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“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black had little cargo of our own?” Professor Jared Diamond attempted to answer this question asked by a New Guinean politician, Yali, in his film Guns, Germs and Steel. He argued that the reason for Eurasian civilizations developing faster than other countries was not due to their racial or biological superiority, but instead due to their luck and advantages in geography, ecological conditions, and domestications of animals. These advantages gave the Eurasians opportunity to develop weapons of mass destruction, guns; immunity over germs, and the ability to spread and transport using steel — the three major powers that allow Europeans to conquer and dominate.
According to the film, the origin of agriculture as well as the home of the earliest human civilizations was at the Fertile Crescent. The climate in the region was moderate, with Tigris and Euphrates river flowing through the land, making it suitable for crops with rich nutrition value such as wheat and barley to grow on the agriculturally productive land. The large supply of crops also led the hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent to invent underground storage pits to utilize their food and provide leisure time for themselves. In addition, since the Earth spins East to West, the crops in Eurasia was able to spread quicker and easier along the lines of latitude. For example, as it reaches Egypt, the crops provided enough food for the Pharaoh and the Egyptian workers, which in turn increases the population and gave them sufficient energy to move a step ahead of the other countries by building magnificent pyramids and successful civilization. On the other hand, in countries such as Papua New Guinea, geographic barriers such as oceans and mountains hindered the migration of these crops. Therefore, this barrier causes Papua New Guineans to not have enough food to eat. Without barley and wheat, their main food staple is sago, a starch extracted from palm stems, which not only require more energy and time to harvest, but also have little nutritional value. As a result, Diamond theorizes that the reason for Papua New Guinea being less economically developed was due to the fact that they had to spend most if not all of their energy and time on food.
Along with the crops, thirteen out of fourteen domesticated animals were native to Eurasia, including pigs, sheep, goat, cow, and horses. These animals not only provided food sources (meat, milk, fertilizer) and clothing (wool) for the Eurasians, but also gave them superhuman muscle power to help with plowing and harvesting crops, as well as transport. By living with the domesticated animals and eating animal products, natural selections causes Eurasians to develop genetic immunity over diseases or germs. As seen in the film, when the Europeans came in contact with the indigenous Americans, the Europeans wiped off their population with invisible weapons of massacre, which are the infectious diseases including smallpox, measles, and flu. This gave the Europeans advantages in terms of population, as well as make them seem more superior than the non-Europeans, as portrayed in the film, the Incas were afraid of the Spanish conquerors who were riding on horses and referred to them as “god-like”.
Other than animals and crops, the dry and hot climate of the Fertile Crescent also led the hunter and farmers to create experimentations by using fire and minerals to turn limestone into plaster. This technique was later applied to other minerals such as iron ore to eventually create steel. Not long after that, the invention of printing press came along. This innovation allowed the Europeans to print copies of text such as bibles, and began the spread of religion. As stated by German philosopher Karl Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people”— it gave Europeans faith and made them unite. The printing press also enabled the rapid dissemination of knowledge and ideas across Eurasia. One major example is the invention of Chinese gunpowder that was quickly brought to Europe. With the combination of new ideas, the Europeans were able to build up their deadly war machine: producing strong and flexible armor and swords as well as machine guns that could fire up to 500 rounds per minute. On the other hand, the Yincas tribe in South America lacked iron resources but had plenty of silver and gold. Their raw materials was wanted by the Spanish, which led them to invade South America. However, the factor that triggered the Spanish to use their weapons was when they got offended at the Yincan emperor for throwing their holy bible away without knowing what it was. With only weapons carved from stone and the lack of knowledge, the land populated with 80,000 Incas was easily colonized by 168 Spanish soldiers’ steel and faith.
The similar pattern of the Inca Empire’s downfall was repeated during the Belgian’s colonization of Congo or what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the late 1800s, the Belgians like the Spanish used their steel weapons to colonize Congo and forced the Native Africans — who have adapted to the tropics and developed immunity against the deadly tropical disease, malaria — into slavery. They burned their homes and civilization down, and through paternalism, constrained the Native Africans into mining coppers, gold, and diamond for them. Again, using the steel, the Belgians forced thousands of Africans to build train tracks to transport Africa’s precious raw materials into their land. As stated by Jared Diamond, he refers the tracks of steel as the “trail of ambition and greed for European conquest beyond Europe”.
Since the production of the film Guns, Germs, and Steel in year 2005, there are many changes in the advancement of technologies, however in terms of the economic disparity between the Eurasian and non-Eurasian countries, nothing much has changed. In today’s world, the Eurasians still continue to come up with new innovations and develop their technologies. For example, the improvement of hygiene and medication causes the number of malaria deaths in Africa to drop from more than 600,000 in 2005 to around 395,000 by 2015. Guns also become more high-tech and sophisticated, including rifles that can shoot 700 rounds per minute underwater and guns that can fire using fingerprint scans. Moreover, Eurasian countries still remain in the top three richest country in the world: Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Qatar; and African countries still remain in the top three poorest country in the world: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Malawi.
At the end of the film, Diamond stated that like Africa, Malaysia and Singapore are also tropical countries with similar geography/climate and the presence of diseases such as malaria. However, fifty years ago, they understood the effect of geography and germs on their economies, therefore they eliminated malaria from the country and became one of the richest economies in the world today. As a result, Diamond is portraying that the study of history can widen human’s knowledge to realize the burden of geographic determinism, and as time progresses, this understanding would also transform African’s current social civilization to become one of the most dynamic economies in the world.
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