Film & Discussion: Guns, Germs and Steel
Based on Jared Diamond’s book of the same name, this National Geographic film Guns, Germs and Steel traces humanity’s journey over the last 13,000 years — from the dawn of farming at the end of the last Ice Age to the realities of life in the twenty-first century. This ambitious, ground-breaking film, following the book, portrays Jared Diamond’s discovery of an answer to the question: Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet — why wasn’t it the Chinese or the Inca? And why are the tropics now the capital of global poverty?
The balance of power between the Old World of Europeans and the New World of the Americas was so unequal — why? The Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, was able to conquer the Inca army, 80,000 strong and including the Emperor of the Inca, with only 168 European soldiers in only one day. At the end of that terrible day in 1532, some 7,000 Inca warriors lay dead — and no Europeans. Jared Diamond examines this situation and concludes that the Europeans were able to conquer the Inca and all of South America because they were well endowed with superior technologies as well as deadly disease to which they were themselves immune.
According to Jared Diamond’s original version of history, the superior technologies of Europeans can be credited to facts of geography. Geography had endowed Europe with rich sources of iron and wood, and a climate conducive to high-temperature metallurgy. Metallurgy was more developed in Europe than elsewhere, again because of geographical advantages. Europeans were able to make steel and cover their bodies with it — body armor. And they made steel swords and guns to kill with. They used gunpowder that had been discovered in China. But because China was at nearly the same latitude as Europe and on the same continent, gunpowder had been able to travel the vast distance between China and Europe, east to west, without overwhelming difficulties. South American civilizations, on the other hand, were not in communication with one another because of the difficulties of traveling, north and south, through Central America and through South America. So advances achieved in one civilization did not reach the others in the same swift time frame as they did in Eurasia. It was the same situation with using horses for battle and using writing to share battle stories and theories. Writing spread from civilization to civilization throughout Europe and Asia, east and west rather than north and south, because of the relative ease of traveling through the Eurasian continent. Writing benefited Pizarro in his conquest of the Incas because he was able to read how Cortes had conquered the Aztec of Mexico. And finally, germ diseases, particularly small pox, enabled Pizarro to conquer the Inca with a plague that killed 95% of the Inca people. It was domesticated animals that had given diseases to the Europeans and, over time, they became immune to them. But the same animals were not native to Central and South America — another feature of the different geographies of the Old World and the New World. Jared Diamond’s version of history may be called “geographical determinism.”
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