently I remembered incorrectly, and the parent comment is correct. Here's a quote from the book:

> The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans' conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the batlefield from European guns and swords. Those germs undermined Indian resistance by killing most Indians and their leaders and by sapping the survivors' morale. For instance, in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards, to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population of many millions. That Cortes reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, escaped with the loss of "only" two-thirds of his force, and managed to fight his way back to the coast demonstrates both Spanish military advantages and the initial naivete of the Aztecs. But when Cortes's next onslaught came, the Aztecs were no longer naive and fought street by street with the utmost tenacity. What gave the Spaniards a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. Aztec survivors were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards' invincibility. By 1618, Mexico's initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million.

LucianLMZonSep 11, 2017

In no particular order and probably not remembering all:

The signal and the noise - Nate Silver;

Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb;

Antifragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb;

1984 - Orwell;

Man's search for meaning - Viktor Frankl;

Diplomacy - Henry Kissinger (not only international politics but also deep-thinking strategy that can be used anywhere);

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius;

Superforecasting - Philip Tetlock;

Propaganda - Edward Bernays;

Pitch anything - Oren Klaff;

Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond;

How to win friends and influence people& Stop worrying (both by Dale Carnegie);

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins;

Trust - Francis Fukuyama;

potatoliciousonDec 11, 2013

This really is the million-dollar question isn't it? It unfolds in all kinds of interesting directions and has big implications - why are some countries more productive than others? Why are some cultures more technologically advanced?

There's a good book on this: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Well worth a read.

There are no easy answers here, though being mindful of history is important in arguing this topic - predisposition and environment have historically been used by social darwinists to assert superiority over other cultures and races (see: "tropical climates breed laziness" and "blacks are predisposed to lesser intelligence but greater physical ability"). They're not verboten, but it pays to tread carefully if you want to argue in that direction.

lovemenotonAug 18, 2015

I'd agree that a hunter/gatherer lifestyle may provide a local maximum in some regions, at some points in time.

For instance, in Japan, the Jomon hunter/gatherers persisted long after they might have been supplanted by settled agriculturists just across the water. According to Jared Diamond in his later edition of Guns, Germs and Steel, the sheer fertility of Japan's land and seas allowed the Jomon people to maintain a relatively sophisticated culture, mitigating advances which might otherwise have arrived from the fertile crescent via Korea.

noetic_techyonJan 11, 2019

Am I the only one out there NOT impressed by books that deep dive into basic stuff like sleep or human origins? You don't need a book to know 80% of everything there is to know on these subjects, just keep up with the news. I'm generally looking for the true outlier books now on topics I would least expect. Not the next "Guns Germs and Steel" rehash. Been there done that.

cartoonworldonJuly 26, 2021

Deaths. There is so much beyond "merely" dying within the actual events that unfolded and continue.

Only less than 60,000[0] people die per year from influenza, a family of viruses that is well understood, vaccines somewhat effective and available, and almost everybody has some immunological response against due to previous exposure. Tens of millions are affected by influenza yearly, it stops their work for weeks, causes their family to stop their work and care for them, causes errors and economic cost, social cost, etc. People hate influenza and it does result in critical hospitalizations and death among people all over the place. Mostly old people die from that too, but it ruins everybody's productivity.

A novel virus that is at best like influenza, with an additional asymptomatic cadre, affecting the entire country or world, with a completely naive immune response? You should read Guns, Germs, and Steel[1]

We are clearly capable of acting against and preventing Sars-CoV-2 infection, we are as yet unable to cure aging. How preposterous.

[0] - https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

qrendelonAug 9, 2015

I read Sapiens after seeing the same edge.org conversation, and while it was mostly good, I think it started off strong and then became less so as it went on. Especially towards the end it became almost a hot list of current events the author had read about in the newspaper, like browsing through a lot of TED talks, without a lot of coherence to a larger picture. My other complaint would be that some portions seemed less scholarly and heavily influenced by the author's opinions and personal worldview. Not a bad book by any means but somewhat less than the "history of humankind" I had hoped for. The first quarter focusing on prehistory through agriculture was very informative, though leaves me questioning if I'm just suffering from Gell-Mann amnesia. Rated it 4/5 on Goodreads when I was finished.

I found Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond to be perhaps a better book of similar nature overall, and would add in The 10,000 Year Explosion by Cochran and Harpending as another good one for those who liked Sapiens.

msluyteronDec 18, 2008

I again recommend Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel," for the refutation of "they were just smarter" argument.

afarrellonMar 27, 2016

It definitely depends on my mood and what I'm doing.

My default is Lindsey Stirling[1]. Her music is up-tempo instrumental. I'll also put on a Pandora station seeded on Natalie McMaster.

Sometimes I'm doing something where I'm spending a bunch of time waiting on the machine and I will listen to a history audiobook. Recommendations:

- Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

- Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois

- to answer the Question DuBois raises at the end: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

- 1776 by David McCulloch

- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

- not history, but if you've only read Lord of the Rings on paper, you really should listen to the Audiobook.

Also lately I've been repeatedly listening to the songs from a musical about a certain bastard orphan son of a whore...

[1] https://m.youtube.com/user/lindseystomp

jacquesmonAug 2, 2009

This article almost reads like a synopsis of 'guns, germs and steel' by Jared Diamond.

aaronbrethorstonAug 25, 2012

What is a power user of a mobile phone, and what makes a 3.5" screen unacceptable?

edit: Ah, I see. Reading a lot. I actually read all of Guns, Germs, and Steel on my iPhone 4S earlier this year, and probably do an hour or two of reading on it a day in total.

It's not necessarily an ideal experience, but it certainly isn't terrible. I'm looking forward to the rumored 4" screen on the upcoming The New iPhone, but I think that 4.5" and 5" are both way too big.

The impression I get is that most larger screens out there today don't pack in larger pixels, but instead just use bigger pixels. Ultimately, I'm more interested in the quality of the text than I am the total number of lines I can see at one time. For instance, before I got the retina screen-equipped iPad this year, I actually preferred reading on the iPhone to the iPad by a wide margin.

patrickkonJan 31, 2013

Haven't read Guns, Germs and Steel myself, but "why and how European civilizations were able to conquer technology and the world, and specifically why many of the developments critical to the rise of European supremacy are not found in other societies" sounds like a description of "Civilisation" by Niall Ferguson.


(Niall Ferguson is pretty outspoken politically too, e.g. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/a-full-f...


freshhawkonMay 11, 2019

STEM educations generally don't teach you how to read properly. Not "read" as in turn letters into works into sentences into ideas. I mean "read" as in absorb what the author is saying, understand it, evaluate it in context and absorb these new ideas.

I had this kind of education, and I'm still pissed about it. It was such a wasted opportunity and so much wasted time. At least I learned this later on, but it was not easy.

You are right that tell is referring to Selfish Gene and Guns, Germs and Steel as "serious non-fiction tomes". These are pop-science books that are summarizing the actual serious non-fiction works that developed these ideas. And I actually like both those books, I think they did a lot to bring these ideas to the public, to people who wouldn't read about these subjects deeply and critically, they are made for regular people curious about a subject to do a surface read and get familiar with new explanatory frameworks.

alanctgardner2onOct 6, 2013

Correction: to run the algorithm you're required to have at least as many stones as the end result. That's like saying because MAX_INT is set, math on computers is pointless. Any physical process will have a finite upper bound on the size of the result.

I agree that this isn't a remarkably efficient algorithm, but it is novel (it's completely unintuitive to the average reader), and it has a sound basis in mathematics. For the people who employed it, it was an efficient algorithm, or else they wouldn't have continued to use it. Nobody is proposing you're not as smart because you don't do math this way (although frankly, I doubt if you would have derived this by yourself, under the same conditions).

On a side note, I strongly recommend 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. I've been knocked for mentioning it before because it's a pop-sci book, but it explains why cultures 'progressed' at different rates because of largely environmental factors. This might help you overcome your ridiculously defensive bias against African cultures.

vinceguidryonNov 26, 2016

I've moved most of my reading activity from books to long-form journalism articles, Stratfor, HN, and Quora. That said, books have not completely left my life. There's a certain cross-section of really really smart people, who encode their ideas only in books. These ideas are foundational, they provide the bedrock on which I understand the rest of it.

These ideas, you think you've read half a book and gotten the gist, but as time wears on, the ideas take on new life. Take, for example, a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel. I'm not going to go back and reread that book, but the underlying idea of geography as a fundamental determinant of society, is worth revisiting as time goes on. Because you miss things. You miss the full depth of what and how.

I find myself reading fewer books, and spending more time with each one. I savor each chapter, considering the implications over the next day before I read the next. The latest book I've read is The Dictator's Handbook, and I've found it pivotal. It places so much in perspective. The idea that corporate governance and small-country tyranny would have so much in common is something you just agree with because it sounds so right, but the book actually walks you through how and why.

That's what I'm looking for in a book. Something that totally changes how I look at a certain aspect of the world. Anything else just isn't worth the time.

sr3donAug 3, 2010

Not in any particular order, but I'd highly recommend these interesting books:

How to run a Thriving Business - Ralph Warner (the founder of Nolo book)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (I read this based on a recommendation by a fellow HNer)

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions - Dan Ariely.

The Winner-Take-All Society - Robert H. Frank, et all.

Gun, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond.

a-salehonApr 9, 2016

I am currently reading Guns, germs and steel by Jarred Diamond, and he would probably disagree, that the primary reason for greater productivity of European settlers compared to native inhabitants of Americas would be culture. If I would simplify one of the theses of that book, it might be, that culture and sucess of various civilization might be just a by-product of the interaction of their available technology and resources within their geography.

On the other hand, I'd like to see more in-depth investigation into cultures role into prosperity of people. For example, I would really like to see the reasons why in certain states it is culturally acceptable to accept bribes.

oofabzonFeb 17, 2014

Columbus had to shop around before he found a monarch willing to bankroll his voyage. Portugal, Genoa, Venice, and England all turned him down before Spain accepted.

Also, Spain took him on because there was intense competition between the European powers, and they didn't want Columbus working for anyone else.

On the other hand, all of China was ruled by the Ming dynasty. When the new Emperor turned down the eastern expedition, Zheng He had no one else to turn to. The Emperor had no competitors so he had no incentive to find new lands first.

Competition leads to innovation. Monopolies lead to stagnation.

(This interpretation of events is from "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond.)

KaizynonSep 19, 2007

1) Musashi's Book of Five Rings
2) Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People
3) Machaivelli's The Prince
4) Sun-Tzu's The Art of War
5) Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action
6) Steven Johnson's Emergence
7) Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel
8) Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything
9) Mark Buchanan's Nexus
10) C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain

Taken together, these books cover just about everything there is to know about the sciences, about human history, human nature and how to understand and communicate effectively with other people. Only one other book besides these needs to be studied/read: The Bible.

egjerlowonAug 10, 2018

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond has its fair share of critics, but one thing I feel it does well is introduce to the general populace the ways of thinking around questions like this. In the case of migration, one of the factors that slowed it down so much is the lack of properly 'domestic' peoples that actually had a population surplus. If you're a hunter-gatherer tribe that has reached an equilibrium between children born and people dying, and your hunting grounds provide the resources you need to sustain that equilibrium, there is little reason to go looking elsewhere (migrate).

vpribishonSep 2, 2017

Goedel, Escher, Bach -- If you're reading this page you will dig this book.

Guns, Germs, and Steel -- how circumstance drove civilizations. Fun storytelling even if it's a bit too "just-so". definitely trains you to look at any situation and seek it's origins with less initial judgement.

The Visual Display of Quantitive Information -- gets at the essence of communication and medium. more than it seems!

The Alchemy of Finance -- "reflexivity", but if you're also interested in Soros or some finance storytelling it's worth it.

The Selfish Gene -- as everyone else has said.

The Prize -- the history of oil. huh? yeah. Likely to change how you look at the history of technology, government, power, the saudis, and geopolitics.

punazjonOct 11, 2016

I think this is a very good question. And I don't know how to answer it...

Some good books address possible problems (at least tangentially) in Central and South America:

"Confessions of an Economic Hitman" outlines alleged ways that state organized trade deals frequently enrich the political classes as the expense of the labor classes. (tinfoil hat territory; a free documentary is available on youtube I think)

"Why Nations Fail" is a rebuttal to "Guns Germs and Steel" which addresses the affects of extractive economic policies (where legislation and leadership take more from the workers than they produce in profits) versus "inclusive economic policies" (where all are allowed to profit, not just the state). An example is made as to why one side of the Mexican border is incredibly poor compared to 50 miles away across the US border (rebutting the effect of geography). (I see no real conspiracy theory in this book)

"Shock Doctrine" assesses the effects of social turmoil being frequently used to implement extractive economic policies which would not be easily accepted in times of peace. (tinfoil hat territory)

All of these are basically opinion books, albeit written by people more knowledgable than we. I think to a certain extent economics is an opinion anyways.

jamiionNov 17, 2008

Theres a fascinating book called "Guns, Germs and Steel" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel) which attempts to explain why Eurasia was a dominant force for almost the entire history of civilisation, despite that fact that humans evolved in Africa.

The main idea is that Eurasia had a massive advantage in farmable crops (that is crops which were amenable to farming after a small number of mutations) and domesticable animals large enough to replace manual labour. In addition, the climatic differences across Eurasia are smaller than in Africa or the Americas so domesticated species were useful over a larger area.

Agriculture supports higher population densities (larger armies) which in turn leads to specialisation (guns and steel) and highly evolved germs to which the local population is resistant (during Spanish colonisation of

Whether or not you agree with the specific ideas its amazing that its even possible to consider the question and produce an answer that is, at least in part, empirically falsifiable.

NAFV_PonFeb 21, 2014

I thought the Europeans had been at each other's throats for around three hundred years.

In Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, he argues that the technological innovations of Europe during the enlightenment were partially due to intense competition and wars. He compared it to China, which by 1350 was highly advanced, but had a more homogeneous political structure, suggesting less competition.

LeifCarrotsononAug 5, 2020

Sorry, that was a point from Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I should have just listed the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig.

Those are the basic examples of the few animals which are docile herbivores, breeding in captivity, growing to a large, breeding adult in a couple years, and which live in social groups that accept humans at the top of the hierarchy. Building a society with protein and labor from cows is much easier than, say, harnessing turkeys. There are a billion cows on the planet, but if human society grinds to a halt and we stop artificially inseminating them and running the feed plots those species might not survive.

alphydanonMay 13, 2015

I also recommend reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" ... and some other literature. Some of the points you make have obvious counter-examples.

>> People from warmer areas tend to have slower, drawn out speech patterns

Where do you get that from? How many languages do you know? Have you spoken to an anverage Andalousian or somebody from Sud Tirol? To an average Dane, Belgian? To a Chilean or an Argentinian? I only speak about 4 and a half languages, but as soon as you consider dialects, local variations, etc ... speed and temperature don't seem to have any effect (and my own datapoints show the inverse relationship, but it's too little data).

Regarding working harder in cold areas leading to civilization ... didn't western civilization develop first in the middle east (fertile crescent)? ... and then the torch of the "leading western civilization" was passed around many warm nations (Greeks, Romans, Al-andalus & North Africa, etc) before the northerners got anywhere?

nopinsightonMay 10, 2010

It really depends on what you choose to read. When you read a good summary of a book coupled with insightful comments, you may gain better balanced perspectives than reading the whole book itself (which in a lot of cases just present one-sided arguments). Moreover, you might have spent only 1/10 of the time and will likely have a pretty good idea whether it's worth spending more time to read it in full.

A nice example is the Wikipedia article on the book 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' which presents an outline of its theory together with criticism and responses--the latter two cannot be found in the book itself. I read the whole 480-page book a few years ago and I currently remember less than the outline given in that single article. Yes, it was a fairly enjoyable reading experience, but comparing to all other opportunities and hobbies I could be doing, I would have saved the time by reading the Wikipedia article and other summaries & critics instead. Another book I regret reading in full is the 320-page 'Blink' which is well-summarized in a single article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blink_%28book%29.

To actually learn rather than having fun with prose and anecdotes, in the amount of time reading one book in full, you can instead explore a summary of ten books in interconnected areas and develop a more complete model of the field. If you pick good summaries and well-cited books (so that we can delve into conclusions without arguing too much about raw data), you can learn a whole lot more and in a more balanced way in the same amount of time. (Unless you are working on a dissertation in that field, too many details are simply unnecessary and could in fact interfere with analysis and understanding--as stated in the book 'Blink' above.)

ragaskaronJuly 19, 2008

The popular book (and television series) Guns, Germs and Steel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel) addresses the reasons why technological advancements tended to occur in particular cultures and its title provides the short answer to your question.

You may also find it interesting to read up about colonialism -- some of the statements you've made represent attitudes that are considered somewhat dated by modern standards; it's almost as if they were cribbed from "The White Man's Burden" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_man%27s_burden).

katasticonOct 12, 2017

Until you remember everyone died from disease... and snakes (actual problem)... and larger tribes that decided "last night the moon was half, so it must mean we need to murder your tribe."

People became food raisers because it was a better life. It allowed plentiful food so that others could do things unrelated to food. Art... and science.

For one good documentary (or book), check out Guns, Germs and Steel. (it's usually found online and fun to watch!) A book which documents the reasons some civilizations went from tribes, to eventual empires, while others like one in Papa New Guinea remained hunter-gatherers. That tribe, for example, has no "beasts of burden" on the island, which were the initial "machinery" that multiplied the amount of work output a tribe could produce compared to one of only men.

But at no point does anyone suggest that hunter-gathering was "better." It was the thing everyone wanted to get away from but certain societies had an easier time doing it.

It's like that guy who eschewed modern society and went hiking out in Canada/Alaska with no research or even a map. He died. He died poisoned by simple plants that anyone would have told him not to eat. And he died less than a couple miles from a ranger station full of food, shelter, and an emergency phone/radio. "Oops."

Romanticize all you want. But never forget it's a fantasy.

swingline-747onSep 14, 2018

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a really good book. Two hospital MD's independently stopped me at gym to say "that's one of the best books I've ever read." And the department chair where I worked exclaimed similarly.

Another hypothesis I would posit about the evolution of world powers is that WWII Axis members later reached population maximums and declines before Allied powers, and that that somehow shaped their political and situational values to align them together. It's not obvious until you see population graphs of Japan, Italy and other Axis countries are nearly all in population decline unless other unqiue factors like immigration bolster their numbers.

EvgenyonDec 28, 2013

It's hard to choose a single book, as I've read (or listened to) a number of books this year.

I'll choose Daniel Kahneman - Thinking, Fast and Slow (http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman-ebo...).

The way it changed my life was to make me actually think more about the way my mind operates, the decisions I make and the way these decisions affect my life. As a consequence, there were a few books I read later that were loosely related to this one in the way that they all refer to the way people think.

Barry Schwartz - The Paradox of Choice

Steven Pinker - How the Mind Works

Nassim Taleb - The Black Swan; and Fooled by Randomness

Leonard Mlodinov - The Drunkard's Walk (quite similar to Fooled by Randomness)

Carol Dweck - Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Neil Postman / Andrew Postman - Amusing Ourselves to Death

Rolf Dobelli - The Art of Thinking Clearly (just started)

On my reading list now:

Quiet by Susan Cain - mentioned already

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker

Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash

Jared Diamond - The World Until Yesterday

Also, did not quite change my life, but very recommended:

Neal Stephenson - Anathem.

You may have to struggle through the beginning, but as soon as I understood the way the world he devised operates, I was thrilled completely.

chubotonApr 21, 2019

If you read Guns, Germs and Steel or maybe Sapiens, then the term "indigenous" should start to make sense.

Wikipedia says they are known as "first peoples":


For the most part, that is literally true -- they were the first group of humans on that land, humans having originated in Africa.

These books make the point that agriculture is the essential difference between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Agricultural technology enables people to get on boats and take the land of non-agricultural societies. It enables greater popular density and wealth.

This happened all over the world in the same progression, at roughly the same times.

In America, the indigenous peoples came from Asia by way Alaska more than 10,000 years ago. Then Europeans came by boat ~500 years ago.

I don't know much about the history of Japan, but it seems to have been inhabited by non-Japanese/Chinese and then the Chinese ancestors of Japanese conquered the land. If anyone knows details I'm interested.



China was of course one of the first agricultural societies, and this enabled them to expand their territory rapidly, on the Asian continent and beyond. There were indigenous peoples living all over the Phillipines, Polynesia, Hawaii, etc. but they look "Asian" now because of the Chinese expansion. There were two different groups of people that collided.

ggchappellonJan 13, 2010

See Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (which some disagree with, but an interesting book nonetheless). He says that the key factor was the large number of animal species in the old world that could be domesticated. So Europeans all had constant contact with animals and their diseases, which led to (1) more diseases, and (2) greater resistance (among those that survived). While in the Americas, with their relative lack of such species, the people had both fewer diseases (so they were less of a threat to the Europeans) and less resistance (so the Europeans were more of a threat to them).

woodandsteelonNov 24, 2018

I have no expertise here, but I recall that Jarod Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel claims that almost all wild animals lack a certain set of characteristics that are essential for domestication. These include the ability to breed when living outside the wilderness (elephants lack this) and to be made tame so they don't attack humans and can be trained for useful work (zebras lack this).

Also, it seems to me that people would not put the effort needed for domestication unless they thought the animal could fill some important niche that none of the present domesticated animals does.

robinwarrenonSep 5, 2015

Just finished Guns, Germs and Steel by Jarod Diamond. A bit longer than it needed to be for my purposes but he covers the material in some depth, I'd definitely recommend it.

Prior to that I'd read Psycho Vertical by Andy Kirk Patrick which I would very strongly recommend, I don't think you need to be into climbing to enjoy it.

I think I'm about to start reading What the doormouse said by John Markoff or finish reading Technical revolutions and financial capital by Carlota Perez. I think I'll leave the latter and restart it when I've more brain time to spend on it.

hmmdaronOct 13, 2014

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0393317552 Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared M. Diamond does a great job of explaining this in detail, and not just in the North Americas, but examples throughout the world.

It boils down to a few basic ideas

1: Native american's had no real concept of quarantine. If someone was sick, the extended family would take care of them. In turn the extend family would become infected, and infect the rest of the village/tribe as they travelled.

2: Europeans lived in cities with much greater population densities. Their immune systems were much more accustomed to dealing with a large variety of infectious agents. Whereas the native americans live is small homogenous villages. With very little exposure to outside influences, other than other tribes/villages.

lostericonJan 5, 2017

You'll have to be a little more specific about what you're looking for. Are you looking for world history? US history? Philosophy? History in tech?

I can't say much about world history, but I've been reading some books to get a better understanding of American politics:

- "War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires": Interesting analysis on the rise and fall of conquering civilizations. Tons of parallels between dead empires and the US empire.

- "The Death and Life of Great American Cities": Nations are built on cities, and America's cities are very poorly built. What are we doing wrong, what could we do better?

- "The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War": Very dense, lots of data. Suggests that our current political turmoil is due to our economy and society expecting unrealistic growth, and a disconnect between reality and the expectation of citizens.

- The Origins of Totalitarianism: "Slippery slope" gets thrown around a lot w.r.t. suspicious legislation. This book provides context on past societies that slipped, and where we stand on that slope.

- "Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization": Optimistic look at the future of globalism.

- "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed": An analysis of the cascade failure that took out almost all the great bronze-age civilizations around the Mediterranean region in 1177BC.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" - I haven't read this, but this is the #1 book that pops up in conversations.

YhippaonJuly 7, 2013

This was the case for me. We spent most of our time reading about the civil war in elementary school. Not the policy part either but more about all of the activities of the war and battles. Post that it was mostly "Western Civilization" meaning Antiquity and European and American history.

The only time I really got to study about the rest of the world was in a semester-long class that was optional! My AP History class was the closest thing that delved into the negative aspects of US history. I really didn't start questioning things until I read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" shortly after graduating college.

btillyonJan 30, 2018

This is also true.

With relatively fixed technology, the human population tends to expand to the carrying capacity of the land.

Agriculture did not make life better. What it did is make that carrying capacity a LOT higher. At the cost of great increases in how much work was needed, risk of plague, and so on. This topic is covered in some detail in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

When, as in the 1200s, the climate moved to increase that carrying capacity, life improved. When, as in the 1300s, climate made life harder, we had mass famine after mass famine (and by coincidence, also the Black Death).

Technology has increased the carrying capacity many-fold. And also changed the incentives for large families. We can look back and laugh about how wrong Malthus was, and say that it is clear in hindsight that the English should have ignored his analysis and intervened in the Irish Potato Famine back in the 1800s. But his theories were grounded in the universal truth of what life had been like in agricultural societies for thousands of years.

I wish all of this was more widely understood.

msluyteronDec 18, 2008

Uhh, dude, if you read your history then pretty much everywhere has invaded everywhere else at some point

Not really. Europeans essentially invaded and colonized the western hemisphere, Africa, India, Australia, etc... and yet none of the reverse happened. The Aztecs did not land on the shores of Spain. The Zulu did not invade France. (About the closest you can point to is the Turks besieging Vienna.) If you've ever wondered why europe dominated the new world & africa and not vice versa, I highly recommend Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel."

colordropsonMar 5, 2018

I know it's anecdotal but I agree. There is a risk that alternative ways of thinking can stunt one's life, but if the struggle is overcome, you will be left ahead of everyone else, learning self control while maintaining a unique and valuable alternative way of approaching the world. I remember reading a while back that there might be a genetic basis to ADHD and that it's really an older way of thinking, based around randomized hunter gatherer lifestyles rather than the single minded tedium of agriculture. This reminded me of the words of the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, mentioning that despite lack of technology, he believed Papua New Guineans have some of the strongest native intelligence on Earth.

anon1385onOct 10, 2013

It's usually called environmental determinism and is something no modern anthropologist or geographer really wants to be associated with (as much as a modern biologist would want to be associated with eugenics or phrenology).

GGS did cause some despair among academics, as century old discredited ideas were presented as science to the public.


The popularity of the work Guns, germs and steel (GGS) has served to bring the question of human–environment connections once again to the forefront of popular thought. We assert that the recent success of GGS represents both a persistence of environmental determinist logic and a contemporary trend that privileges the environment as the primary influence on human–environment relationships. […] The book is found to mirror earlier environmental determinism by failing to take into account many of the advances in human–environmental thought since the early twentieth century. Its popular success suggests the pitfalls of failures to acknowledge the complex, intertwined and indivisible relationship that exists among humans and their environment. Furthermore, there is evidence that the environmental determinism espoused in GGS has caught the attention of international development policymakers potentially influencing future outlays of aid and assistance to the developing world. These conclusions raise cautionary flags against repeating past theoretical mistakes by accepting simplistic, causal explanations based largely on a deterministic conception of the natural environment.

jernfrostonJan 22, 2016

Actually one of the points made in the book Guns, Germs and Steel is that technology and inventions aren't developed because there is a need for them. Rather inventions pop up and disappear all the time through history in different cultures. But what makes the technology stay around is that it ends up getting used.

E.g. South America did invent wheels, but since there was no ox or horse to pull the invention had not real practical application beyond toys and never got developed.

So according to this view I guess technology is always in danger of disappearing if it isn't being used.

E.g. the Apollo moon rocket can't be build anymore because the engineers, companies and machines needed to build all the parts and assembly it are no longer around. One would have to recreate a 1960s American industrial base to do it.

neilkakkaronJuly 10, 2019

Thanks, looking forward to it!

Another monster book I just finished reading and want to do a summary of is Guns, Germs and Steel, which is similar, but focused on one time-section.

I found writing down a mind map of what the author wants to convey really helps distill down the ideas.

More than once, I'd read through one section of the book (again) - and be unable to make the connection to the overall theme. This post (and any summary I want to read) aims to solve that - do the hard work once of figuring out the progression, how things connected together, so I can draw upon them for future use.

fredleyonJan 20, 2020

Fundamentally because they're on the same contiental plate, and had exposure to the same germs, having been infected by the same or similar animals.

The decimation of the Americas was largely due to the fact that the ships that arrived brought with them germs to which the natives had no defences at all.

This topic is covered extensively in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

joshriversonApr 20, 2015

An idea that I got after reading Guns, Germs, and Steel was that at a basic level, killing other humans is the correct response to most threats, annoyances, or disagreements. Manager wants to micromanage with story points? Kill him. Problem solved.

Now, clearly, if everybody is killing everyone beyond their immediate family, it is hard to have any sort of larger society. Living and collaborating under constant threat of immediate death wouldn't work. So we have a large set of social adaptations to limit the killing and restrain ourselves.

My point here, is that 'why do human kill other humans' is a less interesting question than 'why are the social adaptations that prevent killing not taking affect?' The problem of fighting isn't a moral failing, or some flaw in the human soul. Killing makes sense within the decision making scope of our conscious brains, and is the result of inadequate build up of collective structures of inhibition that are required to have larger groups of people in closer contact with each other, and as the groups get bigger and the contact becomes closer, we need to engineer new schemes for inhibiting the 'lets just kill them off and solve this once and for all' urge.

mturmononAug 6, 2014

This fascinating story has been making its way through the science community for a few weeks. Here's a report from July 11:


(Abstract only, main report is behind a paywall.) And the recent update:


The last paragraph reveals how serious the lack of medical attention can be:

"In the mid-1980s, a group of Yora tribespeople who made contact with loggers in their region in the Peruvian Amazon were first infected by influenza and later came down with pneumonia and other secondary infections. Without antibiotics, “the old people died and all the young kids died,” Hill says. A subsequent study by medical anthropologist Glenn Shepard of the Paraense Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil, revealed that some 300 people died, between 50% and 60% of the population."

It's a tragic illustration of one of the points of Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

DarmanionAug 17, 2007

I must rescind this statement. As a result of these discussions, I began reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, which, in the chapter "To Farm or not to Farm," makes clear the disconnect between agriculture and sedentary living:

"Another misconception is that there is necesarrily a sharp divide between nomadic hunter-gatherers and sedentary food producers. In reality, although we frequently develop such a contrast, hunter-gathers in some productive areas, including North America's Pacific Northwest coast and possibly southeastern Australia, became sedentary but never became food producers. Other hunter-gatherers, in Palestine, costal Peru, and Japan, became sedentary first and adopted food production much later. Sedentary groups probably made up a much higher fraction 15,000 years ago, when all inhabited parts of the world (including the most productive areas) were still occupied by hunter-gatherers, than they do today, when the few remaining hunter-gathers survive only in unproductive areas where nomadism is the sole option.

Conversely, there are mobile groups of food producers. Some modern nomads of New Guinea's Lake Plains made clearings in the jungle, plant bananas and papayas, go off for a few months to live again as hunter-gatherers, return to check on their crops, weed the garden if they find the crops growing, set off again to hunt, return months later to check again, and settle down for a while to harvest and eat if their garden has not produced. Apache Indians of the southwestern United States settled down to farm in the summer at high elevations and toward the north, then withdrew to the south and to lower elevations to wander in search of wild foods, during the winter. Many herding peoples of Africa and Asia shift camp along regular seasonal routes to take advantage of predictable seasonal changes in pasturage. Thus, the shift from hunting-gathering to food production did not always coincide with a shift from nomadism to sedentary living."

(<i>Guns, Germs, and Steel</i> p. 106)

joshuaellingeronJune 25, 2013

It is not exactly a history book but Guns, Germs, and Steel should be on the reading list. It starts at the dawn of modern humans and explains a lot about how the world is organized.

It started with a simple question from a New Guinea native to an anthropologist of European descent: "Why do you guys have all the loot?"

Hint -- it's not because of smarts.

vickychijwanionDec 23, 2018

- Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39088590-gene-machine) - by the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the ribosome, Venki Ramakrishnan, in the same vein as The Double Helix. Highly recommended.

- Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1842.Guns_Germs_and_Steel)

- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18077903-creativity-inc) - about Pixar's internal culture

- An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18170143-an-astronaut-s-g...)

NwallinsonMar 12, 2010

> Compare the impact the US system of government has had with the impact the Icelandic form cited in this article had. The indigenous populations of North America and Australia have been around for thousands of years as well, with their "chieftain" systems of government, and similarly they just stagnated.

You really ought to check out Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel#The_theo...

Specifically, he would question your use of the word stagnate.

partycoderonJune 19, 2017

I recommend the following video by CGP Grey, largely based on the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond:

Now, history doesn't give a lot of merit to natives. The largest battle in the Americas, the siege of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, was won with the help of 80,000 to 200,000 Tlaxcalan natives, which amounted for 99% of the infantry used.

mindcrimeonDec 16, 2019

A lot of what I read in 2020 will involve just finishing titles I started in 2019 (or before). So my "To read in 2020" list already has a lot of stuff on it.

But to name ones that I very specifically want to read/finish sooner than later... hmm... there are a number of books that fall more into the realms of history / anthropology / etc., that I have been meaning to read. Books like Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Sapiens - things of that nature. One of those that I'm already on, but probably won't finish before Jan 1, is Human Universals by Donald Brown.

I also want to get through some books on writing/reading mathematical proofs. Mathematical Reasoning: Writing and Proof by Ted Sundstrom, or The Book of Proof by Richard Hammack.

Another one I hope to get through is Designing Data-Intensive Applications.

scott_sonJuly 13, 2009

That's similar to the argument Jared Diamond makes in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. In order to explain the obvious problem - China was clearly ahead of western Europe in terms of technology and science - he appeals to the political structure. China was politically unified around 300 AD, while western Europe was only recently politically unified (and not in the same sense as China was).

Political unification has advantages, but it also gives you less people making decisions, with fewer competitors. So decisions to not pursue technology and science were magnified and unchallenged. In western Europe, if you didn't do something, your neighbors would.

I felt this was a fair assessment. But I also though that, considering the path China is on now, western Europe being so dominant in the world might become a historical blip.

Built withby tracyhenry


Follow me on