Having heard about the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (I think it was Richard Morgan who recommended it) I managed to pick up a copy from a local charity shop. However, when I tried to read it my eyes started glazing over and I ended up sticking it to one side. It then ended up in that pile of books destined to be sent to a charity shop under the label ‘Life’s too Short’.
A number of weeks ago I then noticed a Channel 4 documentary with the same title and recorded it. Just yesterday, feeling knackered after having to get up at 4.15AM to drive my mother to Gatwick, I decided to do something less mentally taxing so sat down to watch it.
The essential question posed was, ‘Why have the Europeans always been the winners?’ Why have they generally been ahead of the rest of the world? Jared Diamond’s reasoning is essentially this: most of the animals that can be domesticated are only found in Eurasia, which took farming in this region beyond the subsistence level thus freeing up human resources for technical and social development e.g. the smelting of metals like steel and really, the building of civilization. This domestication of animals also led to an increase in the diseases the Eurasians suffered and subsequently gained some immunity to. So, armed with steel, rapidly developing technology and a shitload of diseases they went off and conquered the world.
This is, of course, a simplification. The documentary itself was almost certainly a simplification of the book.
A particular case cited is that of the Conquistadors. Armed with steel, experience of warfare and mounted on horses, Francisco Pizarro and his men first defeated the Incas in battle (mainly because of the naïve stupidity of their emperor), then the small pox the Spanish carried finished off the job. Yes, historical fact, but was it necessary to imply in this documentary that the small pox was somehow deliberate?
The logical thread of this is very attractive and certainly has much truth. However, the continuous use of the liberal buzz-word ‘inequality’ throughout should have clued me in to how specious some of the reasoning was. The first hiccup was with that domestication of animals and non-subsistence farming. This happened in the Middle East and with a bit of hand-waving and talk about how it spreads latitudinally, it magically became the big advantage to the people of Europe. One then has to ask the question: why wasn’t it the middle easterners with their ‘guns, germs and steel’ conquering the rest of the world? I’ll take the forgiving view that this is all a bit more complicated than portrayed in the documentary, so perhaps I really should read the book.
Next we go to tropical South Africa which the Europeans struggled to conquer because their farming methods didn’t work and because the diseases were on the side of the Africans. However, the Europeans did win there because the steel was on their side – mainly the Maxim machine gun, then the train. Okay, I get that – more historical facts. But what got my back up here was the glorification of the native and the life style of the ‘noble savage’. And please stop it with the implication that the Europeans destroyed some wonderful agrarian idyll and that a return to that life style might be a good thing. Yes, the life-span in the place depicted is about 40 now, but did those ‘noble savages’ live any longer? Did the women enjoy popping out baby after baby until dying of it? Did they all enjoy labouring every day just to put food in their mouths?
Diamond then moved away from his central contention to claim that the similarities between tribal languages indicated a previous single underlying language and an African civilization, on the bones of which the Europeans built their African empire. I can see the point of the language thing when we look at the ‘romance languages’ and the like. If you want to you can contend that the Europe we know is ‘built on the bones’ of earlier civilizations (The Greeks and then the Romans). Thing is, we’re still digging up those bones. Nothing remains of this particular African civilization because they built nothing long-lasting and invented no more than had already been current in the Stone Age, which is a curious and highly convenient definition of civilization.
It would have been better if this had stuck to Diamond's original contention about ‘guns, germs and steel’ rather than straying into the apologia and fatuous fact-twisting of political correctness.
In the end this documentary was another of those liberal self-flagellation fests; another deep revel in white guilt and the present practically Luddite attitude towards technology. It was highly selective of its ‘facts’, quite good at confusing correlation with causation (another common one nowadays). Yes, I perfectly understand the point that no single race possesses some underlying superiority, but I damned well disagree with the idea here that because luck and circumstance put the Europeans on top that they should feel guilty and be all apologetic. The reality of this documentary is that those who produced it don’t really understand their own proposition of underlying equality, which is that if the ‘guns, germs and steel’ had arisen elsewhere in the world, it would have been the Europeans who got the kicking.
Strange isn't it, how the politically correct revel in a guilt that stems from their own assumed superiority.