To preface, I have a bit of experience with this series and the book that it was based upon. A few of the history classes (and a biology course) I’ve taken have gone into it, both from a positive and a negative standpoint. On the one hand, the points Diamond make seem very plausible and easy to understand. His explanations for how the world power balance arose and shifted appear to work, on the surface it’s very easy to agree with him. However, as critics have pointed out, Diamond’s thesis is often overly simplistic. A familiar critique of his work states that he essentially cherry picks his examples in order to support his conclusions, rather than forming his conclusions after examining all the evidence.
Watching the bit on sago in New Guinea, I wish they had shown if there was any way at all to convert the tree pulp into a format that could be stored for a long time. Diamond says they (the people of New Guinea) can’t save sago for long periods, but is that because it’s impossible to do so or because they simply haven’t happened on a plausible method? He goes on later to talk about farming, and say that hunter gatherers couldn’t produce as much food as farmers “and also couldn’t produce as much food that could be stored.” However, I think that’s a bit of a fallacy. The storage of food does not depend on farming, farming just makes it much easier to have enough food to merit storage. Hunter gatherers could still store food, why didn’t they develop the technology (such as granaries like the one mentioned in Jordan) necessary to do so?
Regarding the lack of protein found in New Guinea, meat is an excellent source of protein. Diamond focuses on agriculture but doesn’t mention the lack of domestication of animal sources of nutrition. I would assume that perhaps the animals native to that part of the world might not lend themselves easily to domestication, but a quick look into that subject would have been helpful. If the farmers of New Guinea could have domesticated animals as a source of protein and kept up with their regular farming for other sources of nutrition, perhaps their civilization would have arisen the same way others did. The do mention a lack of beasts of burden, and mention that pigs were kept, but it seems a bit glossed over to me.
Candidates of animals for domestication “need to get along with humans.” What about wolves? Today we have dogs, and dogs came from wolves. Wolves do not get along with humans, so are they a sole exception or is that rule broken?
Diamond’s “line of latitude” rule seems pretty weak to me. According to him the climate and vegetation of Southern France and Northern India should be relatively similar, because they lie on the same lines of latitude. I suppose depending on how wide a net he casts that rule holds true, but as it stands right now there are countless other factors that influence an area’s climate (and therefore its vegetation).
On a side note, as a biologist by training (and a scholar of any sort), Diamond should know that anecdotal evidence is not statistically significant and it irks me that he even brings it up.
This post might seem like I really dislike Diamond and his work, but I thoroughly enjoy it. His show (and book) are written for broad audience, and it accomplishes that goal that marvelously. However, I’d very much like to see a more detailed and comprehensive version of his work that goes into depth with all his theories.
Here’s a great resource for more information on this episode and the show in general…