Review of Guns Germs and Steel
Is This How the West Won? Back to News
from July 8 issue of Science
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Lions Television, London, for National Geographic Television and Films, Washington, DC. Three one-hour episodes. On PBS, Monday evenings, 11 to 25 July 2005.
Jared Diamond is a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles; a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1). Now he is also the star of a three-part series, based on the book, that airs this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. The series details Diamond's influential yet controversial explanation for why the world is divided into haves and have-nots--the principal reason, he maintains, is geography: At the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,500 years ago, prehistoric hunter-gatherers living amongst the wild ancestors of today's domesticated plants and animals--most notably the wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle native to the Near East--were ideally situated to invent farming and amass the agricultural surpluses that fueled the rise of civilization and technology. Meanwhile, the unfortunate inhabitants of geographic regions with few domesticable species--such as Africa and the New World--lagged behind in their development; even worse, they eventually fell victim to armies of (mostly European) colonizers whose technologically superior weaponry allowed them to subjugate entire continents. Adding to this onslaught of guns and steel, Diamond argues, were the ravages of deadly diseases that the invaders brought with them, such as smallpox, to which Europeans had developed some immunity (often through their long coexistence with domesticated animals) but which felled native peoples by the millions.
Diamond's thesis is one of the most widely discussed big ideas of recent years, and deservedly so. For one thing, it is an explicitly anti-racist explanation for social and economic inequalities on a global level, an explanation that dispenses with subtle and not-so-subtle assumptions about the inherent superiority of Europeans and their descendants. The have-nots, Diamond counters, are simply those whose prehistoric ancestors were dealt an unlucky draw of the geographical cards. The book, a best-seller in both the original and paperback editions, is required reading in many university courses. It has stimulated considerable debate; for that reason alone a film version, which will undoubtedly reach an even wider audience than the book, seems justified. And it would be churlish to deny Diamond the star treatment he receives in the film, even if one repeated scene of the biologist cruising down a river in Papua New Guinea--while the narrator, actor Peter Coyote, tells us dramatically that Diamond is "on a quest" to understand the roots of power--seems just a bit too focused on the person rather than the ideas.
More worrying, however, is the fact that during all of Diamond's journeys--which take him across the globe by boat, train, airplane, and helicopter, with film crew in tow--the viewer is told only once (at the end of the first hour) that there are scholars who disagree with his thesis. Nor are any of these dissenters ever interviewed, even though a number of other experts and personalities appear in the film to bolster Diamond's viewpoint. This imbalance is a disservice to television viewers, who are surely sophisticated enough to hear challenges to Diamond's ideas without losing track of the plot line. The omission might not be so serious if Diamond had only recently presented his thesis, but over the eight years since the book was first published its tenets have been much debated. Indeed, it is usually assigned to university students precisely so that they can discuss the merits of Diamond's arguments. In 2001, for example, Cornell University in New York required all of that year's incoming undergraduates to read Guns, Germs, and Steel as part of a new student reading project (2). Members of Cornell's anthropology department organized a campus-wide debate about the book and raised a number of important questions--including whether the geographic vagaries of 11,000 years ago are sufficient to explain why hundreds of millions of human beings live in dire poverty today.
The film opens with Diamond in Papua New Guinea, where he has conducted research for many decades and become an expert on the island's birds. The viewer is told that Diamond's quest began more than 30 years ago, when a man named Yali, whom the biologist "met on a beach," asks him, "Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?" In the book, Diamond explains that Yali was a "remarkable local politician," but in the film we are told nothing about Yali or who he was. Instead, an actor playing Yali looms before the camera intoning what Diamond calls "Yali's question," which Diamond will spend the ensuing years trying to answer. Here, the film makes its first misstep: In fact, Yali was the charismatic leader of an indigenous post-World War II movement in New Guinea, sometimes called the cargo cult, that sought to acquire more European goods [readers wanting to know more can consult anthropologist Peter Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo (3)]. By portraying Yali as an anonymous native on the beach, rather than the sophisticated leader he was, the filmmakers inadvertently exaggerate the (albeit important) cultural differences between New Guinea and Western societies.
Fortunately, this scene is followed by some of the film's strongest sequences, in which Diamond and the narrator (aided by interviews with several respected experts on the "Neolithic Revolution") explain the origins of agriculture in the Near East. The viewer gets to visit two important Neolithic excavations in progress, including 11,500-year-old Dhra' in the Jordan Valley, one of the earliest farming villages ever discovered. Meanwhile, Diamond points out, to convincing effect, that out of 14 large mammals domesticated by humans over the millennia since Dhra' was founded, none come from Africa or North America, and only one (the llama) comes from South America. Moreover, Diamond argues, farming was able to spread both east and west from its origins in the Near East (and eventually to North America) because points on the globe that share the same latitude share the same day length and often a similar climate and vegetation.
So far, so good. But in the second segment, the film falters badly by devoting almost the entire hour to a day in November 1532, when 168 Spaniards led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro massacred 7,000 Incans in the highlands of Peru and captured their emperor, Ataxalpa. This horrific episode is intended to demonstrate how the Spaniards' skills on horseback (the horse being one of the 14 domesticated animals), combined with their technological ability to produce swords of fine tempered steel, could overcome the superior numbers of Ataxalpa's 80,000-man army. Yet despite several entertaining sequences featuring a swashbuckling expert swordsman and horseback rider who demonstrates how the conquistadors cut down the Incas, we are also told that the Spaniards attacked a peaceful gathering and that Ataxalpa had made the fatal decision not to arm his men with their bronze weapons that day. This raises at least two questions: First, whether the Spaniards would have won had they faced Ataxalpa's army in a real battle. Second, why, even if the Europeans did have the ability to wipe out the Incans, they were willing to carry out such terrible acts. Is conquest of other peoples a logical outcome of technological superiority? Today, most of us would argue against any such notion. Here lies a major weakness in Diamond's entire thesis--it fails to explain the conscious decisions that humans make when they resort to violent conquest.
In the third and final hour, Diamond travels to Africa--as indeed he must if the film is to be honest to its message. His quest takes him to a town in northern Zambia, one of the world's poorest countries, where both AIDS and malaria are taking a devastating toll. While talking to a malaria expert in a clinic where up to seven children die each day, Diamond suddenly breaks down in sobs. The moment is genuine, spontaneous, and moving; the decision of the filmmakers to leave it in is, of course, a deliberate one. Yet I think it was the correct decision. Whether Diamond is right or wrong about the reason, much of the world's population is suffering terribly from disease, warfare, and other causes. And no matter what the causes, something has to be done about that suffering. Diamond himself makes this point at the end of the film:
…the message is a hopeful one; it's not a deterministic, fatalistic one that says forget about Africa and underdeveloped areas. It says there are specific reasons why different parts of the world ended up as they did, and with understanding of those reasons, we can use that knowledge to help the places that historically were at a disadvantage.
That, at any rate, is a statement that most everyone can agree upon.
1 J. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, New York, 1997).
2 See www.provost.cornell.edu/g_g_s.htm.
3 P. Lawrence, Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea (Manchester Univ. Press, Manchester, UK, 1964).
Michael Balter is a Paris-based writer for Science and the author of The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk, An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization.