Saturday, May 02, 2009

PBS: Jared Diamond and "Guns, Germs and Steel": why Europeans prevailed for so long


PBS stations have been airing the three one-hour segments of Jared Diamond’s documentary, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, with the home show website here. The three episodes are called “Out of Eden”, “Conquest”, and “Tropics”. The site has transcripts of all three parts.

Jared Diamond is interesting in explaining the gap between the rich and poor around the world, and why some civilizations gain such an advantage over others. His explanation is that dreaded word, “geography.” Yes, in grade school, “geography” was under social studies, and it was a bummer as a topic for an assignment on Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” (when a Harvard grad designed a Pepsi Cola bottle in the shape of a world’s globe). In college, it was a pain to take as a course – a lot of memorizing.

But it does explain what happened. Europe had a marine temperate climate, which gave access to the sea and, in areas close to the coast, the ability to raise superior crops with superior farm animals. I think that a cooler climate, with winter, gave some additional incentive to develop technology and living standards. As a result, European countries developed a technological culture that they could export to other temperate parts of the world, most of all North America. European civilization fared best in areas with four-season climates, relatively modest mountain barriers, and plenty of navigable rivers.

I’ll focus on the third part, “Tropics”, which was pretty much focused on Africa. The British (and Dutch) successfully colonized South Africa, which had a temperate climate. But as they moved north, they found native populations adapted to different rules. First, they were almost overrun by the Zulus. Farther north, they tried to build typical European settlements in low areas near water, and did not notice that the native culture built small, dispersed communities on high ground. The main reason was “germs”, which worked in reverse. Native Africans had adapted their civilization and culture to malaria, and they had actually learned to immunize themselves from smallpox, which had, eons ago, traveled from Africa to Europe – and which Europeans had used to wipe out native populations (with a kind of low tech biological warfare, relevant to today’s war on terror).

Later on, Europeans built railroads from Capetown all the way deep into Africa, where they cannot run safely everywhere because of political instability. The trains carried ore (gold, diamonds) and coal and other resources for export back to Europe.

At the end of the film, Diamond works in the malaria clinics, and shows the enormous poverty that disease begets. He doesn’t discuss AIDS in this episode, however; I think it’s likely he’ll make another film on that tragedy.

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