Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, United States. Chapters 4,5,6 and 8.
What a long day. Starting from 8:30 this morning, I drove to the university, prepared a culture for growth throughout the day, then managed to sit here and wait for the culture to get to the right optical density at which we can add an activator to the colony to initiate gene expression in the broth. Sounds riveting? Right?
The culture died when I inoculated it in the morning, resulting in no growth in the culture until we added some broth from someone else’s culture to our broth to initiate said growth. Then, I had to wait an additional four years for the culture to grow to sufficient size where I can actually add the activator to the broth and therefore initiate gene expression. Throughout this exasperating process, I figured I should read the next reading for this Plants and People Blog: a reading reviewing the process of agricultural expansion and eventual domination over hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The three chapters in Diamond’s book that we had to read (Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8), examined the process of agricultural development in depth; by reviewing the environments in which agriculture developed, the author reveals that the advent of agriculture primarily arose due to environmental and biological factors that happened to exist in particular locales around the globe.
Chapter 4 outlined the riveting process behind the benefits of “Sedentary production” lifestyles:
Figure 1. An overview of the process of agricultural development and the impacts the process had on societies.
Diamond points out that in order for the entire process of domestication and a progression to sedentary living to begin, there needs to be a number of environmental conditions that must be met. Firstly, the population of humans in a particular area must have a highly diverse amount of resources available to them. In this context, resources means the abundance of plants and animals in the environment. If there is a higher abundance of organisms in a region, than there will be more of a chance that some of the organisms will have traits that allow them to be domesticated (plants that need to be digestible, poisonous, higher nutritional value, easy to prepare, easy to gather, safe to hunt, larger biomass). With these conditions, people could potentially begin to acquire nutrients by (either consciously or unconsciously) growing plants for food. The increase in (potentially available) nutrients and food available per acre would allow populations to begin storing and keeping food for times of famine. The process of storing food would then allow for people within a particular group to specialize, performing tasks and generating careers that are not directly related to hunting and food.
Chapter five was a tad more dry in my opinion. In this chapter, Diamond examines the birthplaces of agriculture. Throughout the world, there is around five different locales that are suspected to be the regions where domestication was developed “de novo”: SW Asia, China, Mesoamerica, Andes of South America – Amazon Basin, and the Eastern US. Each of these regions developed agricultural practices revolving around different plants and animals, and the ability to domesticate the organisms present in each of these “Founder regions” influenced the time at which domestication appeared in the population.
Of course, the transition to “sedentary lifestyles” is not without its downfalls. In places where people take up “sedentary lifestyles”, there will be a higher concentration of organisms per acre. This can lead to increased disease transmission, which will negatively impact the quality of life of individuals living in those regions. The advent of farming and sedentary living was also not the best solution live-wise for humans. Personally, I thought that agricultural practices would in general improve the quality of life of the participants in that society. I was mistaken. Chapters five, six and eight delve into aspects of this process, stating that people who initially acquired farming practices spent more hours per day working, were smaller, sicker, and died younger than their hunter-gatherer counterparts. Diamond elaborates, explaining that the transition to agriculture may have been a more complex process involving people’s resource allocation abilities. A delicate balance between caloric return and minimizing starvation risk was the driving force for agricultural development, but also led to mixed farming-hunter gatherer lifestyles in many areas throughout the globe; In certain populations, human groups would transition between hunting and sedentary food production based on environmental conditions and external factors. Diamond also speculates that the final drivers for humanity’s push to sedentary food production were likely due to the exhaustion of large game species in the environment (due to overexploitation, which we seem to be extremely adept at doing, I might add). Without large game to hunt, people had to resort to other food acquisition lifestyles to obtain sufficient nutrients to survive.
Overall, the reading felt quite academic in tone. Diamond consistently used an argumentative essay format: reciting the thesis statement in an introductory paragraph in a chapter, reinforcing the ideas in the introduction with supporting evidence in the body of the chapter, then returning to review the ideas in the chapter’s introduction and cementing them in a concise conclusion. The reading was actually quite refreshing; it allowed me to obtain the information in a direct and informative manner that didn’t drag on and on and on and on and on by beating around the ideas with anecdote and abstraction. After a painfully drab day in the lab where nothing went right and nothing made sense, it was great to have something so neatly laid out in a format that was easy to grasp.