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National Geographic - Guns, Germs and Steel

Yesterday I have watched the documentary Guns, Germs and Steel based on Jared Diamond's book of the same name. I have not read the book. But with Jared Diamond being the host himself this should be a good representation of his book.

He started off in Papua New Guinea. Stuck by the islanders' deprivation, he tried to explain why do the West prosper and why do other cultures remain impoverished. His theory is that geography (environment), guns, germs and steel (technology) are the major factors that set them apart. The documentary followed the development of civilization from hunter-gatherers to farmers. It brought us back to the fateful battle between Francisco Pizarro and the Inca Empire. Finally it looked at the challenges in Africa, the land where the human race is believed to be originated from.

His book has won a Pulitzer Prize and his theory is called ground breaking. Flattery comments notwithstanding everything he said has been studied in anthropology. While all of them have some degree of truth, there are many other important factors he simply ignored, like culture, politics, religion and non-military technology. Also his emphasis on the environmental factor just sound too deterministic. Interesting this exact critique has voiced in the documentary.

I find two big faults in his thesis. First he like to insert simple answers for big questions. Why do our civilization developed in such way? Answer: geography, guns, germs and steel. But in fact he has only downplayed many other important factors. On the other hand there are plenty of counter examples for everything he has said. For example, which success factor did Mongolian possess when their conquered much of Europe and Asia? What geography advantages does England has that led them to become a global empire? Why does Arab and Chinese, with civilization in the similar stage with European, did not set off to conquer the world? His answer is really a weak answer at best.

Secondly he has a dichotomy view on cultures as winners and losers. Lots of focus are put on warfare and military technologies (i.e. guns, germs and steel) Other world shaping forces such as trading are entirely ignored. I doubt such winner and loser view can explain the complexity of civilization. For example, throughout its history China repeatedly fell to the nomadic invaders from the North. Jared's theory would have concluded the nomads the winner and possess some advantage over the Chinese loser (though non of his 4 factors can really count here). The interesting thing is over time many invaders adopted chinese culture and assimilated into the host country. Winner and loser cannot really describe what has happened.

Just curious. Jared is certainly not the first anthropologist to pose a big theory. What makes his work so popular?

2006.05.25 [] - comments

 

 

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