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Power of 'Guns' is clear but one-sided

Why the world turned out the way it has, most of us believe, is a question so cosmic that it is best left to French intellectuals.

But then what do we do with Jared Diamond? He's the UCLA professor who surfaced in 1998 with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book ''Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," which explained a lot, if not everything, about the inequality among peoples and regions of the globe. Readers who had blanched at such topics in college devoured his tome, and now National Geographic presents a three-hour documentary based on it, beginning tomorrow night.

The core of Diamond's thesis -- that geography, not culture or race, determines the world's winners and losers -- remains startling to anyone confronting it for the first time. It shatters conventional wisdom and upends stereotypes we have embraced for centuries. Europeans, it turns out, forged empires on large dollops of good luck.

''An explanation based on race is absurd," says Diamond, who does yeoman service as host on the show in settings from Papua New Guinea to Peru to Zambia. Western civilization, quite simply, benefited from the early farming cultures of the Fertile Crescent in today's Middle East that spread west (and east) to give it a huge head start over, say, sub-Saharan Africa.

What ''Guns" lacks are critics to challenge Diamond's thinking. Passing mention is made of those who believe he has shortchanged the role of individuals in determining their fates. I'd like to have heard from them. National Geographic would have fielded a stronger program had it offered viewers competing arguments rather than one forceful point of view that surely could have withstood closer scrutiny.

Also, what is good at three hours would have been great at two hours. The first of the three episodes is the strongest because it is the most original. The second, about the triumph in the 16th century of a band of greedy Spanish conquistadors over an Incan empire in Peru is old news to many. The third, about Africa, is interesting but largely derivative from the first. All live off of inevitable, serviceable re-creations.

In the first, ''The Crucible of Civilization," the essence of Diamond's thesis emerges from a question posed to him 30 years ago by a man in New Guinea: ''Why you white men have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?"

Diamond was flummoxed by the query and began to investigate. He found that Papuans remained hunter-gatherers -- some still are today -- long after their counterparts in the Middle East turned to farming more than 10,000 years ago. Hunting is a poor way to provide a reliable food source, whereas wheat and barley, hardy crops high in protein, fed growing communities in the Fertile Crescent well enough to allow individuals to specialize in other pursuits such as home construction and, later, the working of steel. The farmers eventually exhausted the land and migrated along the same latitudes west to Europe, southwest to north Africa, east to India, and beyond.

New Guinea, in contrast, lacked those crops, as well as animals to domesticate and use as beasts of burden, such as oxen, camels, and horses. Absent too were sheep and goats to provide meat, milk, and hides.

In the second, ''The Clash of Civilizations," we watch Spanish conquistadors vanquish an empire that had never seen a horse, a gun, or steel rapiers. Nor had the Incans encountered the smallpox brought by the Spaniards (who had built up some resistance to the disease over the centuries) that erased most of the native population.

The opposite occurred in Africa, where the Boers ran into malaria as they trekked deep into the continent and were decimated by the disease that affected the native population far less. In ''The Haves and Have-nots," Diamond traces the Dutch settlement at the tip of Africa in the 17th century and explains how it thrived. Because the region was roughly the same distance from the equator as the settlers' native country, its climate was similar. Only when they moved north into the tropics did their agricultural model fail.

''Guns" ends on a predictable, rather preachy note. Diamond properly concludes that geography, while causal, does not have to determine a people's fate, and he cites Malaysia and Singapore as examples of tropical states that have prospered in the global economy and have all but eradicated malaria, which has returned with a vengeance to modern Zambia.

But are there really no other reasons for their success than geography? The program cries out for debate. Still, ''Guns" is another strong offering from the National Geographic unit that gave us the excellent ''Strange Days on Planet Earth" last spring. This is provocative, sophisticated television.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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