The reviews I have read of the PBS series Guns, Germs, and Steel have been fairly negative, especially regarding the entertainment value of the show. As a result, I was almost going to skip watching it on tv, but I liked the book so much when I read it, I thought I would go ahead and give the program a try. I'm glad I did. My wife and I watched the first episode last night (it will be three episodes total), and we both enjoyed it immensely. I especially thought some of the visual graphics and other production values were pretty neat. I recommend it.
In the end, of course, Diamond's basic thesis is probably incorrect. As he states it in the first episode program, his argument is that "the causes of inequality can be summed-up in one-word: 'geography.'" It is difficult to see how "geography" explains the differences in economic conditions between North and South Korea, or how Argentina went from rich to relatively poorer in a few years of Peronism, or, most notably, how Hong Kong has prospered despite having essentially no geographic endowments at all. China was the richest and most advanced civilization in the world at the first millenium, but the industrial revolution (which created the "inequality of cargo" problem that Diamond is studying) did not happen there. Institutions, and especially the rule of law and constitutionally-limited government, are plainly more important than geography in explaining why some countries have gotten rich and others have not. The funny thing is, Diamond has a pretty good chapter in the book on the role of economic and political institutions in promoting freedom and prosperity, but appears that this subtlety may drop out of the series (it was one of the later chapters in the book, though, so I hold out hope that they are going to get to it later in the series).
As my colleague Pete Boettke often asks about a claim such as Diamond's, "Where's the counterexamples?" I can think of many counterexamples where countries have grown rich notwithstanding poor geographic endowments and have remained poor notwithstanding ample geographic endowments. But show me the country that adopted freedom, the rule of law, free trade, and constitutionally-limited government, yet remained poor? And if geography and the latitudinal migration out of the Fertile Crescent into Western Europe was so important, why did it take so long for the countries of Western Europe to catch up to China, and they why did Western Europe then go roaring past?
Or, to put it another way, "There are many ways that people can choose to live. But there are relatively few ways that people can live in peace and prosperity."
Notwithstanding that I recommed the program (and the book as well, of course). Lots of very interesting things to think about here.
I have provided a summary of some of the extensive literature on the relationship between the rule of law, freedom, and prosperity in my article by that same title. The article was a foreword to a Symposium I organized a few years ago on this topic which was published as a special volume of the Supreme Court Economic Review. SSRN (which very well may hold the distinction as the world's least reliable website), has been "replacing a drive on [its] server" for a couple of days now," so I can't link you to that version of the article. So here's the Working Paper version that was included in the series at the International Centre for Economic Research (ICER) when I was a Research Fellow there.