Guns, Germs & Steel on PBS

August 12, 2005

PBS just aired a three-part documentary based on Jared Diamond's best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel, which outlines the role geography has played in shaping human history. You should try to catch it in reruns because it's very thought-provoking. But if you can't, there's a lot of information available at the show's website, including detailed summaries, full transcripts and a neat section called "The World" that analyzes global climates and resources by continent.

Episode One: Out of Eden

Diamond believes the blueprint for global inequality lies within the land itself, its crops and animals. [...] [He] realized that the development of successful and productive farming, starting nearly 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, was the critical turning point in the origins of global inequality. From this point on, one group of people — the natives of Eurasia — would have a head start on the path to civilization.

Successful farming provides a food surplus, and allows some people to leave the farm behind and develop specialized skills — such as metal-working, writing, trade, politics, and war-making. Plus, the simple geography of the continent of Eurasia — one coherent landmass spread on an east-west axis, with universal latitudes and climates — allowed these technologies and ideas to spread beyond the Middle East with ease.


Episode Two: Conquest

So, when presented with a copy of the Bible on November 16th, 1532, Atahuallpa throws the alien object to the floor, prompting a furious and surprise attack from the conquistadors. The combined impact of mounted troops, gunpowder and sharpened steel lead to a massacre, and Atahuallpa is personally seized by Pizarro himself.

In a matter of hours, the Inca Empire lies in ruins. But the story of Eurasian triumph isn't over. [...] Native Americans fell victim to European germs — infections which they had never encountered before. And Diamond realizes that European diseases like smallpox were a fatal inheritance of thousands of years of mammal domestication — the lethal gift of livestock.


Episode Three: Into the Tropics

As the settlers traveled further north, life suddenly became a lot harder. The foundations of their success, their crops and animals, refused to grow. They were forced to barter for food from their neighbours. And they started to fall ill with a mysterious and terrifying fever. It was a complete reversal of the usual pattern of European conquest.

Jared realizes that, unlike elsewhere in the world — where Europeans had landed in a temperate zone and traveled from east to west, maintaining similar climates — here in Africa, Europeans landed in the south and migrated north, moving through latitude zones and experiencing radically different climates. [...] Temperate crops such as wheat simply can't survive in a tropical climate. Nor can European animals — plagued by the diseases which thrive in the Tropics.