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.


  1. I always liked Lincoln's designation for American's as "God's almost chosen people". Of course that speaks to the peculiar American experience and not the European one.
    As a student of the Bible in academic and non academic settings and a Christian I have always been dismayed by how many of my brethren adopt the attitude that America is somehow chosen by God, like somehow we are directly linked to ancient Israel. This may be the Judeo Christian view, but it has nothing to do with the Bible. I find it a dangerous notion that distorts the heart of Christianity. In the Old Testament we see the only example of God's people as a political entity in the nation of Israel (not to be confused the modern Israel another thing I wish Christians today wouldn't do) it is very apparent to me that even in the old testament it is demonstrated quickly that being God's chosen one has very little to do with national lines. I think the teaching from scripture is that the church is God's people, in whatever culture she finds herself in, it is more about heart than race or politics.
    I have never read either book you review here, I never thought about agriculture being looked on negatively, but maybe that is my own cultural midwestern lense :) The one thought that comes to mind is that before the Fall, Adam seems to be a farmer to me and obviously that is cool, and def in the New Testament careers I think are seen as largely neutral, as long as your are working hard at something and not being lazy, holiness doesn't seem to be ascribed to any certain job. Obviously if you are a prostitute and convert you probably needed a career change ;) and there are still issues we debate today with careers like being a soldier or a political leader, but I never thought of farmer being a controversial one, I will have to think on that more.

  2. Hi Amanda, it's nice to hear your voice here!

    I think your point that God's chosen people are the faithful is well taken. In fact, we can all see how dangerous it is when an individual or a group of people considers themselves to be inheritors of God's blessing simply because of where they were born or how they practice. As I read Ishmael and G,G,S I will explore more of this idea of agriculture and its influence on humanity. I really don't know what to think right now myself. But my impression is not that God looks negatively on any profession in particular, but that certain ways of life present more potential for certain outcomes. It will be interesting to me to compare the biblical view with the more philosophical view in Ishmael a bit more, then delve into the scientific/historical view.

    I hope you'll keep reading and contributing!