great three hour documentary brought to by the folks at national geographic in conjunction with jared diamond, author of the book of the same name. diamond’s work here essentially makes a case for geographic determinism. that is, a culture’s fate is largely contingent upon the geographical location of said culture. why, for example, are the people of papua new guinea so much poorer than europeans? he posits that it boils down to the right/wrong combination of arable land, climate, and livestock. because of these larger causes, secondary causes – guns, germs and steel – are able to shape the fate of societies. by the end of the documentary he summarizes his work in a less deterministic way, saying that geography is essential in understanding how we’ve gotten to be where we are and how we should go about changing the fate of the less fortunate.
as a teaching tool this film is indispensable and absolutely essential. like anything else, it is important to remember that the work is just one potential truth, not the be all, end all. but diamond’s work is so well-researched (especially if you read the book) that it’s hard not to give great weight to his theory of cultural evolution. one problem i have with the documentary’s presentation of his work is that it didn’t address the potential role of humans in their own fate. what of the hitlers, the julius caesars, the eli whitneys, the buddhas of the world? politics and religion went essentially unaddressed. his new book, why civilizations fall, addresses some of the political reasons for a culture’s failure – abuse of natural resources being one of those reasons.
diamond’s work, i think rightly, assumes that humans, in the aggregate, always push forward with technology. europeans not only did better because of their geography, but also because they constantly wanted larger civilizations, harder steel, faster machines, better technology. i think it’s an accurate representation of humanity, overall, but it’s also a bit depressing because it seems to necessitate a constant pushing of the technological boundaries in order to avoid foreign conquerors.
the experts that diamond speaks with are uniformly great. they’re all very knowledgeable and passionate about their field. interesting tidbit: malaria is now the #1 killer of africans under five years old because they live so close to each other. in the past tribes were spread out and away from water to avoid contact with the disease as much as possible. cities have changed that.