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Guns, Germs & Steel Q&A

Guns, Germs & Steel, an epic new National Geographic presentation for PBS answers the question, "Why do some cultures succeed, while others fail?" Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Jared Diamond, the series will be broadcast on WHYY TV12 on three consecutive Mondays, July 11, 18 and 25, at 10 p.m. The series takes viewers on a compelling journey through five continents for a revealing look at the rise and fall of societies through the lenses of geography, technology, biology and economics -- forces symbolized by the power of guns, germs and steel. Diamond recently sat down to discuss the series.

Q: What are the important questions of Guns, Germs, and Steel?
A: The important question is why history turned out differently for people of different continents and specifically why, over the last 13,000 years, peoples of Eurasia pulled ahead of peoples in Africa, the Americas and Australia in technology and power.

Q: Why did the people of Eurasia pull ahead of those in the Pacific, Africa and South America?
A: In one word, environment -- especially environmental differences in the availability of plants and animals that were able to be domesticated.

Q: You identify the Fertile Crescent as the "granary" of civilization in the Middle East and Eurasia. Why did the western Europeans become so dominant of all the cultures rising from the crescent?
A: I see the main reason as geography. One could say that the cultures that came out of the Fertile Crescent consisted of the Middle East today; secondly, Europe; thirdly, India; and fourthly, North Africa. Of those areas, the Fertile Crescent committed ecological suicide: It had a big head start, but it was a fragile environment in which trees chopped down didn't grow back quickly, and plants, when overgrazed by goats, didn't grow back quickly. Europe had the good fortune to be a peninsula tacked onto the Fertile Crescent -- so Europe got things quickly from the Fertile Crescent, like agriculture and the stuff that came with it. Europe has fertile soils and a robust environment and to this day has not committed ecological suicide.

Q: Is there anything to the old explanations pointing to differences in culture as the reason why there is a gap between the haves and the have-nots?
A: The old answers often invoke differences in people themselves and in their biology. There are differences in culture, many of which are products of the differences in the environment. The real question is whether there are differences in culture independent of the environmental differences that made Europeans richer and more successful. There's no evidence of that.

Q: The ideas in Guns, Germs, and Steel have prompted controversy, with some claiming that your emphasis on the impact of geography on culture denies the role of societies in charting their own fate. Does a society's character play a role in its chance at success or failure?
A: It depends upon the problem. There are some environmentally set problems that to humans are insoluble. On the other hand, my more recent book, Collapse, has to do with problems where human culture does make a big difference. If you're messing up the environment, it's basically because you're choosing to do things that mess up the environment, and you can choose to stop doing them. I sometimes do get the criticism that I minimize the role of societies in charting their own fate. And that's one line that nobody has followed up by showing how, supposedly, Europeans' choices -- rather than the plants and animals that they inherited -- were what made Europe rich.

Q: While filming the series, you were able to visit many of the people and places you have referenced in your writing. What was that like?
A: You can sit down in your study as a scholar, you can pose a question, you can figure out the answer, and you might arrive at the right answer. That [kind of] abstract reasoning is different from experiencing something and learning firsthand.... [At one point] in the filming…there I was in Spain in this somewhat dry, flat landscape -- not the richest part of the world today. And yet, these Spaniards, in small numbers, conquered the whole hemisphere. The paradox of that! What was it about this landscape that led those people -- Pizarro -- to conquer empires?

Zambia is one of the poorest countries in Africa, the poorest continent, lifespan 36-38 years, per capita income 200 dollars. Being in Zambia for the filming just drove home to me that these are awfully nice people. They're hardworking and they're interested in education. Why on earth is it that these really nice, hardworking, motivated, honest people who've set up a reasonably effective -- not corrupt -- democracy have still one of the poorest countries in the world?

Q: What do you hope your viewers will take away from the series?
A: They should take away the message that questions about why history unfolds differently on different continents are fascinating and important. They should also take away the message that geography is important. Often people caricature discussions of geography by saying -- "Tsk, tsk -- that's environmental determinism and we know it's wrong." To that my answer would be, "Yes, geography is not destiny, but you have to understand geography if you want to change your destiny.

The reasons why the countries of southeast Asia -- Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea -- were poor 50 years ago and why they're rich today is that they did not say, "Geography is destiny." Instead they said, "Let's see what penalties geography has handed to us, and let's concentrate on overcoming those penalties." So they did it…they didn't fall down dead and accept those penalties. The result: They're rich today.

Interview courtesy of National Geographic