Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2009

Guns, Germs, Steel on PBS

Filed under: indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

PBS Series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

Posted to the Marxism mailing list in 3 parts during July 2005

Part 1

Despite having dozed off for ten minutes toward the end of the first installment of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I feel that I have a pretty good handle on what it was trying to establish–namely, the idea that the development of agriculture is a sine qua non for civilization.

The show centered on comparisons between Papuan New Guinea and places like ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, classical Greece and the Mayan Kingdom. Where you have corn, wheat, rice, etc, you have written languages, pyramids and great art. Where there is hunting and gathering, you get none of this. Despite Diamond’s clear admiration for the people of New Guinea’s resourcefulness, you get the sense that he is trying to explain why they are such losers.

He starts out by stating that “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written to understand why there are winners and losers in world history. This was prompted by an encounter with a Papuan named Yali who asked why the Westerners had so much “cargo”–a term they use for commodities. It originated in the cargo cult, which viewed things such as evaporated milk (and even the containers they came in) as gifts from the gods.

For Diamond, the big breakthrough occurred in the so-called Fertile Crescent, an area ranging from Southeastern Turkey to Western Iran. Looking at the ruins of a 12,000 year old town in this region, Diamond points to the existence of a rudimentary grain silo and declares that this is where it all started. The implication is that you get computer networking, Cruise missiles and MTV all from this initial start in raising crops from a fixed settlement.

He points to evidence that a formerly hunting and gathering group learned how to plant wheat seeds for future crops–thus eliminating the need for a nomadic existence. Once you have a stable settlement, it becomes possible to create housing of a more permanent nature, etc.

You can find a scholarly presentation of this in a Science Magazine article titled Location, Location, Location: The First Farmers that Diamond wrote in November 1997:

In short, einkorn [a kind of wheat] domestication in the Karacada mountains exemplifies the enormous head start that western Eurasian societies gained from Fertile Crescent biogeography. For history’s broad patterns, as for real estate investment, location is almost everything. Plant and animal domestication was prerequisite to the growth of large, dense, sedentary human populations, in which the food-producing activities of part of the population yielded storable food surpluses to feed non-food-producing parts of the population. Hence, food production triggered the emergence of kings, bureaucrats, scribes, professional soldiers, and metal-workers and other full-time craftspeople. Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us. Thus, a long straight line runs through world history, from those first domesticates at the Karacada mountains and elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, to the “guns, germs, and steel” by which European colonists in modern times destroyed so many native societies of other continents.

It is understandable why “Guns, Germs and Steel” might have been appeared as a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, since it dispenses with ideas of racial superiority. The Europeans overran the Lakota not because they were racially superior but because they had happened upon agriculture through the contingencies of history.

The other thing that has some appeal for radicals is Diamond’s seeming affinity for historical materialism. The notion of agricultural societies superseding more primitive (but communal) societies is obviously laid out in Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Engels writes:

Horticulture, probably unknown to Asiatic barbarians of the lower stage, was being practiced by them in the middle stage at the latest, as the forerunner of agriculture. In the climate of the Turanian plateau, pastoral life is impossible without supplies of fodder for the long and severe winter. Here, therefore, it was essential that land should be put under grass and corn cultivated. The same is true of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But when once corn had been grown for the cattle, it also soon became food for men. The cultivated land still remained tribal property; at first it was allotted to the gens, later by the gens to the household communities and finally to individuals for use. The users may have had certain rights of possession, but nothing more.

Diamond, who roots for the Papuans as if they were a losing team, sounds like Engels when he mourns for the more egalitarian but less technologically advanced Zulus:

We have seen examples of this courage quite recently in Africa. The Zulus a few years ago and the Nubians a few months ago — both of them tribes in which gentile institutions have not yet died out — did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breech-loaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order — they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the lines into disorder and even broke them, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they have no military service and know nothing of drill. Their powers of endurance and performance are shown by the complaint of the English that a Kaffir travels farther and faster in twenty-four hours than a horse. His smallest muscle stands out hard and firm like whipcord, says an English painter.

Of course, Diamond departs from Engels on the all-important question, which is how to recover the egalitarian and democratic essence of hunting and gathering societies while maintaining the scientific and technical breakthroughs of all societies that succeeded them.

Part 2

I am all caught up on the PBS “Guns, Germs and Steel” series. This post will deal with part 2 and I will get around to saying something about part 3, the conclusion, when time permits.

Part 2 tries to explain why it was so easy for Pizarro and the conquistadores to subdue the Incas. For Diamond, this is a function of geography mainly. Because the Eurasian landmass was more horizontal than vertical, it was possible for advances in agriculture to fuel subsequent breakthroughs such as the production of guns and steel. When societies operate on the same basic climactic and seasonal basis, farming innovations can be transmitted along the same axis. For example, when wheat growing and sheep rearing were introduced in the Fertile Crescent, it was relatively easy for these practices to diffuse into Europe or into China since they all share the same growing seasons, etc. Once you get this kind of agriculture established, everything else supposedly falls into place.

The Americas were skinny and tall by comparison. Any agricultural breakthrough was difficult to export since there was so much difference between the climate and seasons of Mexico and Peru supposedly. This was not just a problem for agriculture. It was also a problem for other advances, such as writing. With such a great distance between Guatemala and Peru, Mayan advances in writing never made it south. This leads Diamond to conclude that the Incas would be at a disadvantage in a military confrontation with Spain–leaving aside the European superiority in arms. The Spaniards had written down military handbooks on how conquests should be organized in places like Mexico, which were made available to other expeditions. Without knowledge of writing, the Incas could not respond in kind defensively.

The Americas also lacked herd animals of the kind that Europeans had been raising for millennia. Since pigs, cows, etc. were the source of common diseases such as smallpox, measles, etc, a resistance to infection could take place over generations. When the Incas, who had never developed such immunity, were exposed to the Europeans, they began dieing in great numbers. Some historians estimate that 90 percent of the indigenous people in the Americas died of such illnesses, making the job of conquest all the more easy for the Europeans.

In addition, the Europeans had developed guns and steel, which they used for rapiers. With such weapons at their disposal, and with the added advantage that riding horseback would give them, it was no wonder that several hundred of Pizarro’s men could vanquish thousands of Incan warriors.

There is not much to quibble with in Diamond’s analysis such as it is. By stressing the contingencies that allowed the Europeans to enjoy a vast military superiority, Diamond can drive home the point that racial superiority had nothing to do with the Spanish victories. Of course, what is missing from Diamond’s narrative is any understanding of what it will take to redeem these historic crimes against humanity.

I would only add a couple of observations that help us make better sense of what took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.

To start with, we should be cognizant that there is a temporal as well as a spatial distinction between the Americas and Eurasia that favored the latter’s one-sided domination. As Jim Blaut points out in “Colonizer’s Model of the World,” the Americas were settled fairly late in the game, no earlier than 30,000 BC. The earliest migrations preceded the agricultural revolution, which took place roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in Eurasia. Blaut, citing Stuart J. Fiedel’s “Prehistory of the Americas”, puts the same developments as 4,000 years later in the Americas. Despite the substantial time differences, there is every possibility that the Americans would have made up the difference culturally. But the European invasions forestalled all that.

If anything, Blaut is even more emphatic than Diamond in emphasizing the role of germs. He believes that the Spanish military superiority would have evaporated eventually as the new technology of horses, steel and guns diffused into the native population, just as it always does. Just look at how the Iraqis are figuring out new ways to blow up HUMV’s using lasers presumably ordered over the Internet.

Finally, Henry Kamen has some interesting things to say about the much-vaunted conquistadores in his recently published and highly acclaimed “Empire: How Spain Became a World Power: 1492-1763” that were viewed as sacrilege in Spain. They amount to a demythologizing.

In a nutshell, Kamen argues that “Spanish military success was made possible only by the help of the native Americans.” The assistance came in two varieties, one humble and one less so, but both were essential. Indians carried out such duties as carrying baggage, searching for food and water, tending animals, delivering messages, etc. In Diamond’s dramatization of the march of Pizarro on the seat of the Incan monarchy, this was left out entirely. The Spaniards are depicted as totally on their own.

Additionally, the Incas fought amongst themselves, with the Inca Huascar aligning himself with Pizarro. A witness to the successful battle depicted in the PBS episode stated, “If the Incas had not favoured the Spaniards, it would have been impossible to win this kingdom.”

As proof of what would happen when the Incas learned to stiffen their resolve and compensate for Spanish superiority in arms and technology, Huascar’s brother Manco raised an army of 50,000 that surrounded Cusco, where two hundred Spaniards were holed up. In other words, you had the same relationship of forces that obtained in the initial Spanish victory. This time things did not go so well for the conquistadores. The siege of Cusco lasted over a year, from March 1536 to April 1537. Eventually, the Spaniards counter-attacked but Kamen states that without Indian support, they would have failed.

Ultimately, it was germs rather than guns or steel that led to the fall of the Aztecs and the Inca.

Part 3

The concluding episode of the PBS production of “Guns, Germs and Steel” focuses on the colonization of the African continent, expanding on a number of the themes introduced in episode 2, which dealt with the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

It focuses on the efforts of the Dutch settlers to expand from their base at the southern tip of the continent northwards into more tropical areas, where the colonization efforts fall victim to climate and disease.

Diamond believes that the settlers underestimated the difficulties facing them since the southern tip of South Africa was far more like native Europe than what would face them later on. As they moved closer to the equator, they discovered that both they and their herd animals would fall sick to diseases they had no resistance to. In other words, the tables were being turned on the colonizers. In Latin America, disease felled the native peoples while in Africa it was the invaders who succumbed to disease–malaria specifically.

Diamond makes the case that indigenous peoples and their animals had developed a resistance to malaria over generations, just as Europeans had strengthened their immune systems against smallpox, measles, etc. African cattle had adapted as well. Both native people and their domesticated animals had also benefited from geography. They had learned to live in higher elevations where mosquitoes were less prevalent. Also, in the absence of intense agriculture as practiced in Eurasia, settlements were smaller and tended to be located away from rivers and lakes. The Europeans, by contrast, settled around rivers and lakes since this is traditionally how towns and cities get established in order to take advantage of water supplies and for trade. But this is exactly where the mosquito was prevalent.

The other major threat to the colonizers was the fierce Zulus who ruled over an extensive kingdom like the Incas. Unlike in Peru, the Zulus were able to mount a significant resistance to outside incursion. This is dramatized in the PBS show as something akin to old cowboy and Indian movies. The Dutch settlers are sitting around a campfire and out of nowhere come these howling savages bent on destruction.

This is not the first time that Diamond, the pious anti-racist, has succumbed to stereotyping. If he had taken the trouble to look a little further into the Zulu history, he would have discovered that the violence was completely understandable since the nation had been driven from their former homes by Portuguese slave traders.

Recent scholarship, discussed by John Reader in “Africa: a Portrait of the Continent” reveals that Shaka, king of the Zulus, and his people fled Delagoa Bay­on the Southern coast of Mozambique–in the 1820s after more than 60,000 natives had been kidnapped and sent to pick cotton, tobacco or sugar in the Americas. A missionary by the name of Stephen Kay noted in his August 1828 journal:

He [Shaka] was originally established near Delagoa Bay, from whence he was driven about twelve years ago, by some great convulsion there. The impetus he received appears to have gradually forced him westwards [sic] as far as Natal, where he at length seated himself with a very powerful body of adherents.

Other peoples fleeing the slavers naturally became part of the Zulu kingdom, which was organized around Spartan military discipline for good reasons obviously. When Dutch and British settlers began to make their presence felt in South Africa, the Zulu naturally felt squeezed between two hostile forces.

Shaka, who had the reputation of being ruthlessly hostile toward other black Africans, was actually blamed for slave-raids carried out by whites. In one such incident, white businessmen and a missionary, whose daughter would marry colonizer David Livingstone, presented a false picture of fending off a supposedly fierce group of Mantatees. Traditionally, white accounts represent the Mantatees as a menacing force of 100,000 but more recent scholarship puts their numbers at around 2000. In reality, the whites had organized a massacre of the Mantatees and sold the survivors as slaves for the export trade or as indentured servants for the local economy. In the 1820s, labor was as in short supply in white-controlled Africa as it was in the American South. Reader reports that local settlers complained that it was “utterly impossible to procure men or boys or even Hottentots to herd.” This dimension is utterly lacking in Diamond’s account.

The show ends with about as much of a political prescription from Diamond as can be found anywhere. Until the publication of “Collapse,” he has studiously stayed above the fray when it comes to the question of how the victims of colonialism can finally enjoy equality with those who colonized them.

This would appear to revolve around the question of overcoming malaria, which is diminishing Africa’s pool of able-bodied working people. Diamond explains that with the final victory of the colonizers, new cities were established at rivers and lakes, which enabled malaria to ravage the native population formerly protected in the traditional highland habitats. The question of how their once reliable immune system would now fail them is not dealt with by Diamond, nor does he deal with the question of AIDS, a disease that seems far more devastating economically than malaria.

He interviews an obviously concerned female physician in the children’s ward of a Lusaka, Zambia hospital, who assures him that Zambia needs to wipe out this scourge for real progress to be made. Then, in a totally improbable leap of logic, the show draws upon old footage from Malaysia and Singapore earlier in the 20th century, when ambitious anti-malaria campaigns were mounted. This is followed immediately by shots of downtown skyscrapers, bustling street traffic and late-model cars. So Diamond’s solution for poverty is to eradicate disease. With all due respect to Diamond, whose heart is probably in the right place, this is ridiculous.

In reality, poverty is the cause and disease is the effect­not the other way around. This is especially the case with malaria. Fortunately, we didn’t get a lecture from Diamond about the need to bombard Africa with DDT, the current fad among bourgeois development economists, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how this illness is connected to one’s economic situation. Fundamentally, eliminating malaria means eliminating the conditions that breed the mosquitoes that carry it. This means getting rid of standing water in swamps, dirt roads, garbage dumps, etc. Anybody who has visited Zambia, as I have, can tell you that the country can barely pay off its debts to the IMF, let alone embark on an ambitious mosquito eradication program.

For an analysis rooted in economics, one must turn to Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who maintains an AIDS clinic in Haiti and who has written extensively about the ties between poverty and disease. In his “Infections and Inequalities,” he writes:

When we think of “tropical diseases,” for instance, malaria comes quickly to mind. But not too long ago, malaria was a significant problem far from the tropics. Although there is imperfect overlap between malaria as currently defined and the malaria of the mid-nineteenth century, some medical historians agree with contemporary assessments that this illness “was the most important disease in the United States at that time.” In the Ohio River Valley, according to Daniel Drake’s 1850 study, thousands died in seasonal epidemics. A million-odd soldiers were afflicted with malaria during the U.S. Civil War. During the second decade of the twentieth century, when the population of twelve southern states was about twenty-five million, the region saw an estimated one million cases of malaria per year. Malaria’s decline in this country was “due only in small part to measures aimed directly against it, but more to agricultural development and to other factors some of which are still not clear.”

One responsible factor that is clear enough, if little discussed in the literature, is the reduction of poverty, including the development of improved housing, land drainage, mosquito repellents, nets, and electric fans–­all of which have been (and remain) beyond the reach of those most at risk for malaria. In fact, many “tropical” diseases predominantly afflict the poor; the groups at risk for these diseases are often bounded more by socioeconomic status than by latitude. In Haiti, for example, my patients with malaria are almost exclusively those living in poverty. None have electricity; none take prophylaxis; many have lost kin to malaria. This aspect of disease emergence is thus obscured by an uncritical use of the term “tropical medicine,” which implies a geographic rather than a social topography.


  1. Jareed should go read Sahlins Stone age Economics….and its no great pride to be part of a movement (aka civilisation) that has killed untold hundreds of millions of people…and which is swaggering ist way to its (and our) ecocidical doom.

    Comment by brian — April 25, 2009 @ 3:50 am

  2. Jared is a big fan of that school of that, or was in the eighties; he famously wrote an article about the worse mistake mankind ever made: agriculture. It’s extremely easy to find on the Internet, but his basic argument, that hunter gathering societies are healthier and more egalitarian, is very similar to Sahlin’s work.

    Comment by Cameron Willis — April 25, 2009 @ 4:56 am

  3. Archaeologist Warren Perry, perhaps better known as the co-director of the archaeology of the African Burial Ground project in NYC (www.africanburialground.gov), did his dissertation looking at Zulu settlement pattern in Southern African in the 19th century (he’s got a book on it, published by Kluwer/Plenum in 1999). He critiqued traditional models of Zulu state formation that saw it as a result of inter-tribal and cultural conflict, escalating into the rise of a military state. Perry used a number of demographic and statistical information, combined with historical accounts, to show that this history couldn’t have happened the way it was traditionally explained by Eurocentric scholars. What does fit the evidence is a model whereby european slaving raids and conquest had produced unstable conditions before the rise of the Zulu state, to which that State was a integrative and defensive response.

    Comment by whenelvisdied — April 25, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

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