Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel

Last night, Montana PBS aired the first of a three-part series based on Jared Diamond's book that provides a reasoned and compact look at what archeological findings and history show as to why Eurasians have come to dominate the planet over the millennia. It eliminates the element of race as a factor but it does lean heavily on geographic advantages. Last night's hour presented the view that it was the rise of farming based on grains and a variety of animals with the potential for domestication that laid the groundwork for the advanced civilizations of the middle east.

Diamond's Pulitzer-prize-winning "Guns, Germs and Steel" book is still on scientific best-sellers list and his followup-book, "Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or to Succeed" is on a number of other best-seller lists. In its essentials his first book asserts that farming grew up in the Fertile Crescent and was most successful there because of the large number of grasses that became the basis of the grains we feed on today. It was also the place where the large majority of animals that could be domesticated were were found: goats, sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, and camels leading the list. Llamas and Alpacas were domesticated in the Americas, Yaks in Tibet, Water Buffalo in Asia, and reindeer in the north, as well as a few other limited versions of cattle. Elephants were tamed but never domesticated in the same sense. Because of the preponderance of elements such as the food content of grains and the use of animals leading to an ability to feed more people, specialists were empowered who eventually led to the ability to smelt and forge metals which in turn led to the ability to form great empires with sophisticated bureaucracies and governments that could sustain themselves without depending on one powerful leader.

In the next two hours on the following Monday nights, the series will focus on the role of germs and of steel and guns. Because they domesticated herd animals, Eurasian people developed a certain level of immunity to such diseases as measles, smallpox, tuberculosis and others that rose from exposure to the herds. Peoples in other parts of the world did not have that immunity, particularly in the Americas, and the diseases wreaked havoc on them, much as the Black Death of the Middle Ages decimated and changed the culture of Europe.

In the opening segment, the film, narrated by Peter Coyote with comments by Diamond, maintains a low-key profile that may not stir up many fans, but which provides a more factual context. Diamond has correlated such things as Middle Eastern agriculture, and agriculture from the Americas, the Far East (China) and New Guinea, areas which seemed to have developed farming independently, which such things as the reason that disease had such an impact on the natives of the Americas, into a viable explanation of why the world is the way it is. And he shows why not all farming presented the impact to its regions as it did in the fertile crescent: mainly that the protein level of many farmed crops did not approach that of grains. It is a fascinating approach and makes a large amount of sense.

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