In the three-part documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title, Jared Diamond traces the development of human civilization over the last 13,000 years, from the end of the Last Ice Age to modern society, looking for an explanation for global inequality. After thirty-year research and study of the evolvement of civilization in different parts of the world, Diamond came to the conclusion that along with the virtue of geographic location, the European guns, germs, and steel were dominating the world and allowed some power to emerge while others remained in the silent end of the distribution of power.

In “Out of Eden” from Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond’s story began thirty years ago, when Yali, a man from Papua New Guinea, asked him “Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?”[1] Not knowing the answer, this question prompted Diamond to start looking for an explanation in history. After a great deal of research, he discovers that the reason for inequalities between populations can be explained by the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals based on geography. 13,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer lifestyle in small groups was dominant everywhere until the climate changes when the world became colder and arid. Plants and animals died off, leaving people in starvation. Archeologists discovered remains of an ancient village with a granary in the center, suggesting settled civilization in which people started growing their own food by planting and harvesting grain crops. The narrator claims that “the Stone Age people of the Middle East were becoming farmers – the first farmers in the world.” Diamond argues that although farming was one of the important reasons of global inequality, the type of farming was pivotal. Those people who cultivated the most productive crops became better farmers that came down to “geographical luck.” People in the Middle East had not only more productive crops but also the most beneficial domesticated animals, such as goats, cattle, pigs, and sheep, providing meat, milk, and wool. Some domesticated animal like horse and ox provided muscle power for the plough that made farming more productive. These crops and animals derived from the Fertile Crescent and were able to spread east and west along the same latitude with similar climate and vegetation. Places along the east and west axis of Eurasia were prosperous and civilization flourished; however, places like New Guinea neither had productive crops nor domesticated animals that hindered the development of civilization. Part of the explanation is their geographical disadvantage.

The “Conquest” from Guns, Germs, and Steel describes the Spanish conquest of South America, namely the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532. The show starts with picturing Francisco Pizarro traveling with a handful of Spaniards in search of gold when they discover the magnificent city of Inca. After a couple days of planning, Pizarro sets an ambush for the Incas and massacres 7,000 of them within a couple hours. He captures Ataxalpa the chief of the Incas in the battle and uses him to conquer the rest of the empire. This event raises a series of questions, most importantly how a small group of people could overthrow a whole empire consisted of several thousand inhabitants. Diamond starts looking for answers in taking a closer look at the “haves and have nots.”[2] The Spanish already had an advanced civilization in terms of technology. When they arrived in the New World, they had long had weapons such as swords and guns, which were the products of the original cause of human inequality: geographical luck. Bigger and better farming villages with more productive crops and domesticated animals freed people from the constant farming, and let them develop skills and new technologies, most importantly forging steel. When the Spaniard used their weapons against the Incas, the indigenous people thought that they were the incarnation of Viracoxa, the god of thunder. Since they had never seen animals carrying people before, they thought they were part of human and part of beast. Although the fear that the Spanish exerted on the Incas and their war strategies were decisive during the conquest, they also possessed a “weapon of mass destruction” they were not aware of – the disease called smallpox.[3] The smallpox virus swept through Central America and the Inca Empire decimating native populations that, unlike the Spanish, had no immunities.  

Jared Diamond is a biology professor and a specialist in human physiology at UCLA in Los Angeles. The purpose of the documentary is to show that material conditions contributed to the differences between human societies and later how these societies used material conditions to reshape the world. Since biology is a natural science, Diamond approaches the question of human inequality from a materialistic aspect, examining the development of human civilizations and their interactions with the environment. Diamond argues that the biophysical environment played a pivotal role in the development of societies and in reshaping the world. To support his claim, he turns to the expertise of other researchers, such as archeologists, historians, a historical weapon expert, and other biologists, who provide him secondary sources for his research. The documentary is directed based on his book Guns, Germs, and Steel that Diamond wrote with the use of other researches, books, and journals as secondary sources and primary sources, such as the diary of Pizzaro and other manuscripts. The documentary is well-constructed by the logical arrangement of Diamond’s arguments supported by evidence and clear explanation by other experts. The application of the narrator provides not only a summary of Diamond’s arguments but also smooth transitions between them. The title properly fits the content, and Diamond constantly refers back to it during the show whenever he comes to the conclusion regarding his findings. The strong thesis of the documentary follows the logical arrangement in both episodes. The first episode ends with a question that keeps the audience’s interest and curiosity for the answer that the second episode provides. In the second part of the show, however, Diamond not only offers the answer with an explanation but also overthrows the traditional mythology suggesting the success of the conquest and European expansion lies in the people’s braveness and smartness. He concludes the episode “Conquest” with the statement that “the answers have nothing to do with any personal qualities of Europeans” but the “virtue of their geographic location and history,” which made them the first people to possess “guns, germs, and steel.”[4]  

All in all, this documentary is instructive because it examines the topic from a different angle on the ground of materialism as opposed to theological explanations. Based on Diamond’s detailed research and the expertise of other significant scientists from different areas, they produced a reliable work that gives insight into understanding the differences in the degree of civilizations and the distribution of power in the world today. Although Diamond with the help of his team came to a logical conclusion to global inequality, he left the topic open for further research, suggesting that guns, germs, and steel are the biggest questions of human history.    




[1] “Out of Eden,” Tim Lambert, Guns, Germs, and Steel, aired 2004, National Geographic Digital Media.   

[2] “Conquest,” Tim Lambert, Guns, Germs, and Steel, aired 2004, National Geographic Digital Media.   


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.