Guns, Germs and Steel (2005– )

TV Series  -  Documentary | History
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A PBS documentary concerning Jared Diamond's theory on why there is such disparity between those who have advanced technology and those who still live primitively. He argues it is due to ... See full summary »

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A PBS documentary concerning Jared Diamond's theory on why there is such disparity between those who have advanced technology and those who still live primitively. He argues it is due to the acquisition of guns and steel and the changes brought about by germs. Written by bzb2001

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11 July 2005 (USA)  »

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Where's the cargo? (For the answer: See James Burke's "Connections")
17 June 2011 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

If you are in an anthropology class and get an essay question on the final, and you don't answer the question, what sort of grade will you get?

The question "Guns, Germs and Steel" purportedly set out to answer was: "Why do white people have so much cargo, but we New Guineans have so little?"

"Cargo" originally referred to the manufactured goods brought in on cargo planes, and became a general term to describe all sorts of stuff, including pens, paper, radios, factory made clothes, books, boxes of cornflakes, fertilizer, cars, etc. So the question is why Western countries make more manufactured products than under-developed countries like New Guinea.

GG&S instead talks about how, beginning some 10,000 years ago, various agricultural techniques, crops and animals contributed to the development of more advanced, complex civilizations. Diamond doesn't say whether he took an introductory cultural anthropology course, but if he had, he would have probably learned about this; the theory has been around for at least 40 years.

He then talks about why Western countries were able to conquer and colonize the Americas and much of Asia: Because of superior weapons and, incidentally, germs that killed people in these new regions by the millions. OK, got it. But when the Europeans arrived, they weren't bringing tons of cargo in their small sailing ships, beyond that needed to do a little bartering.

The "cargo" comes much later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has little to do with agrarian practices, and much to do with the industrial and scientific revolution that was born in Europe. So to answer the New Guinean's question, Diamond should have explained the origins of science and technology, and its applications in industrial and factory production, including the assembly line.

But why did this scientific and technological revolution occur in Europe, when the Middle East, China, and ancient Greece and Rome had at least some science and technology that just sort of petered out?

Diamond doesn't say.

He does say that he thinks the New Guineans and the people of other under developed countries are as intelligent as people in developed countries. I agree with this; there is absolutely no link between genetics of groups and IQ. What you do have is a vast difference in education and knowledge.

Europeans found a way to, in a sense, pool individual intelligence and knowledge. A vital step was the creation by Queen Elizabeth at the suggestion of Sir Francis Bacon of the first government supported and funded scientific societies. These societies enabled scientists to share and critique each others' work, and to publish these findings for anyone to read, a truly revolutionary idea.

This not only spurred further scientific research that spanned generations, but made it possible for any common person with common sense to apply these scientific principles to technological innovation and produce a product that could make them rich. Throw in mass produced books, newspapers and journals by movable type printing presses, patent protection, and a free market with economic mobility, and you got "progress," a self-propelling growth of new ideas, new technology and commerce. This is where the "cargo" comes from.

Why didn't regions like China, India or the Muslim Middle East create "progress"? In part, because they valued tradition and stability more highly. Another reason is because they value the social group more highly than the individual; Europe placed more value on individual non- conformity. This is why these regions still lack self-generating progress (much of China's "progress" comes from industrial espionage, theft of intellectual property and general plagiarism).

If you want to learn where the "cargo" came from, what you really need to watch (and read - the documentary is the key work, but he talks very fast) is James Burke's "Connections," a true work of genius. I have read a fair amount about the history of science, and I can tell you that I have never seen anything like what Burke's account. Sure, he relies on the historical work of others, but he shows the chance, non-linear connections between science and technology, step by step, and why they occurred. (It's available on Youtube.)

For these connections to occur, there needed to be a culture that encouraged the sharing and expansion of knowledge. That's what was different about Europe over the past 500 years from every other region of the world in all other eras of history. You can't explain that by guns, germs and steel.

So if this were Jared Diamond's essay test in cultural anthropology, he would deserve a C minus, for not answering the question. There is far too much redundancy, with the second and third episodes spending far too much time recapitulating the previous episodes -- padding the program. It is also short on originality over what social scientists already knew, though there do appear to be some original ideas. But it is still worth watching, puts those ideas together in a novel way, and provides a perspective on the history of the world that many people will find interesting, especially high school students.


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