Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Holy crow, what a book! And I had never heard of it until my son brought it home from school. How did I miss this Pulitzer winner? I think it was because the book won the same year I was immersed in studying for my PhD exams. There's my excuse. But I would say it doesn't matter that it was written 20 years ago. It holds up.

This book has a very ambitious scope and yet is still accessible, with anecdotes and examples and even bits of humor to keep the theory and the long history (he begins 13,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended) from turning dry. Diamond begins with a question posed to him by his friend Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea but we black people had little cargo of our own?" More broadly, the question is why did some countries conquer others, develop more technology, expand their empires, acquire wealth, and so on, when others did not?

This book explores a range of what he calls "proximate causes," but the most significant "ultimate causes" are the geography and the ecology of different areas. One reason is that some environments allowed for a shift from hunter/gatherer to food production. Among other things, this enables people to stay put, which facilitates interactions such as collaboration and the formation of tribes as well as immunity to certain diseases (most of which come from animals, apparently); and food production, which allows for stock-piling, permits some people the option of not acquiring food, so they can devote their time to other pursuits--for example, trades, art, language, politics, religion--and the technology such as the guns and steel in the book's title. A key insight: because Europe is on a east/west axis (it's longest axis runs from Portugal to China, say) the climate is common across a long stretch, which facilitated the transfer of plants and languages and early technology. By contrast, North America and South America have an axis that runs north/south. The corn grown in, say, Nebraska might do well if transplanted down to a similar climate in South America, but how is corn to cross the arid desert and skinny little Panama in between?

Another distinction I liked was the one Diamond makes between two different types of information transfer, for disseminating ideas, skills, or technologies. One means is called blueprinting. I hand you a camera, and you use it as a model to make your own camera. The other is idea diffusion, in which you have seen me use the camera, so you know it's "out there" and ready to be created, and you go home and make one for yourself.

All in all, a dense but great read. Some of the chapters toward the end got a bit repetitive for me--but that's perhaps natural with a book that is covering all the continents and different cultures, all of which in various ways are following the lines of his general argument.

One of the most interesting suggestions is in the Afterword, when he explains that his discoveries about the different forms of organization of human groups have implications for business and our world today. (Bill Gates has applied some of these principles to his workplace, for example.)

An intriguing read, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of modern humankind.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


This true history reads almost like a novel, and O'Brien has a fine eye for the details that bring these individual women alive on the page. Maybe that's why this book broke my heart a bit. (A spoiler here: we all know that Amelia Earhart dies. All but one of the other four women die in ways that are either similarly violent or quieter tragedies.) The four other women he follows are Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden. Although they hail from different parts of the US and disparate economic situations, each woman faces the challenge of trying to be taken seriously as a pilot in an age when men were making statements like "If women spent more time making homes pleasant and less time trying to get men's jobs there would be less domestic trouble ... The world would be happier" and "Our experience has disclosed the fact that most women have insufficient mechanical ability and little desire to observe and learn." Arg.

Unsentimentally engaging and well researched, this book is for readers of Hidden Figures and anyone who wants to learn more about the 1930s and recovered women's histories. One of my favorite lines is the one O'Brien puts on the frontispiece, from Louise Thaden: "If you will tell me why, or how, people fall in love, I will tell you why, or how, I happened to take up aviation."