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.


  1. I don't know a lot about this, but isn't some corn now officially sterile? I.e. it doesn't produce "offspring" in such a way that it will grow naturally, without humans planting and cultivating it? I thought I read that.

    I think about this type of thing a lot, because sometimes it bothers me to the point of sleeplessness that we've altered the progression of nature in ways such as the pea example you gave. On the other hand, in the last several years I've started taking the long view: species grow and flourish and then die off. Always have, always will. If it's according to a plan, it's a much more complex plan than we know, and if it's not according to a plan, then it doesn't really matter anyway. Who's to say that it's not part of the plan that we extinctify condors, that peas don't make it past the human apocalypse? The ecosystem is so dynamic, so constantly in flux. Sometimes I obsess over the loss that endangerment and extinction represent, but sometimes I wonder if it isn't just the way of our earth.

    Not that it isn't stupid and tragic that we like to push other species out of existence so we can manufacture more paper towels. But that that stupidity is part of the dance, too, part of the growth and death of all things.

    Too abstract? Just making excuses for us?

  2. I feel much the same ambivalence. As soon as I start to think this is just how it is, I think maybe I'm just giving in to what Ishmael calls "Mother Culture". That book really is for hippies, ha ha! But still, there's something that doesn't feel right about saying that we can do whatever we want to other species and to the earth to support our own survival. It smacks of religious righteousness to me, and maybe that's the off chord that I feel. I'm going to talk a little about that in the next part as well.

    I'm not sure about corn, but I wouldn't be surprised. They are doing weeeird things with corn, man. It makes me think of mules, which cannot reproduce because they are sterile hybrids (horses + donkeys, I think). Similar idea.