The Advent of Agriculture

This week I read chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.

I was first introduced to Diamond last week, reading only chapter 7 of the book. This week I was able to read more of the book, however my first impression has only slightly changed. I feel that Diamond’s writing is very technical, as it is densely packed with dry historical and scientific facts. Though this is not a bad thing at all, it was just hard to read as a fourth year biology major at 11 pm at night. I feel as though Diamond is more of a practical person, and that he tends to convey more precise information rather than wrap it up into a personal or emotional narrative. That being said, I did manage to trudge through the chapters and found that he does seem to piece together very big ideas using various fields of research.

From what I’ve gathered so far, Diamond’s main ideas of this book revolve around the advent of agriculture. He asks: how did humans first develop crops, why, and where did it happen?

Throughout chapter 4, Diamond explains how agriculture influenced people to lead more sedentary lifestyles and less hunter-gatherer lifestyles. I think that Figure 4.1 demonstrated Diamond’s big ideas in a simple and effective way (Diamond 87). With the plethora of facts that Diamond lists, the reader comes to understand why a person would opt for the sedentary lifestyle. Reasons such as more food and babies, and food storage leading to increasing population densities really make the reader start to nod their head along. I thought the resulting consequences of sedentary life that Diamond states are particularly interesting. I would have never associated the emergence of political groups, religion, soldiers, scribes, weapons, transportation by domestic animals, and infectious diseases to the sedentary life as Diamond did. I did find that at times, I could notice Diamond’s bias towards plants and agriculture – however, it may have been that he was piecing so many things together in such a simplistic way. For example when he stated that “germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders”, I found this to be a bit bold (Diamond 92). I thought that the ‘germs’ were always around (or mutations happen by chance), but our use of domestic animals helped spread those pathogens more fiercely, or that the migration of people helped to spread around diseases. I don’t see how a certain hunter-gatherer tribe can’t acquire a mutated virus from a particular animal they have been dealing with for ages. It seemed as though Diamond was understating the importance of our co-evolution with bacteria and viruses (organisms that have been evolving far longer than humans, animals, or plants), however I have not yet read chapter 11 of the book where he goes into more detail on this topic.

In chapter 5, I was most interested in Figure 5.1, where Diamond explains that farming first developed in very surprising places, and that these are not the same places we see major crops grown today (Diamond 99). I had never before heard of the fertile crescent, and so I was shocked to know that this place, which I picture as a large war-torn wasteland, was once the most productive place on earth. This chapter and the next few chapters go into depth analyzing particular environments and human decisions that led to the eventual dominance of agricultural practices. I found Diamond to be quite insightful when he stated that “we should not suppose the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum” but should instead “consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies” (Diamond 109). I think this is a revolutionary new way to approach our historical questions about agriculture, as we tend to think of things evolving linearly.

I believe that Diamond’s ideas are quite interesting, though I found the descriptions of his supporting evidences rather boring. At times, I found him a bit repetitive in all the questions he kept posing (but that’s the hallmark of a good scientist, right?). I found it tough to keep interested because it was hard to relate with the people of 10,000 years ago, and how this affected my life today. Nevertheless, I think that knowledge is power, and although Diamond doesn’t deliver it in the most fun way, he still delivers.

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