Friday, 22 January 2016

Making Modern Man

Diamond Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York (NY): Norton & Company, Inc.

This week’s reading for plants and people was chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. These four chapters encompass the dawn of agriculture. Diamond explains the possible reasons behind the transition of human society from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a farming lifestyle. He asks the question why farming appeared in certain geographical areas before others and he attempts to answer the question by examining the relationship between the plants and people that resided in those geographical areas.
I found this week’s reading very difficult to follow. Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like The Triumph of the Seeds but without Thor Hanson’s humorous overtones. It felt like I was reading a textbook. I had brought the book with me to school one day and one of my friends asked me if I was reading a new book (I’m a shameless bibliophile who delights in occupying my study time with absorbing books like they’re going out of style). I told her it was for class and she asked me if it was any good. My response to her was, “It’s like listening to the Charlie Brown teacher.”
Despite having a difficult time reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, I did learn some interesting things. To begin with, I never thought about mankind’s transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society. Usually, when I think of the evolution of mankind I think about a time-lapse video. The entirety of humankind’s transition from lumbering caveman to modern man can be summed up into a few short seconds in these videos. Scenes of roman warriors to American pilgrims pass by in a flash and it becomes an accepted fact that we are all descended from at least one Egyptian pharaoh. Jared Diamond does an excellent job in explaining what goes on in-between each scene.
I was fascinated to learn how food influenced the creation of kingships and bureaucracy. When I think about food and professions the only occupations that comes to mind are the ones that fill restaurants and grocery stores. One thing that struck me was the fact that “food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel.” (pg. 82) It’s incredible to think of how food gave rise to these three things. Transitioning to farming meant more food. It also meant that the people tending to this food would have to give up their nomadic lifestyle. A more stationary lifestyle meant more children and higher population densities. When more people are living in closer proximity to each other and alongside domesticated animals, it creates the perfect environment for diseases. Diamond’s book made me realize that there were downsides to agriculture as well as upsides.
Another thing that I thought was very interesting was how food production, in areas that we consider some of the world’s richest centers of agriculture and herding today, did not appear until modern times. Furthermore, the time of the arrival of agriculture in other parts of the world varied some thousands of years. Thinking back on the time-lapse videos of humanity’s ascent to modern man makes me wonder if the people who made them had any idea of this fact.
One thing that I really liked about Guns, Germs, and Steel was the chapter titles. During a previous class, our professor emphasized the importance of having a good title. I understand now why she said that. A good title doesn’t tell all. A good title is a hook that pulls you in and makes you wonder what’s inside. Jared Diamond has some good chapter titles in his book. For example: Ch. 5 – History’s Haves and Have-Nots, Ch. 6 – To Farm or not to Farm, and (I opened the book randomly for this one) Ch. 16 – How China Became Chinese. I’m definitely interested in reading chapter sixteen now.
Although I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be a dry read I am happy I managed to make my way through it. Another piece of the puzzle has been added in my quest to understand the relationship between plants and people. Jared Diamond has done an excellent job in making the picture clearer for me. Man-kind has become so dependent on our relationship with plants that we have undergone an entire shift in our societies. I think Diamond sums this relationship up clearly on page 82. “ At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining bands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

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