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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel: Final Review and Analysis

Last night was the conclusion of the Guns, Germs and Steel mini-series on PBS. Episode Three, Into the Tropics, tests Jared Diamond’s theory of global European domination on the continent of Africa. He looks at why Europeans were so successful in and around the southern tip of Africa and why the Dutch failed miserably at extending their domination northward. Diamond concludes his train journey by examining the role of disease, climate, and technology in the development of global inequality.

Like the previous two episodes, Into the Tropics was wonderful aesthetically but it was a little more scattered than its predecessors. Africa is a rather large continent and it is clearly impossible to apply Diamond’s theory to such a geographically expansive area in less than an hour. Whereas Episodes One and Two achieved the goal of providing a good introduction to the roots of European domination, Episode Three was a bit of a stretch. The conclusion, however, was well written and summed up the series quite well, but it felt rushed; sort of that “oh crap, we’re running out of time so let’s get to the point” feeling. I believe I got this feeling because this particular episode dealt with a vastly important and emotional topic and focused largely on contemporary human suffering. The footage of Diamond breaking down in a Zambian children’s hospital was awkward yet effective.

Now that I have the entire series to base my opinion on, I still stand by my belief that documentary filmmaking on scientific topics does not have to be high-density in order to provide a useful tool for both laypersons and professionals. The fields relevant to Guns, Germs and Steel (geography, anthropology, environmental science, etc.) all have their professional journals and academic conferences that provide a useful and necessary forum for the exchange of ideas and thus the development of theory and method. Speaking from an anthropological perspective, I have always thought that the entire point of scientific inquiry was to address real problems relevant to real people. If a topic is of absolutely no use to anyone and as a result makes no useful contributions to the broad base of human knowledge then such a topic is a lost cause (thankfully, it is hard to think of a feasible research project that does not meet these requirements). For this reason, the aim of any scientist, social or otherwise, should strive to make their research available to the masses. This may mean numerous translations in some cases or the preparation of visual aids in others. Particularly in anthropology, there is a cultural divide that often must be crossed to do this.

I feel that Guns, Germs and Steel (the television version) does just that: it provides a succinct yet informative introduction to Jared Diamond’s theory. It doesn’t rob the viewer of the importance of the topics covered nor does it sell short the science of those topics. The television series never purported to be a highly scientific documentary examining the ultimate and proximate factors in the development of inequality. In this respect, neither does the book that the series is based on (although is does examine the factors closely).

There has been some great discussion happening on academic blogs in the wake of Guns, Germs and Steel, most notably at Savage Minds which offers two posts, both critical of Diamond’s theories rather than the television series itself. I suggest you read them to balance out the GG&S love-fest that has been going on here at Nomadic Thoughts for the past three weeks:

Anthropology's Guns, Germs and Steel Problem by Ozma
What's Wrong with Yali's Question by Kerim

Posted by Will at July 26, 2005 11:13 AM in Academia | Anthropology | In the News


Hi !!

Weird as it may sound , but I provided the logistical support for the making of GGS , and having not seen the final product , it intrigues me as to the comments from folk worldwide .

Jared is nuts - a genius , but nuts . A simple man with a concept that most folk dont understand until you stand and face the reality of what is going on beyond the shimmering TV screen . I read the book , the script and met the man and with a budget from hell we tried to make a film . If I had my way we would have done a Lawrence of Arabia multiplied 1000 times , as the story of colonization , disease , war , treasure and the untold stories of Africa , the far east and the Tintin fantasies of Central America , the moon and so on , can never be told and will never be understood - we all want to but will never be there ie as a voyeur or participant in word and pictures . Cassian , Jared , Sue and myself saw really bad stuff , good stuff and traversed a cultural minefield to make this film .We tried to open peoples eyes - damn hard these days !!

Anyway - thanks for your objective comments and hey, have a good life !!

Posted by: Rick Matthews at October 26, 2005 04:59 PM