12 July 2005 - Tuesday
Guns, Germs, and Steel
I did find Diamond himself impressive, of course. The program tried harder than necessary to accomplish that. What did not impress me were the vagueness and self-importance of the film.
Glacially paced, the program constantly reminded the audience of how revolutionary and "audacious" its concepts were. It presented these concepts in what I found a simplistic fashion, without much specific evidence. The film backed up its conclusions mainly with other conclusions, with anecdotes, or with generalizations. And lots of stock footage.
Of course, this first segment focused on prehistory, so the means by which scholars reach their conclusions are arcane. Yet when Diamond got specific, the program got a lot stronger. The first interesting part of the film was his identification of the 14 large animals that have been domesticated (they almost all come from Eurasia). It was simple enough for him to present that information, but its specificity and objectivity provided the first real support for his thesis.
Meanwhile, the narrator was making what I thought were inflated claims. Material explanations are not exactly a new thing in the historiography of northern prosperity. Diamond has obviously done some valuable work, but I don't think he invented the concept of factor endowments.
What bothered me more, though, was that the narrator kept claiming new factors as the end-all of Diamond's work. First, the source of all prosperity was the domestication of plants ("audacious" in its simplicity!). Then, domesticated plants and large domesticated animals, the two sources. Our two sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; and, next week, guns, germs, and steel. Five. Our five sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; guns, germs, and steel; and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. Amongst our sources ....
Also annoying was the frequent identification of North America with Eurasia, even though the natural resources were so different for so long. The program kept getting ahead of itself, claiming that particular natural resources are the source of the United States' prosperity even while showing a historic scarcity of those resources in the New World. So how did domesticated plants and animals reach America? The prosperity of the United States suggests a significant role for human agency -- at least in the motivation and technology for transportation -- but this was ignored.| Posted by Wilson at 18:33 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk