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July 26, 2005

Guns, Germs, Steel, and TV

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Lions Television, London, for National Geographic Television and Films, Washington, DC.
Three one-hour episodes. On PBS, Monday evenings, 11 to 25 July 2005.

The TV adaptation of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel has already attracted considerable attention online. I still haven't seen the PBS series, but I am an admirer of the source material. Earlier this year, I argued against some prevalent misconceptions about Guns Germs and Steel.

The best review I've seen so far is by Michael Balter, contributing correspondent for Science.

Balter's primary criticism of the series is that it ignores criticism of Diamond's work. If so, PBS is doing the public a major disservice. Even Diamond's admirers readily admit that his theories are far-reaching and controversial. It would be a mistake to present his views as if they reflected the settled consensus of the archaeological and anthropological community.

Like many reviewers, Balter objects to the television show's portrayal of Yali, the New Guinea tribesman whose penetrating question inspires Diamond to write GG&S:

Yali, whom the biologist "met on a beach," asks him, "Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?" In the book, Diamond explains that Yali was a "remarkable local politician," but in the film we are told nothing about Yali or who he was. Instead, an actor playing Yali looms before the camera intoning what Diamond calls "Yali's question," which Diamond will spend the ensuing years trying to answer. Here, the film makes its first misstep: In fact, Yali was the charismatic leader of an indigenous post-World War II movement in New Guinea, sometimes called the cargo cult, that sought to acquire more European goods [readers wanting to know more can consult anthropologist Peter Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo (3)].

I'm disappointed to hear that. In the book Diamond is very clear that Yali is not only a promising local politician, but also a personal friend. Yali's question arises during an intense intellectual exchange between equals. Making Yali into a generic New Guinea tribesman cheapens Diamond's reply by exemplifying the very arrogance that Diamond resists. One of the most appealing aspects of GG&S is Diamond's obvious respect his field informants. Diamond's book was the first time I'd read an anthropologist write about hunter gatherers as friends and coworkers, instead of as specimens under glass.

I'm grateful to Balter for succinctly addressing one of the most prevalent misconceptions about GG&S:

Diamond's thesis is one of the most widely discussed big ideas of recent years, and deservedly so. For one thing, it is an explicitly anti-racist explanation for social and economic inequalities on a global level, an explanation that dispenses with subtle and not-so-subtle assumptions about the inherent superiority of Europeans and their descendants.

Meanwhile, back in the blogosphere PZ Myers is pleased with episode 1, and Brad DeLong savages the Diamond-bashers at Savage Minds.

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Comments

Balter's review as well, but he unfairly, I think, accuses Diamond of failing to address why many of the most advanced societies are so warlike. Diamond does, if I remember correctly, address the issue, arguing that warrior societies that invest in military technology and initiate conflict tend to destroy or displace less warlike societies. Balton may not think that's a good enough answer but he implies that Diamond never consideres the issue.

Guns Germs and Steel was a decent book as far as entertaining stuff goes, but it always smacks of a multilateral ideology looking for theories to fit it. It's nice enough to believe that there is no such thing as cultural evolution and that some cultures are more fit than others to propogate themselves, but the more salient point, as the first world further and further outpaces the third, is, what if some cultures are just plain screwed up? How do we manage those? What if it is not possible for some people to get ahead without radically changing their beliefs? A quick look at the Islamic world bears this out.

I've never read the book, and although I was vaguely aware of the debate it created, I don't know anything about GG&S in any detail. However, last night I stumbled on the PBS show and watched about 20 minutes. My impression of those 20 minutes was that it was some of the worst writing I've ever heard on PBS. The phrase "guns, germs and steel" had to have been repeated 10 times while I watched; in at least one place it made no sense (talking about the fact that some Europeans exploring Africa were in trouble when their horses started dying, the narrator said "without horses, there never would have been any guns, germs or steel." Really? No germs without horses?). Overall, it had that really pedantic tone of a lot of documentaries destined to be shown over and over in middle school classrooms (to paraphrase one example, discussing the fact that as Europeans spread north through Africa they had less luck growing wheat and barley, "why wouldn't the crops grow? They grew in Europe! Why wouldn't they grow in Africa? The settlers relied on their crops to survive, yet they wouldn't grow! What about being in Africa prevented the crops from growing? The first settlers, farming in temperate regions near the south coast, were able to get their crops to grow. So why wouldn't they grow in equatorial regions?"). There also were far too many shots of some guy (I presume the author; I came in at the middle) wandering around looking at things as the narrator droned on; they cut to him drinking coffee and looking at maps on a train at least three times as I watched. Amateur hour, all the way.

What if it is not possible for some people to get ahead without radically changing their beliefs? A quick look at the Islamic world bears this out.

Yes, but only a quick one.

Really? No germs without horses?

Yes. Or more elaborately, no germs deadly to isolated aboriginal populations without centuries living in proximity to livestock and domesticated animals.

I agree the series doesn't do justice to the book. But it's not like this is the first time something has been dumbed down for TV.

Yes. Or more elaborately, no germs deadly to isolated aboriginal populations without centuries living in proximity to livestock and domesticated animals.

which is to say that the writers are relying on their catch phrase rather than an argument--which is to say, the writing is terrible.

Guns, Germs & Steel is a good read, but my issue with it is that it almost substitutes geographical determinism for racial/ethnic determinism. Geographical factors may very well confer an advantage, but I don't think they explain why certain societies thus advantaged then dominate their neighbors. That, I think, lies in the realm of culture.

I have read GG&S. I have not seen the TV series but I believe Balter, PZ and others who did.

GG&S was published at the time when no attention was paid to factors like geography, climate, animals and crops. His book was written as a reaction to culture-only thinking and was designed to counterbalance the scholarship of the times. Thus, it may sound like ecological determinism, yet Diamond is pretty open about GG&S covering only a part of the story - the rest of the story has been published a lot already so there was not need for him to reiterate it. He had a different goal in mind - to alert people to not-culture-only thinking.

He was widely successful, I think. I do not know what is happening in the anthro departments in the academia, but GG&S raised the awareness of many to this set of non-culture factors. By combining BOTH, one can get a better picture. That is why Collapse is a much better book.


Guns, Germs & Steel is a good read, but my issue with it is that it almost substitutes geographical determinism for racial/ethnic determinism. Geographical factors may very well confer an advantage, but I don't think they explain why certain societies thus advantaged then dominate their neighbors. That, I think, lies in the realm of culture.

GS&S is definitely limited in scope - which is why it was able to become a best-seller, and why National Geographic was able to make a 3-part series about it.

The issue of Yali is a good example. Diamond only mentions Yali's frustration with the whites' technological superiority, he doesn't mention Yali's career as a cargo cult leader and politician - because it's really outside the scope of his theories.

But cultural materialist Marvin Harris discusses the cargo cults in his excellent "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches", published in 1974, and then compares cargo cults to Christianity - and I doubt National Geographic would touch that with a ten-foot pole:


---- from Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches ----
Missionaries and government administrators tell the natives that hard work and machines make the cornucopias of industrialism release their rivers of wealth. But the prophets of cargo hold to other theories. They insist that the material wealth of the industrial age is really created in some distant place not by human but by supernatural means. Missionaries, traders and government officials know how to get consignments of this wealth sent to them by plane or ship - they possess the "secret of cargo." Native cargo prophets rise or fall on their ability to penetrate this secret and to deliver cargo into the hands of their followers.

Native theories about cargo evolve in response to continually changing conditions. Before World War II, ancestors had white skins; later they were said to look like Japanese; but when black American troops drove out the Japanese, ancestors were pictured as having dark skins.

After World War II, cargo theory often centered on the Americans. In the New Hebrides, the people decided that a G.I. named John Frum was King of America. His prophets would land with a cargo of milk and ice cream. Relics left over on Pacific island battlefields show that John Frum was there. Once group believes that a U.S. Army field jacket with sergeant's strips and the red cross of the medical corps on the sleeves was worn by John Frum when he made his promise to return with cargo. Small medical corps red crosses, each surrounded by a neat fence, have been erected all over the island of Tanna. A John Frum village chieftan interviewed in 1970 noted that "people have waited nearly 2,000 years for Christ to return, so we can wait a while longer for John Frum."

GG&S was published at the time when no attention was paid to factors like geography, climate, animals and crops. His book was written as a reaction to culture-only thinking and was designed to counterbalance the scholarship of the times. Thus, it may sound like ecological determinism, yet Diamond is pretty open about GG&S covering only a part of the story - the rest of the story has been published a lot already so there was not need for him to reiterate it. He had a different goal in mind - to alert people to not-culture-only thinking.

A fair point, though I have to say that it brings up a (very minor) beef I have with the hoopla surrounding Guns, Germs & Steel. Diamond seems to borrow heavily from the historian Alfred Crosby; many of the themes in GG&S can be found in Crosby's The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism. Diamond does mention Crosby; it seems to me that Diamond brought the various elements of Crosby's analysis together rather than formulated a new one.

More from "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches"

----------------
The Australians who retook Madang in April 1944 found the natives sullen and uncooperative. In a few areas where the Japanese had not been especially active, cargo prophets were already predicting the return of the Japanese in greater numbers than ever before. To gain the loyalty of the rest of the population the Australians began to talk about "development" in the postwar period. Native leaders were told that in the peace to come, blacks and whites would live together in harmony. Everyone was going to get decent housing, electricity, motor vehicles, boats, good clothing, and plenty of food.

By this time, the most worldly and intelligent of the native leaders were convinced that the missionaries were unmitigated liars. The prophet Yali... was especially adamant on this point. Yali had remained loyal to the Australians during the war and was rewarded with the rank of sergeant major in the Australian Army. He was taken to Australia and shown what the Australians wanted him to believe was the secret of cargo: sugar mills, breweries, an aircraft repair shop, and harbor warehouses. While Yali could now see for himself certain aspects of the production process, he could also see that not everyone driving about in cars and living in big houses worked in mills and breweries. He could see men and women working in organized groups, but he couldn't grasp the ultimate principles upon which their labor was organized. Nothing that he saw helped him to understand why from that vast outpouring of wealth, not even a trickle reached his fellow natives back home.

....

It was not until after the war, while attending a government conference in Port Moresby, the capital of Australian New Guinea, that Yali realized the extent to which the missionaries had been lying to the natives. During the course of the conference Yali was shown a certain book which contained pictures of apes and monkeys becoming progressively more similar to men. At last the truth dawned on him: The missionaries had said that Adam and Eve were man's ancestors, but the whites really believed their own ancestors were monkeys, dogs, cats, and other animals. These were precisely the beliefs that the natives had possessed until the missionaries had tricked them into giving up their totems.

Later, in discussing his experiences with the prophet Gurek, Yali accepted the suggestion that the Queensland Museum was actually Rome, the place to which the missionaries had taken the New Guinea gods and myths in order to gain control over the secret of cargo. If these old gods and goddesses could be lured back to New Guinea, a new era of prosperity would dawn. But first they would have to abandon Christianity and revive their pagan ceremonies.

Yali was outraged by the duplicity of the missionaries. He was willing and eager to help the Australian officials stamp out all vestiges of cargo cults in which God or Jesus had any importance. Because of Yali's war service, his familiarity with Brisbane and Sydney, and his eloquent denunciation of the cults, the district officer of Madang supposed that Yali didn't believe in cargo. Yali was asked to address mass meetings called by the government. He enthusiastically ridiculed the Christian cargo cults and assured everyone that cargo would never come unless people worked hard and obeyed the law.

Yali was also willing to collaborate with the Australian officials because he had not yet lost faith in the promises made to him while he was in the army during the war. Yali treasured the words uttered by a Brisbane recruiting officer in 1943: "In the past, you natives have been kept backward, but now if you help us win the war and get rid of the Japanese, we Europeans will help you. We will help you get houses with galvanized iron roofs, plank walls, electric lights, and motor vehicles, boats, good clothes, and good food. Life will be very different for you after the war."

Thousands came to hear Yali denounce the old road to cargo. Provided with a platform and loudspeakers, and surrounded by beaming officials and white businessmen, Yali warmed to his task. The more he denounced the former cargo beliefs, the more the natives understood him to be saying that he, Yali, knew the true secret of cargo. When word of this interpretation got back to Yali's "handlers" in the government, they demanded that he give more speeches to tell the natives that he was not a returned ancestor, and that he didn't know the secret of cargo. These public denials convinced the natives that Yali had supernatural powers and would bring cargo.

When Yali was invited to Port Morseby, along with other loyal native spokesmen, his followers in Madang believed that he would return at the head of a huge fleet of cargo ships. Yali himself may have believed that some important concessions were about to be made to him. He want straight to the administrator in charge and asked him when the natives were going to get the reward which the officer in Brisbane had promised. When would they get the building materials and machinery that everyone was talking about? Professor Lawrence's account of the official's reply to Yali is in "Road Belong Cargo."

The officer is alleged to have replied that the administration was, of course, grateful for the services of native troops against the Japanese and was, in fact, going to give the people a substantial reward. The Australian Government was pouring vast sums of money into economic, educational, and political development, War Damage compensation, and schemes to improve medical services, hygiene and health. It would be a slow process, of course, but eventually the people would appreciate the results of the administration's efforts. But a reward of the nature Yali imagined - a free hand-out of cargo in bulk - was quite out of the question. The officer was sorry, but this was just wartime propaganda made by irresponsible European officers on the spur of the moment.

To questions about when natives could expect electricity, the administrators replied that they would get it as soon as they were able to pay for it and not before. Yali became very bitter. The government had lied as badly as the missionaries.

In the book Diamond is upfront about Yali's political career. I don't remember how much detail he includes about Yali's specific political activities. They aren't especially relevant to the story he's telling.

The narrative of the book is "My friend Yali, a young up-and-coming Western influenced New Guinean asked me an interesting question. And hereby hangs the tale..."

PBS makes it seem like Yali is some random non-Western dude who accosts Diamond on the beach to learn the secrets of Western prosperity. That's dumb and misleading.

I'm not sure how much Diamond had to do with this dramatic choice, if anything.
A lot of our commenters know a lot more about how TV documentaries are made than I do. Maybe someone else would like to weigh in?

In the book Diamond is upfront about Yali's political career. I don't remember how much detail he includes about Yali's specific political activities. They aren't especially relevant to the story he's telling.

He gives no details - and he doesn't mention the words "cargo" "cult" or "prophet" anywhere. Yali's political activities were directly related to his career as a cargo cult prophet. Which is a really fascinating story, and the bits I quoted are just a small sample.

But you're right - Yali's career isn't really relevant to Diamond's own theories, so he doesn't mention it at all. And in fact, it seems to me that as described in the introductory chapter to GG&S, "Yali's Question" Yali is not really distinguishable from some random non-Western dude, since so very little information about Yali himself is presented.

That's because "Yali's Question" is a framing device. It's a convenient jumping-off point for Diamond to launch into his theories. But the reason he mentions Yali isn't because of Yali's specific personal importance as a cargo cult propohet, it's just because Diamond happened to have met Yali and Yali was articulate and aggrieved enough to actually pose the question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

So I really don't see how National Geographic did anything significantly different from what Diamond did in the book. They used the question as a framing device. It doesn't really matter if Yali OR a random non-Western dude asks the question.

And as in the case of Alfred Crosby, Diamond seems to borrow much of his thinking about cultural differences from the work of Marvin Harris. But since Diamond focuses so exclusively on the influence of georgraphy on human culture, his theories are certainly not as comprehensive as those of Marvin Harris's - and therefore easier to put into a popular-audience book, and easier to make into a 3-part series. And actually, Harris's books were quite popular in their day - but they were not made into a television series, although I think they should be.

But BECAUSE Harris's theories venture outside the realm of geography, they can be extremely controversial - Harris makes an explicit connection between the cargo cults of New Guinea and the messianic cults of Roman-occupied Palestine, one of which evolved into Christianity.

And no public television network would dare to produce or broadcast work containing such a theory, especially in these days of raging right-wing Christianity.

Some very interesting comments here, glad to see that this topic sparked so much discussion. Just one quick response to Mavis Beacon: What Diamond does not explain is the relationship between technological superiority and being "war-like," that is, conquering other peoples. The implication is that if you are stronger in some way you will automatically want to slaughter weaker peoples and dominate them. Why is that? This is what needs to be explained. We don't consider this as acceptable behavior today, and those who engage in it nevertheless have to justify it with various smokescreens.

What Diamond does not explain is the relationship between technological superiority and being "war-like," that is, conquering other peoples. The implication is that if you are stronger in some way you will automatically want to slaughter weaker peoples and dominate them. Why is that? This is what needs to be explained.

Bingo, and a better statement of what I was trying to say above. Having certain advantages over other societies doesn't address the motivations for conquering other peoples. It shows that you're better able to if you want to, but not that you must do so.


Why is that? This is what needs to be explained. We don't consider this as acceptable behavior today, and those who engage in it nevertheless have to justify it with various smokescreens.

Right, which is why Diamond's theories are not comprehensive. But at least he is headed in the right direction - infrastructural determinism, not sociobiology or idealism.

The short answer for why a people becomes warlike - competition for resources, especially protein, due to population pressures. At least at tribal levels of social organization.

The implication is that if you are stronger in some way you will automatically want to slaughter weaker peoples and dominate them. Why is that?

Michael, I think that's a great question, but I agree with Mavis that Diamond does (sort of) address it. The argument is not that "military technology automatically leads to wanting to slaughter weaker peoples and dominate them," but that "given a large range of cultures, all of whom possess powerful military technology, it is likely that at least one of them will happen to have a violent culture, and over time they will likely end up slaughtering their neighbors." I don't want to commit the fallacy of "group selection" or "cultural selection," but in a way, that's what's happening.

Diamond makes a similar argument about the choice to start farming. Having easy-to-domesticate plants lying around doesn't automatically lead you to start farming (you might have cultural objections to it, or it might not occur to you to plant seeds), but chances are that over a long time, *someone* will come up with it, and once they do, they can easily overpower and marginalize (not necessarily by conquest - sometimes just because their population is exploding and they need more land) their hunter-gatherer neighbors.

Anyway, absolutely correct that Diamond doesn't address the motivations of people conquering other people. I don't think he tries to (or at least don't think he should try to). I'm going to strain the analogy to natural selection again, but just as Darwin could come up with natural selection without addressing exactly how genetics works, so Diamond can come up with this theory of how the broad trends of human history unfolded without addressing the finer-scale motives and choices of the peoples and cultures actually involved.

Andrew, you make some good points, although I think one key issue--which I mention briefly in my Science review--is whether or not the vagaries of geography from 11,000 years ago continue to explain who is a "have" and who is a "have-not" today, for example whether it continues to explain why Africa is so impoverished relatively speaking.

Also, at the risk of being accused of plugging my book, if you are interested in a very different take on the origins of sedentism and agriculture than Diamond's, you might check out my book "The Goddess and the Bull" about Catalhoyuk and the origins of the Neolithic. Full details on my Web site www.michaelbalter.com

The argument is not that "military technology automatically leads to wanting to slaughter weaker peoples and dominate them," but that "given a large range of cultures, all of whom possess powerful military technology, it is likely that at least one of them will happen to have a violent culture, and over time they will likely end up slaughtering their neighbors."

OK, I haven't read the book, but that thesis seems a little odd. Why would a culture develop powerful military technology in the first place if it wasn't a violent culture? Surely the most violent and expansionist cultures are the ones motivated to develop the best military technology? A Buddhist would never invent the Maxim gun.

I apologise if I've missed the point somewhere... ;)

"Why would a culture develop powerful military technology in the first place if it wasn't a violent culture? "

For millenia, the most important military technologies were metal and horses. These have many uses besides warfare. It is no stretch to convert them from agricultural use to military use.

What I doubt is that there has ever been a non-violent culture. Perhaps there might have been isolated peoples who never met anyone else. They might be non-violent. But even Bhuddist societies are not comprised fully of Bodhisattvas.

I've read the book, and I enjoyed it very much. His conclusions are his own, and aren't universally accepted, but he makes strong arguments, and they seem very plausable to me. It's an intriguing area of research.

The documentary was sometimes less than perfect, but it was pretty good as these things go. I grew up watching Captain Cousteau. A well-done documentary on an interesting subject, with a knowledgable narrator who's enthused about his subject, can have a strong impact on a kid. If the documentary is interesting but a little slow for adults, I think it's perfect for offering intriguing ideas to children. PBS's mission isn't just the edification of adults, but also the encouragement of child development.

    Jimmy Stewart
    Democratic Candidate for State Representative, Ohio's 22nd District

"A Buddhist would never invent the Maxim gun".

Yeah, it's not as if the Japanese (50% Buddhist), or the Chinese (102 million Buddhists) have any sort of longstanding military tradition.

And they certainly never invented any military technology.

And surely the peaceful Buddhist philosophy could never be interpreted in a way which justifies the military.

What I doubt is that there has ever been a non-violent culture. Perhaps there might have been isolated peoples who never met anyone else. They might be non-violent. But even Bhuddist societies are not comprised fully of Bodhisattvas.

All cultures are non-violent unless resources run low or it's in the interests of the ruling classes to prosecute war, as in the case of state-level societies.

And it doesn't matter what religion is practiced by the people. If the infrastructural conditions are right, a society will go to war. It's material conditions that control ideology, not the other way around.

Jared Diamond really doen't get into why humans go to war at all. But that's not what GG&S is about. That book is about why Europeans conquered much of the world, instead of, for example, South Americans or Africans conquering Europe - not what movitated the Europeans to send out expeditions from Europe in the first place. And within its scope, I think the book does a very good job.

And surely the peaceful Buddhist philosophy could never be interpreted in a way which justifies the military.

Great points & well supported.

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