The Transition to Farming

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York. P85-113, 131-156.

I recall picking up this book from the bookstore and reading the title, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and thought what could this possibly have to do with plants? However, as Diamond argues throughout his book, it has everything to do with plants.

After the last reading from Diamond’s book I was disappointed to see that this week’s reading was another three chapters from “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (sigh). However, as I started to get into the book, I found it wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating it to be. Diamond’s scientific writing style suits this book because unlike Pollan’s storytelling book, Diamond’s writing seems to be more of a theory to a question he has. A very scientific approach indeed. Chapters 4-8 make up the part of the book, “The Rise and Spread of Food Production.” In these chapters he seeks to find explanations as to why food production succeeded where it did and when it did. Although, as he soon discovers, there are many factors to take into consideration and the explanation is much more complex than the idea that food production started in the areas with the most fertile vegetation.

The first question Diamond address in Chapter 4 is why did people start switching from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a plant and animal domestication lifestyle? Diamond argues that hunter-gatherer societies spent most of their time in search of food and travelling to new areas. This prevented large societies from forming as well as from parents giving birth to many children. However, with the domestication of plants and animals, societies were able to store food and remain in one place. This allowed for more children to be born, increasing population size. An increase in population and availability of food also allowed for some members of the society to specialize into other professions. This in turn led to well organized societies with new technology, the opportunity for diseases to spread and political organization. The title of this book finally made sense to me now! As Diamond points out, plant and animal domestication set off a chain reaction which allowed for the development of guns, germs and steel.

It is hard to imagine living in a hunter-gatherer dominant society but Diamond argues that, “… we should not suppose that the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum, as if the people had previously had no means to feed themselves. Instead, we must consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies competing with each other.” What he further explains is that it was no smooth transition from hunter-gathering societies to farming societies. Many farmers had to work much harder than their hunter-gatherer counterparts. So why did farming end up being the favoured lifestyle? He argues that there are four major factors to take into consideration when asking this question. These factors are the decline in availability of wild foods, the increased availability of domesticable wild plants, development of technology making farming more efficient and the rise in human population associated with farming (p.110, 111). Diamond states that this transition has been occurring over the past 10,000 years (p. 109); however, I would argue that it is still occurring.

Looking at his factors that have led to increased food production, I would say that all four factors are only escalating in importance. For example, with the extensive urbanization in today’s societies, there is very little availability of wild foods. In addition, our access to domesticable plants is easier than it’s ever been. A ten minute walk to the grocery store presents opportunities to obtain food from anywhere in the world. In addition, with new technology still developing to make food production even more efficient, we have the capacity to support an enormous human population size. Some people would even argue that without pesticides and GMO foods, we would not have enough food to support our growing population size. With only a small number of farms providing most of the food for the world, I would say that we live in one giant society built on extreme farming practices.

I think most people would say that humans have been so successful because of our intelligence. However, as Diamond argues, it was the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies that have led to the success of humankind, guns, germs and steel.

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The Transition to Farming

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