Perusing various blogs I’ve found two history books pop up frequently: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) and Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001). It’s not often grand historical theories get discussed on a popular level this way. Major publishers released both books, as opposed to academic presses, and reviewers often frame them in opposition. In part, Hanson has encouraged a “battle of the books” by directly referencing (and criticizing) Guns Germs and Steel in the introduction to Carnage and Culture. The similarity between the two titles probably isn’t a coincidence on Hanson’s part, either.
Jared Diamond pushes environmental determinism in his own work, that geographic and climatic conditions directly determine the success of a given society. This isn’t a new idea; you can trace it back to the early work of the structuralist Annales school starting in 1929, with Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch. The Annales focus on “total history” often boiled down to analyzing the influence of the environment on the structure of societies. Braudel and his fellows tended to have a more nuanced approach than Diamond, and after the 1970s, the introduction of mentalités (collective thought-structures) moved away from geographic/ecological determinism by recognizing human historical agency.
All very interesting work, but none of the above is nearly as accessible as Guns, Germs and Steel; the Annales confined themselves to scholarly monographs and journals spanning a good fifty years (and mostly in French, at that), so the impact on popular historical discourse hasn’t nearly been as great as Diamond’s. There’s another factor as well: while the Annales generally kept to the Mediterranean, Diamond has a far broader focus, bringing this method of analysis away from Europe to Africa, the Americas et al. To encompass such a large span of places (and time) Diamond must necessarily work in broad strokes, in stark contrast to the hyper-detailed histories produced by the Annales school. The problem, for those of us who’ve looked at the Annales, is that Diamond’s (by comparison) simplified analysis suffers many of the same problems: the lack of a meta-narrative for historical change means that it is almost impossible to apply these ideas to anything beyond pre-modern societies in a convincing way. Or, I should say, you could make it look convincing, until the reader squints. To Diamond’s credit, it does require some hard squinting.
At their heart, both Diamond and Hanson seek to answer the same question: Why has Europe (and by extension, the nebulous “West”) come to dominate the world? Why did Europeans colonize the Americas, rather than the Aztecs enveloping Europe? To Diamond, environmental factors facilitated the growth of European societies and intellectual and technological development in a way that eventually guaranteed success; it had nothing to do with the innate superiority of Europeans, or, as well, the innate superiority of Western culture. While Hanson accepts the first point, he rejects the second. It is Western Culture, first seen in Greece, and later across Europe, that led to a “Western way of War” and the eventual triumph of the European colonial Empires.
This too isn’t a new idea. Hanson rejects notions of race but the cultural component remains the same as that espoused by western historians for many, many years. I take his point that cultural values influence soldiers on an individual level, but I don’t accept his idea of a monolithic western tradition spanning, uninterrupted, from ancient Greece to modern times. While traditions did exert influence over time, the cultures which we now lump together as “western” were markedly different in character depending on where and when you look.
It’s also worth noting that the core values Hanson ascribes to Western culture—ideas of individualism, rationalism, and free inquiry, among others—are rarely wholly present as realities in the civilizations Hanson describes. At best, they are ideals. This weakness is most evident in the chapter on the battle of Poitiers (a strange choice, for one, since the battle itself is rather poorly documented, and some historians believe it was only a minor skirmish), as his attempts to graft these values to early medieval Frankish culture flounder. Significant omissions, such as the Mongol invasions of Europe in the thirteenth century providing a clear example of an eastern army overrunning European opponents repeatedly on European soil, and a refusal to accept the complexities of cross-cultural exchange in preference for one-way transmission of cultural traits from the west to the world, weaken Hanson’s argument.
That’s not to say Carnage and Culture isn’t worth reading; it certainly is. There’s a great discussion of continuity between the classical and medieval period that’s well worth a look, and the descriptions of individual battles are excellent. Just the same, Guns, Germs and Steel didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize for nothing, and there’s something admirable in Diamond’s attempt at providing a coherent, synthesized explanation for why human development proceeded at such different rates on different continents. Hanson, too, attempts an answer, though to him, culture is the primary mover, not environmental factors. These are interesting and thought-provoking works, towering above the usual dreck plaguing bookstore “history” sections these days.
Often enough, the way comparisons of these books leave off is for the reviewer to present these two extremes and say “the truth lies somewhere in between.”
I don’t actually believe this.
We can chalk the flaws of both books precisely to their reductive approaches to human history, namely, that there is one overriding factor which determines the fate of a given society. Environmental determinism reduces human history to the impact of environmental factors over the long term, while I would argue that while a portion of societal development (or simply societal change) involves human efforts to overcome environmental stress, the means by which a society overcomes its environment are highly variable. The idea of a set of prescribed traits determining the ultimate success of a society on the world stage, as set out by Hanson, also creates a grand theory of history that neatly slots societal change into an understandable mechanism. While these are certainly different approaches in substance, the actual form of argument in both cases is the same, and the conclusions drawn are remarkably similar: that European dominance on the world stage for a good chunk of human history was ultimately inevitable.
The ways we structure the past is a fascinating topic, mind, but we should be cautious when impressing reductive structures onto history. Many professional historians have moved away from grand theories because, well, our history is kind of a mess, and it’s all too easy to see illusory patterns appear in the chaos. Guns, Germs and Steel and Carnage and Culture both structure the past through a single lens, giving attractive theories of societal change that simplify things far too much. Their choice of focus has as much to do with the respective careers of their authors as with the historical events they consider. Societal change, to me, is far more complex than the neat interpretative systems of either book allow; a melding of environment, culture, religion, individual action, technological advances, and, at times, pure luck. The human experience through the ages often comes down to one phrase:
“What the hell is going on?’”
We can try answering that question, but I’m not sure that we can reach a universally accepted answer.