Review Essay

How the West Won: History That Feels Good Usually Isn't

In This Review

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

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
By Jared Diamond
W.W. Norton, 1997, 480 pp. $27.50 Purchase

Virgil claimed that it was Rome's task to show mercy to the conquered and overthrow the proud. Two thousand years later, America's professors have assigned themselves the old Virgilian project. Book after book is published in a vast effort to convince Americans to think more highly of foreign peoples and cultures -- especially those once deemed primitive -- and less highly of themselves.

This is sometimes called the "therapeutic" approach to history, but it might be more accurate to call it the anti-imperialistic approach. The imperialist writers of a century ago sought to show how once small, backward peoples -- the English, the Americans, the Prussians -- built states and then, through their own superior personal qualities, rose to dominate a continent or the globe. The new anti-imperialist writers want to tell exactly the opposite story. The rise of the West, as they tell it, reflects no honor or glory on Western civilization. If it happened at all -- and some anti-imperial writers deny it -- it only proves the West's superior ruthlessness and cruelty. Or else, as other anti-imperial writers say, the rise of the West was the result of happenstance: the good luck of having plenty of iron and coal conveniently close, a temperate climate, easy access to the sea. Much of the anti-imperial school's writing can immediately be recognized as exercises in excuse-making. But as the screenwriters of Hollywood occasionally remind us, even very bad genres can sometimes produce good works.

A good example of a bad genre is perhaps the best way to describe Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond is an evolutionary biologist by training, but over the past quarter-century he became interested in what he calls "Yali's question." Yali was a local politician Diamond got to know while doing fieldwork in New Guinea. Diamond describes him as inquisitive and charismatic but tinged with resentment. As Diamond remembers it, Yali's question was posed like this: "Why is it that you white people developed so much

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