- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2005

“Guns, Germs and Steel” is a worthwhile venture and an exhilarating voyage of intellectual discovery. Yet, despite eight years of work across five continents, the three-part PBS special is a lot like the Stone Age food staples of wheat, barley and rice it celebrates: worthy and satisfying, but a little flat.

It should not have been so.

Jared Diamond, the guide in the show and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the same name, is arguably the greatest evolutionary biologist of his generation. His book tackled some of the greatest questions of human history and existence. For example, why did civilization and technological innovation, and ultimately the impetus for global dominance, spring up among some societies and not others? Mr. Diamond provided answers that, though not ultimately definitive — what answers ever are? — went a lot further than others ever had.

The series that resulted, therefore, should have been far more gripping than it is.

Mr. Diamond is a television producer’s dream. In his khakis and pith helmet, he looks the part of the great explorer, and his wisp of white beard carries just the right touch of H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor George Challenger — the intellectual as swashbuckling, globe-trotting adventurer.

Mr. Diamond’s great book, already rightly acclaimed as a modern classic, replaced 19th-century racial determinism with a theory of geographical determinism: The peoples of the Eurasian plains and river valleys who first domesticated crops and then interacted in a broad and sprawling eco-culture were able to outbreed and then sustain larger populations than societies of hunter-gatherers or even more complex civilizations, such as those of the Americas.

They also were able to develop resistance to a far broader spectrum of diseases that devastated isolated peoples and cultures. Further, the number of crops and animals that can be domesticated is highly limited. Most of them flourished only in Europe and Asia, giving these regions enormous and ultimately decisive jump-starts over the Americas, Australia and Africa in the development of complex, resilient human civilizations.

These great themes are clearly limned in the series, which certainly provides a welcome and useful introduction and supplement to Mr. Diamond’s book. Nevertheless, it is not the exhilarating ride it could and should have been, and it will not grip television audiences the way previous serious culture series, such as Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” did.

This is in part because, for all the years the series took to produce, Mr. Diamond never emerges as a compelling television persona. He seldom speaks to the camera, and his “just right” physical appearance is squandered by reducing him to doing remote voice-overs rather than addressing his audience directly.

He is therefore unable to convey the same nervous, electric enthusiasm for his subject that Sir David Attenborough and James Burke have embodied for so long. Nor does he transmit the urbane, laid-back sex appeal of an Alistair Cooke.

There are far too many shots of him chatting kindly and amiably with people from different cultures and sitting passively in dugout canoes and other forms of transport. A re-created image of the Papua New Guinea native who asked him decades ago the key question that launched him on his quest about why Western societies had so much material wealth is repeated so often that it becomes a boring cliche.

Like all National Geographic series, this one is handsomely but also ponderously produced. All the usual stock shots of Greek temples, the Pyramids and other monuments that you have seen from many other TV series are shown yet again.

Indeed, “Guns, Germs and Steel” has all the standard flaws, as well as the virtues, of its National Geographic provenance. It clearly was made on a handsome budget with no expense spared. It does not try to oversimplify, dumb down or sensationalize its arguments, and it take its viewers to remote corners of the world.

Yet, for all the brilliance of the valued research that is quoted and the valid arguments that are made, there is no excitement. Even the graphics are leaden. It is discovery on Valium, a cake made with all the best ingredients that resolutely refuses to rise. That is a pity. Mr. Diamond and his great book deserved far better.

WHAT: National Geographic’s presentation of “Guns, Germs and Steel”

WHEN: On MPT at 10 p.m. on three consecutive Mondays, July 11, 18 and 25; on WETA at 9 p.m. on three consecutive Tuesdays, July 12, 19 and 26

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