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Guns, Germs, and Steel:

I watched the third and final installment of Guns, Germs, and Steel on tv, about Africa. I found the section on the spread of African societies out of western Africa and the selection of where to establish tribes and villages to be very interesting. So far so good.

But, it seems to me that his argument really kind of fell apart in the last quarter of this last episode. The effort to explain Africa v. Malaysia/Singapore in terms of malaria (germs) exposure seemed to me to be largely question-begging on the role of institutions versus geography. And, although he expresses proper admiration for the complex pre-colonial African societies and germs in repelling European settlers, he again seems to beg his own question, which is why did the Europeans develop the technology and innovation to eventually plunder Africa, notwithstanding the obstacles, rather than the other way around (his question is a positive one, not a normative one about the immorality of the colonial behavior in their treatment of Africans). Not to mention that the pest controls and vaccinations that are needed in Africa have been created predominantly in the West, which again raises the question of why there instead of Africa. Of course, the ability to control pests in Malaysia/Singapore seems to be largely endogenous on having strong legal, political, and economic institutions in place first.

Diamond sems to be arguing tht the "best" way of life in Africa is in small, dispersed highland tribes, insulated from one another to prevent the spread of germs. But, this seems to prevent the accumulation of the population densities necessary to create the sort of material progress that is necessary to spawn guns and steel (and similar technological inventions). Diamond seems to focus only on the benefits of limiting the spread of germs, and suggests that made the African way of life more "fit" for their geography. But perhaps I am misunderstanding him here.

My impression was that in this last episode he seemed like he was really straining to stretch his story to fit his facts. I was also surprised that he also didn't mention the whole controversy of DDT and malaria control, but focused only on the search for a malaria vaccination.

Overall, I enjoyed the series a lot though. I thought the interspersing of old black & white film was an excellent story-telling technique to take the viewer back in time. I wish there was more stuff like this on tv!

I would be interested in everyone's comments again, especially if you have watched the entire series.

anonymous coward:
Why no mention of the DDT "controversy"? Possibly because said controversy is one part exaggeration and two parts myth. See for example here.
7.29.2005 11:41am
billb:
I recommend you read the book. I don't know if you can get the whole of his argument in a small television series.
7.29.2005 11:51am
Zywicki (mail):
Billb:
I have read the book. The argument laid out in the third episode of the tv series does not appear to be the same argument he makes in the book. I don't recall anything in the book that compares Africa's poverty to Malaysia and Singapore's prosperity.

Some of the issues raised in episode 3 of the series go beyond what is in the book, from what I remember from reading it. So its not a matter of getting the "whole of his argument"--he seems to be making some new arguments in the television series that aren't in the book.
7.29.2005 12:30pm
irrelevant guy:
I also recommend reading the book. The breadth and complexity is provocative, in the best way. And, you mind want to look at Diamond's latest, "Collapse". However,as a sanity check, I also recommend V.D. Hanson's review of "Collapse" in the National Review of April 11, 2005.
7.29.2005 12:40pm
Grumpy (mail):
...why did the Europeans develop the technology and innovation to eventually plunder Africa, notwithstanding the obstacles...?

It was unstated, but presumably it's because of a shift in colonization tactics: exploiting rather than displacing the native population.

Diamond sems to be arguing tht the "best" way of life in Africa is in small, dispersed highland tribes, insulated from one another to prevent the spread of germs. But, this seems to prevent the accumulation of the population densities necessary to create the sort of material progress...

Except that such materials are now available to anyone who can afford them; they're already invented. Perhaps Diamond imagines traditional African settlement patterns can mesh with modern amenities. Or, as in the Malaysia (to the extent that it's a valid counter-example), Western-style settlements can exist in the tropics in concert with strong governments.

No, there was no mention of DDT. Nor mosquito nets, for that matter.

Also unexplained was how Africans got their (disease-resistant) cattle; up to this point in the series, it had only been established that Eurasians had access to domesticable beasts. (This is explained in the book, of course.)
7.29.2005 2:59pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Malaria is not a tropical disease. It can flourish in temperate climates, and within historical times has. The chief method of suppressing malaria, has been draining what were formerly called malaria swamps, but are now called ecologically sensitive wetlands. None of this is news (other than that ecologists are dingbats). The Romans drained swamps. The increase in malaria in Italy after the Roman Empire collapsed was an effect, not a cause.
8.1.2005 9:40pm