Friday, June 22, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Part 1

Reading Guns, Germs, and Steel (by Jared Diamond) has blurred the claims of Ishmael. There’s a lot of information in this book, so I’m going to talk about the first half now and then keep reading. Basically he’s gone into the ecological, climatological, and zoological reasons why some cultures developed sedentary cultures and some didn’t, and the differences among them. 
One of the major things that I noticed was that Quinn in Ishmael describes a sharp line between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, and agriculturalists were clearly the bad guys. Diamond provides a much more detailed and objective view, which makes sense as it is a scientific, not a philosophical account, and he shows how things are actually much more complicated than a strict dichotomy. I will give some examples of that.
One blurry line is this idea that Quinn puts forth that hunter-gatherers live in harmony with the earth whereas agriculturalists work against it for their own gain. In fact, Diamond shows that even before agriculture, humans had developed advanced methods of hunting which resulted in the extinction of large game in many parts of the world, including North America, which, he says, once looked like the African plains because it was so teeming with large animals. This seems to me to clearly fall under Ishmael’s condemnatory behavior (taking over large pieces of land, wiping out other species for our gain, etc.) and yet it is in no way associated with agricultural life.
Also, the idea that a group of people has to be either hunter-gatherer or agriculturalist but not both has been shown to be untrue. There is historical evidence of many cultures that did some of each because they could not subsist well with one way alone. Also, there were usually transition periods when a group of people was adjusting to agricultural life while still depending heavily on hunting and gathering. Quinn makes it sound like agriculture spread mostly by means of agriculturist cultures dominating hunter-gatherer cultures and either taking them over or destroying them completely, but the evidence shows that in many cases agriculture just spread as a way of life and was accepted willingly by new cultures. I think Diamond shows that humans, like all animals, take advantage of whatever efficient means are at their disposal to help them survive. If growing crops and domesticating animals was not efficient and effective, they would not do it. If it was, they would.
Furthermore, some cultures developed sedentary existences that were supported mostly by the domestication of animals (like sheep, goats, cattle, etc.) that could provide most of the nutrients they needed, and was not dependent on crop development. Those people did not practice agriculture as we know it, but they were still able to develop settled ways of living which led to proliferation and sophisticated culture, all that Quinn condemns. Yet, in the biblical story, Abel was a shepherd and his way of life was a symbol of living in harmony with the earth.
I think these points illustrate two things. Firstly, I would say that Quinn uses a scientific and historical foundation but does not explore the nuances the way that Diamond does, which, as I said, is natural to their respective writing styles. But also, their goals are different. Quinn’s point was to give an idea of the ways in which human development has been harmful to other species and to the planet, and not necessarily to denigrate a particular way of life. Toward that end he took a well-known mythology and extrapolated it for the edification of his point. Diamond is purposely trying to avoid value judgments, and instead he tries to trace the history of human development in order to explicate phenomena that we see today.
At some points it gets a bit dry as Diamond goes into minute detail about (for example) why corn took so long to spread from Mezo-America to North America. But on the other hand it is quite amazing what we can discover from physical evidence. Scientists figured out how and when crops spread throughout the world by using radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis (to follow mutations). They’ve done the same with animals using forensic analysis and DNA to track the routes of domestication.
I have to say, when Diamond explains in details what domestication of plants and animals really means, I sympathize with Quinn’s message. Diamond makes a distinction between plants that people select as gatherers, which may then propagate more because of us spreading their seeds, and domesticated plants which are genetically altered to feed humans. I don’t mean in a lab, not originally anyway, but humans would choose a mutation that in the wild would prevent the species from surviving but which made them desirable to humans, and grow that variety exclusively, often to the detriment of other varieties or plants in the area. 
For example, (I didn’t know this) wild peas developed to have exploding pods that would disperse their seeds (the peas that we eat) in order to grow more pea plants. A genetic mutation produced plants whose pods don’t explode and humans selected those to grow as crops so that they could eat the peas and not have them spread all over the ground. Now, all the domesticated pea plants (which I imagine is a lot) have this mutation, but they would not survive in the wild. The same is true for domesticated animals, like dogs, which have been tamed and selected for various traits besides survival, like for working, hunting and companionship, and to be used as meat. 
I think that other species must influence the planet in the first way, by selecting foods that support them and thereby spreading their seeds and helping them to propagate. However, I don’t think that other species besides humans really domesticate plants and animals in the ways that Diamond describes. I think this might be the difference that Quinn was getting at. 
I think this is the point where many people say Oh suck it up! Humans are smarter and stronger and they won. That’s just how it is, so stop being such a bleeding heart! Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But I do think there is something different about humans. I’m purposely not using the word “special” because I want to avoid any religious connotations, but let’s face it- we ARE the only sentient beings that we know of, and the only ones currently capable of the level of domination that we have achieved. Whether this is positive or negative, I think, is equivocal.
Ok, I’ve gone on long, way too long, so I’m stopping here, but there really is a lot to say about this, and I’ll continue reading and then write some more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I re-read Ishmael (by Daniel Quinn) and I feel like I have a better handle on the ideas now. Quinn basically presents the argument (through his main character, Ishmael) that when humans developed an agricultural way of life they became exempt from the laws of nature and are consequently destroying the world. Let me unpack that a bit.

When people can grow their own food they not only settle and develop complex societies, they also grow more food than they need in order to prepare for the future. The surplus in food translates into population growth, which in turn requires a greater surplus to be grown the following year, which creates more population growth, repeat ad infinitum. As a result, we take over more and more of the earth in order to feed and house ourselves. 

Quinn says that no other animals besides humans have allowed themselves to grow unchecked because they follow the rules of nature. He points out that when other animals don’t have enough food to survive, they starve and die, thus keeping their population in check and allowing other animals to survive. Quinn indicates that by using our superior intelligence to survive famines we are throwing nature off balance and this is an evil behavior that we need to change. 

Firstly, I don’t know if it is actually true that no other animals have done this, but I also think there’s a fundamental difference between a lion dying for lack of food and a human dying for lack of food because we are conscious of it and we can do something about it. A lion might feel sad (or I could be anthropomorphizing) about a member of its pride dying, but I doubt it feels responsible for another lion’s death due to a lack of resources and there’s not much it could really do about it anyway. We, on the other hand, can know and feel and act on the situation if we see someone suffering and can feel guilt if we don’t. 

Quinn says that we have lost touch with mother nature and fail to accept natural laws because we think we are above them, so we refuse to die when we should. He also points out the hubris involved in this, that humans think they should live and increase and rule the world. I do agree that people have done horrendous things to the earth and that the rate of population growth is basically unsupportable. I just don’t see what to do about it without being horrible and I don’t think Quinn provides much of an answer to this either. 

A note about birth control here. Quinn talks about it a little bit, and how we basically fail to use it to the extent that we should given that our population growth is out of control. Yet I think to many people birth control feels like an unnatural act, going against nature. Which it is, biologically. I think humans are trapped in this limbo between being animals and being intellectual or spiritual beings and it can make things like this so ethically confusing. 

We have seen governments make laws to control population growth and many of us recoil from it in horror, yet aren’t they just trying to be responsible? I have thought a lot about whether I want to have children and whether I should have children, and I often feel that there is no need...and then I see a baby and just get all gooshy. I think this is our essential conflict as humans, at least at this stage- to determine if we are animals driven by physical needs and instincts, or creatures that can use their minds and hearts to create their own way of life. And of course, we are both, but in every moment I think we make that decision, sometimes one way and sometimes the other.

The book ends with a call to action, both to the human character in the story and, by extension, to the reader. The solution that Ishmael gives is not to revert back to a hunter-gatherer way of life. He admits that that would not happen and is not feasible. He also isn’t against farming itself; he acknowledges that animals and even some human societies have agriculture without causing damage to nature. His request is simply to get this message out there. But I don’t see a real practical explanation of how humans can change in order to live in accordance with nature without reverting to a “primitive” way of life. Maybe the point was just to get us thinking about small practical changes, like recycling or etc., but that seems so mundane after the grandeur of the whole story.

I am looking forward to getting into Guns, Germs, and Steel now and leaving these questions aside, philosopher though I am. I could use some science right now and will be happy to let some of the ethics smolder for a while.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel, But Not Yet

I started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond this week, a loan from Dave, which is supposed to be about how cultures in the world developed differently from one another. 

He began by talking about two Polynesian island civilizations that came from common ancestry around 1000 AD. One, the Maori, settled in a place hospitable to agriculture and they continued their tradition of being an agrarian society. The other, the Moriori, settled in a place where agriculture was difficult and they therefore became hunter-gatherers. The Moriori developed into what we would call a primitive society, without sophisticated habitats, technology, or culture, because the hunter-gatherer life required them to move around constantly and did not support specialization of labor. The agricultural ways of the Maori, on the other hand, encouraged people to stay in one place and develop sophisticated tools in order to work the land. That led to abundance, the opportunity for specialization of labor and the development of more sophisticated culture. The Moriori maintained a society based on peace and non-violent accords. The Maori appeared after almost a millennium of independent cultural development on both sides and violently destroyed the Moriori with their sophisticated tools and weapons.
Upon reading this I immediately thought of three things. One was our trip to Hawaii (another Polynesian island that Diamond mentions) and seeing the conflict there between the natives and the European colonists who now live there. I didn’t know how to feel about it at the time and I still don’t, except somewhat guilty, though exactly for what I’m not sure.
I also thought of a book that I read in college, I think for a religion class, called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Now, if you’ve never read it you should know that this is an extremely didactic work full of “hippie nonsense”. I like the book, but I’m an academic and a teacher so didactic works for me. But what I remembered about it was this idea that humans have diverged from a “primitive” way of life, a way in which we were one animal among many, and become masters/destroyers of the world because of a mythology that we built for ourselves that we are the intended rulers of it. The point of this divergence was the development of an agricultural way of life, as opposed to a hunter-gatherer way of life.

The third thing that I thought of was the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible, in which Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a farmer. God looked favorably on Abel, but rejected Cain’s offering. Why this should be is not explained, but Cain was understandably hurt. According to The New American Bible, God said to Cain, “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.” (Genesis 4:6-7). 

I am not a biblical literalist; I see this as a story with cultural significance. And it makes me wonder why, all those years ago, someone made a point to say not only that there were two kinds of people, but also that one path was going to be more of a struggle than the other. The message seems to be that agriculture leads to temptation. To sin. And indeed, the next thing that happens in the story is that Cain kills Abel, his brother, and lies about it to God: two terrible sins. 
What happens next is interesting. Cain is cast out and Abel is dead. God has banished Cain from the soil and he becomes a nomad. The notes in my New American Bible say that Cain was both an archetype of Nomadic people as well as “the prototype of sedentary peoples with higher material culture”. He is a cautionary tale. Although he was banished from working the land, he establishes a city and his descendants “forge instruments of bronze and iron”, which sound like farming tools and/or weapons to me, instruments of complex culture. Lamech, the last descendant of Cain’s that is mentioned, told his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24). His people have clearly not changed their ways.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve have another son, Seth, whom it says God gave to them to “replace Abel” (not Cain). And the next chapter goes on to show that although Cain had children, it was the descendants of Seth that led to Noah and Abraham, God’s chosen people. What this tells me is that there was an awareness even then humans had the potential to destroy each other and the earth, and there was a way to live to avoid that and a way to live to promote that. 

So are we, meaning Americans, Europeans, “civilized” people, descendants of Cain or Seth? Whose story are we enacting? I think that Judeo-Christian culture tells us that we are descendants of Seth, that we are God’s people. But Quinn tells us that we are descendants of Cain, the agriculturalist who created the first city and metal tools. And murder.
I need to think on this more, and I decided to re-read Ishmael before getting back to Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is somewhat annoying to read because the student character is sort of a dope, but I want to sharpen my understanding of Quinn’s message before getting back to Diamond and his more scientific approach. So my next post will probably be more about Ishmael, then something about Guns, Germs, and Steel will follow after that.