Guns, germs & steel and the Place of Africa
When I first read Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997) in 2000 or thereabouts, I felt he was asking questions I had myself been asking, but which I feared nobody else found important. I found the book eye-opening in its historical and geographical sweep, going back more than 10,000 years ago, and covering each continent. Although I had an eerie sense that Diamond was working with a hypothesis that used material products and military prowess as the ultimate measure of societal progress, I was reassured by his unequivocal thesis that inequality amongst the regions and races of the world can not be due to racial differences in intellect.
Now that I have watched the PBS video documentary series of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, based on the book, the third and last episode of which aired on Monday July 25th, I find the omissions even eerier.
The third and final episode focuses on how guns, germs and steel come to Africa and collide with civilizations Diamond says were perfectly adapted to the geographical environment of Africa. But his focus on the 1838 Battle of Blood River in what is now South Africa is 3oo years late. The European plunder of Africa had already been underway since the 1500s when Africans were captured and taken away to the so-called new world as slaves. "They seize numbers of our free or freed black subjects, and even nobles, sons of nobles, even the members of our own family," Affonso, King of the Congo is reported to have written to Joao III, King of Portugal, on October 18, 1526 (See The BBC online series The Story of Africa). Diamond's argument might be that his concern is with the factors that made it possible for Europeans to have this military might in the first place. Fair enough.
But missing from the entire series is the scholarship surrounding the debate on ancient Egypt, which some scholars argue to have been an African civilization, 3,000 years BC. Scholars such as the late Senegalese nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, George James, Martin Bernal and several others have dealt with these issues in considerable depth. What was happening in Europe at this time?
We get a glimpse of the pyramids, but there's nothing in the commentary to explain the historical place of the pyramids and the ancient African civilizations they are believed to have been part of.
Another problem with the guns, germs, and steel theory is that is assumes that Europeans have been technologically ahead of everyone else for much longer than they really have. Stentor Danielson points out on his blog that "China and India were the world's leaders until very recently. Whatever caused Europe's rise must have delayed effects, or become relevant only with the emergence of industrialization."
Thus this selectivity to show only the period when Europeans arrived at the southern tip of the continent of Africa leaves out much that would complicate the linear, inevitable narrative Diamond employs. One such casualty of Diamond's approach is economic analysis, according to commentators such as Louis Proyect and Kerim Friedman. Friedman argues that rather than asking why it is that societies such as the US are so rich and societies such as Papua New Guinea so poor, the real question is: "Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?" In that way, we are forced to consider the role inequality within societies also plays, noting that there are individuals in Papua New Guinea who are much richer than average Americans.
Despite the reservations expressed above, this is an important debate, and Professor Diamond makes an important contribution to a growing body of research looking at global inequality in a geographical, global and historical context. The rebirth of Africa will to a large extent depend on bringing debates such as these to a wider audience, both in Africa and in other parts of the world, and on effectively critiquing some of the erroneous conceptions that have become conventional wisdom in the discourse on world civilizations.
It is therefore significant that the Guns, Germs and Steel series has triggered a scholarly debate on questions that have lately taken center stage, as did the recent media focus on the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and the announcement that the G8 countries have forgiven $40 billion of debt for 18 of the world's poorest countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For sober appraisals of the truth being hidden behind the media blitz, and the justice, rather than charity that Africa really needs, topics that Diamond does not dare touch, see Ken Wiwa, George Monbiot's article in the Guardian of June 14, 2005, and the Greenleft Weekly.