Guns, Germs and Steel on PBS

4 minute read

Starting next week (July 11), PBS is airing a three-part series based on Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Science is running an early review of the film by reporter Michael Balter. Some quotes:

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.

I've heard from many with much to say about Diamond's ideas, so it is indeed unfortunate that a wider discussion is not part of the series. Some of the ideas are old, and relatively uncontroversial. The real problems with the book are omissions -- omissions of factors that likely were very important to human history, but don't fit nicely into Diamond's scheme.

Diamond's fundamental idea is that geographical barriers of one kind or another prevented the free movement of technological knowledge and economic items. These barriers include ecological boundaries (across which it may be difficult to move crop plants) and resource abundances (without which it may be difficult to develop new technologies like metallurgy or domesticate new animals).

If you haven't heard of Diamond's book, these ideas may nonetheless seem familiar. That is because they are essentially the same arguments made by Franz Boas and other early anthropologists who focused on human cultures as primarily differing for ecological and geographic reasons. Diamond adds a strongly Marxist element, placing the mode of production and its geographical prerequisites as necessarily causal to other

The book is leavened by historical episodes like this one, which are not always portrayed rightly:

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.

As for myself, I think the book is very entertaining. But it clearly leaves out much of what we know from archaeology about the origins of complex societies -- and much of what we know is not congenial to his thesis. By and large, Diamond does not think that non-geographic social factors were important to the makeup of complex societies. Nor does he give any credence to the idea that genetic differences have any causal role. It has been many years since I read the book, but my troubles with it mainly derive from these issues. Diamond assumes that the fate of societies is essentially cast by their ecological circumstances. Once agriculture begins, all else is an inevitable consequence of population growth and local ecology.

But societies and people are heterogenous in their willingness to adopt technological innovations and cultural changes. Today, the interaction of different groups is in many cases driven by forces internal to each society. Hunter-gatherers still exist not because of their local ecology, but because the structure of social benefits does not favor their adoption of agricultural life. Sometimes these benefits differ between members of the same society, especially between men and women, but also between haves and have-nots. There is every reason to expect that groups were equally or more heterogenous in the past in such social structures. It adds complexity to the simple ecological base assumed by Diamond. In particular, such social differences may help to explain the rapaciousness of conquest, the abandonment of ostensible moral rules in interactions between groups, and the persistence or collapse of some societies in the face of ecological or social challenges.

Likewise, people are genetically heterogenous. Diamond gives some attention to disease, but it is difficult to overestimate its effect on human history. People have in some cases vastly different evolved immune adaptations to diseases, and different parts of the world differ greatly in the incidence of such diseases, which have likely increased over time. Disease likely made some social or technological transitions difficult in some parts of the world. But it also made some parts of the world essentially impenetrable by would-be conquerors or colonizers.

In any event, the series looks like it may be interesting compared to many other recent offerings, so we may be tuning in. If so, you can bet I'll cover it.