Why did certain civilizations thrive while others were subjugated or obliterated? In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and in this televised adaptation, Jared Diamond argues that the foundations for a people’s success can be tied to their geographic roots. This is a simple and even obvious assessment which Diamond defends by studying, then comparing and contrasting various ancient population centers. While his common sense approach might raise eyebrows and demand rigorous debate the historical research and conjecture do appear sound and this three-part documentary presents his case in a very straight-forward and deliberate manner.
Diamond is a professor of physiology at UCLA which might infer an innate curiosity about people’s development throughout the world, but the genesis of his investigation is presented as the result of his repeated bird-watching expeditions to New Guinea. The island is home to one of the ancient seats of civilization but the indigenous population is perceived to be backward, still relying on traditional sustenance farming and hunting. Asked why white men were so rich while New Guineans were relatively poor, Diamond was troubled by having no concrete answers. Twenty-five years later, he feels he has.
The first segment of the documentary examines how geography played a role in early human development, specifically focusing on what crops and animals were available in certain regions. New Guinea is set against The Fertile Crescent, an area in the north of what is now the Middle East. As the name implies the Fertile Crescent was rich in resources and people began to understand how to cultivate the wild grasses such as wheat, and how to domesticate the animals such as goats. In New Guinea there were no animals which could be domesticated and the edible plants were much lower in nutritional value. One people were able to settle and spend less time surviving which afforded them time to develop culture and science.
An interesting concept which I had never considered was how these advantages spread to Europe and Northern Africa. Diamond’s answer is that the climate along the latitude remain similar but vary greatly when moving north or south. The same crops which thrived in Mesopotamia could thrive in Greece, but not in the tropics.
In the second segment Diamond examines European conquest of The New World, specifically Francisco Pizarro’s campaign against the Incas in Peru. Steel was a technological achievement we still benefit from today, and even in the 16th Century the advantage was profound. However the annihilation of the indigenous people is more the result of disease, in particular smallpox. The working theory is that Europeans, having developed for so long amidst crowded conditions with livestock, had developed natural resistance to diseases which crossed over from the animals. In The Americas the only real domesticated animal was the llama and people did not live in close proximity to large numbers of them. The result is that smallpox ravaged an unprepared people who had no diseases of consequence to help them prepare.
For the final chapter Diamond explores Africa, beginning with the intrusion of whites in the Southern tip. These settlers found a temperate climate suitable for their way of life and their technological advancement quickly intimidated what indigenous population they came across. However, the further northward their expansion the less success they had with their crops and animals, and settlers quickly fell sick to a disease they had no protection against. This was the tropics and the rules had changed; the crops and animals which the Africans reared with great success were acclimated to the environment but European imports could not tolerate the soil or the tropical seasons. The disease was malaria, something that the locals had long lived with and had adapted to with some success, although they mostly contained outbreaks through living in small communities and away from standing water.
European domination of Africa came in a more directly forceful manner than disease, relying heavily on firepower to subjugate the people and a rail system to transport precious minerals and gems from the deposits in Central Africa south. By relying on such brutal means the whites could dominate with only small numbers, forcing the Africans to perform the labor in malaria-infested places. This colonial system interrupted the traditions which had served the people of Africa so well, forcing them into population centers which were more hard-hit by outbreaks and eliminating their traditional farming methods. Contemporary Africa, it is argued, still suffers from the vicious colonial experience and now people are grievously affected by tropical diseases; some experts speculate that malaria has a greater impact on the well-being and economic development of Sub-Saharan Africa than AIDS.
The success of this documentary relies heavily on Jared Diamond’s ability not only to explain his concepts but to be an affable host. Fortunately he excels at both, and the three segments breeze by almost too quickly. There’s a lot of discussion of ancient history which requires the use of actors dressing up in period costumes but these scenes are at least tasteful and match the narration well. There is very little reliance on CGI or other expensive computer graphics which, for me, is a blessing. There are also historical experts brought in to explain some things, either interpreting the Inca perspective or showing off how impressive Spanish steel really was. These add variety and prove to be enriching enough, mostly because the producers found engaging and colorful experts to have on camera. The only stylistic issue I can take with the documentary is the occasional nostalgic fit Diamond throws in when something has great personal meaning but little bearing on his arguments.
The only real drawback is that the documentary doesn’t dig deep enough, but this is an understandable limitation. If you want more information you read the book, something I haven’t done. Still, there seemed to be some glaring omissions which probably could have been given some screen time, in particular the development of the Chinese in relationship to that of Europe. The most frustrating mystery which remains from watching only what was shown takes place in the third segment. Diamond presents a thriving civilization throughout central Africa who had developed agriculture and animal husbandry, but makes no effort to explain why these people were not as technologically advanced as the Europeans who eventually overran and took over. Scenes of happy African farmers waving to whites who are losing their cattle and watching their crops fail contrasted with the Belgian Congo really begs the question, why weren’t the people who had beaten malaria able to better resist domination? You can assume that guns had never made it to Africa and that this alone was responsible for the advantage, but Diamond never manages to make this explicit or even to address that aspect of what happened. Fortunately he does take the time to examine modern Africa and its complicated web of developmental problems with compassion and hope, two qualities which really guide the entire documentary from start to finish. The man is so invested in this project which has consumed half of his life that, despite its minor flaws, it’s really an engaging and informative joy to watch.
Guns, Germs and Steel was produced by National Geographic for television. It’s presented in a widescreen format with standard Dolby stereo sound. You can rent it from Netflix or watch it in chunks on Youtube; the first installment is embedded below.