Author: Jared Diamond
Details: (c) Jared Diamond 1997; Pub Vintage 1998; ISBN 0-09-930278-0
Verdict: Everything popular science should be; informative, readable, well-argued and rigorous
Reasons for reading it: Several reasons: I became a fan of Diamond from reading Why is sex fun? a while ago; it was recommended by several friends as well as various media; and I'm interested in its subject matter. I had in fact started reading my parents' copy, but this was while I was hanging around in hospital waiting rooms, so I didn't take much in and anyway didn't get past the first couple of chapters.
How it came into my hands: M lent it to me, after I'd mentioned the above reasons for wanting to read it, and also because it was relevant to some of the stuff we've been talking about.
Diamond seems to have a knack for asking good questions. The question in Guns, germs and steel is about why Westerners conquered most of the rest of the world, rather than being conquered by it. He dismisses the 'obvious' answers, namely racial superiority and better technology, the first on the grounds that, duh, he's not racist as there is no scientific grounds for racism, and the second because it simply postpones the question. He sets out to demonstrate why Western society developed so much better technology than the rest of the world.
The other thing about Diamond is that he's incredibly erudite. He's quite capable, even well qualified, to talk about 13000 years of human history across the whole planet, from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist, a linguist, a social anthropologist etc etc. And he does so extremely well. His style is consistently engaging, he's very good at putting across complex subjects without over-simplifying. Plus he makes a clear distinction between what is accepted fact, what is controversial (and gives a fair hearing to views that disagree with his), and what is his own personal opinion or speculation. I really wish more pop science books were like this!
GG&S is also successful because the thread of the argument is very clear; the overall point never gets lost in the detail. Actually, Diamond perhaps goes a little too far with this; he reiterates his central argument so much that the book starts to become repetitive. Almost the whole of the final third of the book is spent summarizing the points made in the first two thirds; I feel that the balance is slightly wrong here. However, it's preferable to err in this direction than to write confusingly, especially as the range of subjects is so broad and the argument so complex.
I was particularly endeared by the diversions into linguistics, but also learnt a lot and enjoyed the learning about subjects less dear to me. And the sections dealing with straight biology, genetics, etc were covered in enough detail to be interesting, even though I'm far from a layman in this respect.
Also some interesting remarks in the epilogue about scientific methodology and how to move beyond the testable hypotheses paradigm. In short, highly recommended, despite a few minor flaws.