'Guns, Germs, and Steel'

Dr. Jared M. Diamond
Author and Professor of Geography, Environmental Health Sciences and Physiology, UCLA
Wednesday, July 20, 2005; 3:00 PM

Jared Diamond's theories about the course of human civilization come to television in "Guns, Germs, and Steel: A National Geographic Presentation," a three-part television series produced exclusively for PBS. Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book offers a look at the rise and fall of societies through the lens of geography, technology, biology and economics - forces symbolized by the power of guns, germs and steel. The new series airs on PBS Mondays, July 11-25, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Dr. Jared M. Diamond, host and consultant for "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and author of its newly revised companion book, was online Wednesday, July 20, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his work and the series.

The production spans five continents and uses epic historical reenactments to illustrate Diamond's theories, explaining why societies developed differently in different parts of the world -- why some became conquerors and others the conquered.

The first episode, "Out of Eden," proposes that a society's potential for advanced development was not determined by race or creed, or by time and experience, but by access to domesticated animals and cultivated plants. Part two, "Conquest," explores the impact of weapons and disease in shaping the conquest of the New World.

The final episode, "Into the Tropics," examines the development and colonization of Africa by South Africans and Europeans, and explains why geography is still a factor in forming the divide between those with money and resources and those without. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is a PBS Program Club pick.

Dr. Jared M. Diamond is professor of geography, environmental health sciences and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1977 Diamond has published eight books, including "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (2004), two monographs and nearly 600 articles. In 1998 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the national bestseller "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" (1997).

The recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Japan's International Cosmos Prize, Diamond is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He serves on the Board of Directors of the World Wildlife Fund and is a contributing editor to Discover magazine. Diamond has been the recipient of numerous grants from National Geographic's Conservation, Research and Exploration council for his work with native bird species in Papua New Guinea and its outlying areas.

A transcript follows.


Dr. Jared M. Diamond: It's a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to talk with my readers even if it's not talking with a voice, but by talking by means of modern technology. It's an appropriate metaphor because my book makes the point that there are areas and modern technologies that can contribute positively to solving environmental problems.


Brooksville, Fla.: Dr. Diamond, I seem to have trouble answering one of your discussion questions stated in the back of GGS. What is the significance of the differing outcomes of Austronesian expansion in Indonesia and New Guinea?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Sure. There's a significance for the people themselves and there's a significance for what we can learn from it. The significance for people themselves is that the original Indonesians mostly lost their lands and got replaced by expanding Austronesians. That's bad for them. Whereas in New Guinea, particularly for New Guinea Highlanders, were able to keep the invading Austronesians out, and so they retained ownership of their lands and that was good for them. But the other significance is what we can learn from it. The original Indonesians were hunter gatherers. The original New Guineans, particularly in the Highlands, were farmers. Farmers are more successful at resisting other farmers than are hunter gatherers.


Ottawa, Canada: In your program, you described how the European cultures succeeded through their use of technology (guns and steel), domesticated animals and the suitable latitude in the world.

How is it that the Chinese, who had all of the same qualities, did not succeed?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: My answer. That's an excellent question. And I discuss it briefly in the epilogue, the last part, of my book Guns, Germs, And Steel. I think that the answer is geography. Some other historians think that the answer is just an accident of history and we don't know yet which of us is right.


Vienna, Va.: What do your theories on the impact of geography on the success of societies suggest about the future of the U.S. via a vis Europe and Asia (particularly China)?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Wow. That's an interesting, difficult question. Come back in 30 years and we'll see what the answer is.


Wilmington, N.C.: Dr. Diamond, whenever a documentary such as Guns, Germs and Steel is released on television, there always seems to be some criticism from academics and other experts in the discipline that the program focuses on. What was your experience with helping to produce a television series in which your expansive theory was adequately covered in such a relatively short amount of time (a three-hour program)?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Well, I had to get used to the fact that a 200,000 word book that would take 20 hours to read out loud has to get summarized for TV within 3 hours. A lot had to be shortened, but on the other hand, TV can evoke and recreate in a way that a book cannot. And I myself think that it is wonderful how National Geographic and Lion TV succeeded in making complex subjects come vividly alive.


Omaha, Neb.: Will China and India take over the world in a 100 years?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Stay tuned and come back in 30 years, but probably not.


Austin, Tex.: Hi, I'm a High School student reading your book for summer homework for next year. I was wondering if you would say that your book is really about how some areas around the world are more lucky (in terms of what they have) than others. That's the main question I have to answer (well, really its summarize your book). Thank you.

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Yes, the people of some areas were luckier than the people of other areas. And I am very glad that you are reading this book as a high school student because my own twin sons recently read this book as high school students and at first they were afraid that it would be too hard for them, but then they discovered that their school friends loved it, and then they came to think that their father's book was cool.


Midwest City, Okla.: I just wanted to say thank you for such a wonderfully helpful book. We used G.G.S. as the backbone of our AP Wrld. Hist. class and due in part to the knowledge I attained from your book I scored a 4 on the AP test. Again, thank you. -- class of 06 - MCHS

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: That's wonderful. I congratulate you.


Lahaina, Hawaii: After watching the second episode of your series, a question came to mind. Why do you propose that complex, diverse, and highly populated civilizations of the New World never gazed out at the ocean's horizon and developed naval technology to go explore and possibly conquer what was on the other side of their horizon as Europeans did? They had relatively equal levels of technology in other areas, they had considerably equal population sizes, and also a surplus of food supplies from farming to allow the specialization of a naval technology. Granted that the main Inca and Aztec population centers were inland, the Mayans were a coastal people. Were they just afraid of water? Must be more to it. Thanks.

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Yes there is more to it. When peoples of the New World gazed out to sea, in most places they didn't see any islands off shore. But in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, wherever people gazed out to see, they did see islands. That stimulated Mediterranean and Asian people to build boats and rewarded them for doing it by letting them reach islands, whereas any New World people who had built boats to go far offshore would have found no islands and just starved to death. I think that that's the main reason for the interesting difference that you mentioned.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Diamond, if agriculture and livestock moving east and west along a narrow latitude was part of what contributed to cultural dominance, why did it seem to benefit Europe more than Asia?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: The agricultural spread of crops and livestock did benefit both Europe and Asia. For example, Europe gained rice and chickens from Asia while China gained horses from the West. But, the question why Europe rather than China then colonized the rest of the world is the same difficult question that my second questioner asked me and to which I offered my own theory, namely geography.


San Jose, Calif.: Hello Dr. Diamond,

My name is Karla, and I recently viewed your show on PBS (July 18th, 2005). I was a bit shocked to hear your theory on the spread of smallpox in the Americas. I've always thought that Europeans, not Africans, brought disease to the Americas. I'm aware that Europeans brought slaves to the Americas, however, the show stated the reason that Native people didn't reciprocate any disease to Europeans was because of the difference between their animal to human relationships. If you could please direct me to reading material regarding this topic, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank You!

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Yes, to begin on reading material on this topic you will be interested to read my chapter on diseases in the book "Guns, Germs, And Steel." Briefly, European and Asian people had lots of domestic animals from which to acquire germs ancestral two-hour nasty diseases like smallpox and measles, but the only big domestic animal in the New World was the llama, which didn't give us any nasty diseases.


Orlando, Fla.: In the early chapters, you stressed that there was no sure way of being able to determine which society/civilization would be most successful based on a civilizations obvious "head starts." However, if it were so easy, what do you think would be the most significant factor in determining a civilizations future, based on "head starts" or "haves/have nots"?

Thank You! "GG&S" is incredible.

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Thank you! 13,000 years ago people then would not have been able to predict which part of the world would develop fastest. Now we understand the answer for why it happened the way that it did. As for what will happen in the next 50 years, you'll enjoy reading my most recent book, entitled "Collapse."


Grand Rapids, Mich.: You explore military technology, infectious disease and political ideology in regards to geography as an explanation of the success and failure of cultures. I was wondering if you had any feelings about the effects religion had on civilizations? Can you relate it to your geography thesis as well?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Religions often served as the motive or the excuse for some societies to go conquer other societies. One might wonder whether some parts of the world produced more blood thirsty religions than other parts. That's an interesting and uncertain question. One has to wonder why two especially expansionist religions, Christianity and Islam, both arose in the Eastern Mediterranean.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Please describe the factors you hypothesize as causal in the human migrations across the Bering Strait land-bridge.

How does this fit into the timeline and the causal factors outlined in Guns, Germs and Steel?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: In human history, people have always taken advantage of opportunities to expand into uninhabited lands. That's presumably why people crossed Bering Straits, just as it was also the reason why people settled Asia and Europe and then Australia and then the Pacific Islands.


New York, N.Y.: Do you think that new technological breakthroughs in communications will eventually overcome the issues of geography that civilizations faced in the past? That is, many technological advances were once available to a civilization only because of their proximity to the origin of that technology. However, with the printing press and the Internet, wouldn't these technologies render that issue moot? And wouldn't this affect the relative balance of power in the world especially between the East and West?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: That's an interesting and complicated question. Improved communications today do mean that ideas and inventions have the theoretical capacity to spread anywhere. Nevertheless, we know that the Internet and modern communications are benefiting Europe, Japan and the U.S. much more than they are benefiting Paraguay, Zambia and Haiti. That's to say that the inequalities produced by history are still with us today.


Washington, D.C.: Do your theories adequately explain the difference in prosperity between North and South Korea?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: The difference in prosperity between North and South Korea depends on geography in so far as N. Korea is the part close to China and so it remained under Communist domination. As a result, S. Korea today is rich, while N. Korea is desperately poor. That illustrates how geography can lead to drastically different political systems and drastically different economies.


Decorah, Iowa: Concerning the alignment of continents:

How does naval travel affect your thesis concerning the spread of ideas? Although the Americas and Australia/New Guinea are geographically isolated, would naval travel facilitate contact and interaction?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: In the last 500 years, naval contact has made possible travel between continents. For example, as a result of naval travel Australians today speak English. They don't speak Chinese, although China is closer to Australia than is England. For the most part, they also don't speak Aboriginal Australian languages. All that is the result of naval travel.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you any thoughts on the fears of another flu epidemic hitting humans, particular the Avian flu concerns that exist now in Southeast Asia?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Yes there could be another flu epidemic, but I'm not worried about the risk of its wiping out the human race or our economies. The big threats to the human race and our economies are not flu, but environmental and population problems and their political consequences.


Washington, D.C.: What role did government policies of free markets, capitalism, and respect of property rights play in the ascendancy of the West?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: A clear example is that in countries whose citizens are able to have confidence in their own property rights, people are willing to invest and develop the economy. If you can't prove that you can't own your land in which you live, then you can't take a mortgage out on it and you can't use the proceeds of that mortgage to invest in developing a new business. Also, if your property rights to a business that you would develop are insecure, you would be less likely to go to all the work to developing a new business. All of that illustrates that countries with sound government and secure property rights provide a much better climate for investment and development.


Bethesda, Md.: Dr. Diamond, love your books, your theories and now this wonderfully dramatized series in progress on PBS. Trivial question perhaps - but speaking of the migrations of peoples and the divergent paths they take, we were wondering where your (seemingly unique) accent hails from. Thanks!

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: My accent is a mixture of Boston, New York, England, Germany and Australia.


Athens, Ohio: After reading your book, the "Third Chimpanzee", I was especially fascinated, but maybe not so totally surprised, when they found miniature human skeletons on Flores Island in Indonesia. What are the implications of this find in your field of study, and how does it tie into the discussion of why certain groups of humans outlived others?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: The Flores Island tiny Pygmies were a dead-end of evolution. But they are fascinating in illustrating that humans can become dwarfed on isolated islands just as can other animals.


Worcester, Mass.: Will we see a series based on "COLLAPSE"?

I would love footage of the valley you described in Montana.

GUNS, GERMS and STEEL and COLLAPSE are both wonderful, thought-provoking books.

Your ability to explain scientific ideas to lay people such as myself is comparable to the late great Stephen Jay Gould.

Thank you.

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: I hope that you will someday see a series based on my book "Collapse." If you want one, please tell television producers so that they will know that there is a market out there.


Oakland, Calif.: Regarding China, you wrote: "I think that the answer is geography. Some other historians think that the answer is just an accident of history and we don't know yet which of us is right."

I'm guessing you're open to the idea that it's a mix?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Maybe!


Washington, D.C.: I loved reading Guns, Germs and Steel a few years ago, and recently read of Spencer Wells work tracing human population patterns using genetic markers.

In the PBS documentary he narrated, he argued that Australia was settled 55,000 years ago--far earlier than I think your book concluded.

Does his work cause you to reconsider any of your conclusions, do you disagree with him, or am I simply remembering your book incorrectly?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: There is no disagreement. I argue that Australia was settled probably around 46,000 years ago. Some people think that it was a little earlier, but not much.


Indianapolis, Ind.: In episode one, you remarked that New Guineans never became metalworkers, i.e., they stayed in the stone age. Hawaiians also stayed in the stone age. In either or both cases, could it also be that there are no metal ores available on the island?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Interesting question, but that's certainly not the answer in New Guinea, which today has some of the richest mines in the world.


Washington, D.C. Dr. Diamond

Loved the book and looking forward to reading collapse. I recently got back from the Mayan Riviera and asked the tour guides why the Mayans weren't the ones conquering Spain instead of vice versa. They quickly deflected the answer and changed topics. Have you run across any other cultures in your travels that are reluctant to accept/ discuss your theories?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: I find a lot of people uncomfortable about discussing why some people conquered other people because they are afraid that the answer might turn out to be a racist answer. That's why it's so important to understand what the correct answer is and that's what I attempted in "Guns, Germs, And Steel."


Bethesda, Md.: Dr. Diamond, I've been interested in your work since I saw you speak at the NIH and bought your recent books. The more I mull over your theses, the more enduring and compelling I find them. I have often wondered though, have you gotten much defensive heat - implicit or explicit - from the racial supremacists who still cling to the view that our white European forebears were inherently smarter/stronger/more industrious?

Dr. Jared M. Diamond: I haven't gotten much communication from racial supremacists, either because they tend not to read books at all, or else because they've been told what my book is about and so they know not to read it.


Dr. Jared M. Diamond: I thank my online readers very much for their interesting and thought-provoking questions. I wish I could continue this conversation for twenty three hours, but now I have to do things like sleep, eat and teach my students. Thank you!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company