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Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Great Documentary!

Last night, I happened to watch a documentary by the National Geographic Society titled "Guns, Germs, and Steel". It's based on the book of the same title by a Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School, Jared Diamond. Furthermore, the author himself is the one who takes you through much of the documentary, and this adds to that feeling of being party to his ideas as he wants you to see them. It's a great thing to be able to receive that sort of insight firsthand. No wait, it's Fabulous! And, without much ado, I would recommend that everyone see it. Please watch this documentary, if you haven't seen it already.

Now, being a bit of a skeptic myself, I have to say that there may be ideas in this documentary that you may sit back and consider to be somehow conveniently put together to ignore other "disagreeable" facts. But, like me, I urge you to give it a chance. And who knows, you may even come away from the entire experience with a spark of confusion or uncertainty...which is usually a spark of some kind of consciousness trying to establish itself inside of your head. That's a good thing, by the way.

So, two paragraphs of trying to convince you to watch this documentary have been successful if you're still with me at this point. "How did this all begin," you seem to ask. Well, according to the author, it all started during one of his trips to Papua New Guinea, where he was asked, "Why is it that you white people have so much cargo, and we New Guineans have so little?". Now, the term "cargo" refers to possessions in the greater sense of the word. I would probably go as far as to say "worldly possessions", but that would introduce an unnecessarily complex twist to this fascinating tale of human history. In his turn, Diamond, perplexed by the seeming simplicity of the question, finds himself embarking on a quest to discover the origins of human inequality.

I'd like to briefly list a couple of his main ideas, and how I found them to be related to things that I had come across in the past. This is by no means an effort to tell you what it's about so that you can skip on the documentary. Nope, nothing like finding out the end of a "suspense-thriller", or the score of a game that you'd recorded to watch later because you couldn't watch it live. These ideas are a very well incorporated mixture of things both logical and previously discovered, but until now, never quite orgainzed as one idea.

One of the main ideas of this documentary has to do with agriculture spreading from the "Fertile Crescent" towards Europe and Asia where it led to the "explosion" of civilizations. Nothing new here, until of course he proposes the theory that Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and to a large extent North Africa, are one interconnected landmass that allowed people to spread greater distances from east to west along similar lines of latitude. This idea of latitude is central because, as the author explains, moving along the same line of latitude results in similar conditions being available, such as the length of the day, and the overall climate. This is differentiated from the way the Americas are set up, again an interconnected landmass, except organized more from north to south. Moving across latitudes, as opposed to along them, results in changes in weather, climate, and plants and animals, which ultimately means having to adapt to many more changes as you make the journey. Now, keep in mind that the time period begin discussed here is 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, so for those of you who were thinking about going from Canada to Chile in 24 hours or less by airplane were way off. So, the first great idea was that of human migration patterns being linked to the way the Earth is shaped and rotates, rather than being a radnom search for natural resources as some of us may have previously imagined.

Then, we come to the fact that, again linked to the geography, that some areas of the world were better endowed with natural resources that human populations could consume to survive, an idea presented by Tom Cannell in his article Farms Take Humans To The Future. The first ones that appeared in the Fertile Crescent were cereal-producing grasses such as wheat and barley. Throw in the domestication of formerly wild but still local species of livestock, such as goats, and you have the first human settlements establishing themselves. There's no need to hunt and gather anymore if you can grow your own food, is there? To contrast the Fertile Crescent with the island nation of Papua New Guinea helps illustrate this point better. According to Diamond, his observations during his visits to that country led him to notice that although several peoples there lived as they had thousands of years, the nature of the food they consumed, by harvesting it, was very low in its protein value. In addition, the effort needed to accumulate these food sources, mostly roots and tubers, were far greater than that needed to harvest wheat and barley. Also, the New Guineans didn't have animals that they would rely on, either to aid in agriculture, like oxen or horses, or to rely on for sources of meat and dairy products, for example. This is how geography affected agriculture, which in turn affected whether or not people managed to establish themselves as a civilization or not.

There were many, many more ideas that came out of this documentary, but to tell you about all of them here would be the equivalent of a layperson speaking at great length about Einstein's theory of relativity. Now, I know this happens at times, but it is not my intention to confound this world with talk of half-sense and opinions formed in the deep, dark recesses of the cranium. But for those of you who were paying attention, whatever happened to the "guns, germs, and steel"? Well, that's where your individual efforts to watch this documentary come in. To get you started, here is where you can purchase the documentary; from the National Geographic website or from Amazon.

Coming back to the connections that I spoke of earlier, they were from the point of view of human migration as explored by the Genographic Project. Also, the idea of human agriculture being the starting point of human civilizations was another idea that I had come across earlier. More importantly, and more recently in my life, the ideas that I came across in Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, have helped shape the way that I am beginning to see the world around me. Personally, I was blown away by the concepts in this book and ever since I first read it life has been a quest of searching for a way out...so to speak. But that's more information for another post, perhaps.

I'd like to end here by saying that this documentary series is an eye-opener, and if one is not caught up with accuracy of the ideas at a microcosmic level, then it will get you to think about, among other things, how truly entwined our existence is with the planet that we inhabit. Before I take your leave, here's a PBS website about the documentary to get you started...if you haven't started already.
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