Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 2, Chapter 4 : The Rise and Spread of Food Production (Farmer Power) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4 begins with an anecdote about Diamond's time as a teenager working on a midwestern farm. He explains how a Blackfoot farmhand, Levi, once got angry with the farm owner, a Swiss immigrant, and exclaimed, "Damn you Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland!" Diamond uses the anecdote to explore how a farming people such as the Swiss, or Europeans in general, could go on to own the land of the Blackfeet, a fierce and nomadic group of Great Plains hunter-gatherers.

Domesticated plant food production is the basis on which the remainder of his argument rests, and Diamond asks why some peoples developed agriculture and others did not. Farming allows people to develop food surpluses and thus to dramatically increase their populations. Larger populations mean greater numerical strength for combat. Domesticated animals improve sources of protein and dairy but also provide manure for fertilizing fields, the power to plow fields, a convenient and easy source of transport, and the making of other animal by-products such as hides and rope. Perhaps most importantly, animal domestication exposes humans to a wide variety of infectious diseases, and over time those human populations developed resistance. Furthermore, animal and plant domestication make sedentary populations possible. Farmers are tied to the land, as they could make food surpluses that have to be guarded. Therefore, farming contributes to specialized labor, bureaucracy, and stratified societies. It is "a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies."

Analysis

Chapter 4 argues farming is fundamental to the advantages the Spanish and other European conquerors held in the initial contact with American and indigenous peoples. It moves one step back in Diamond's series of linked questions looking for first causes in the chain of events.

Diamond now asks why European societies—and few others—have access to these technologies and immunities. His answer here comes in the form of the first of his linked answers: farming and food production, rather than scavenging, hunting, and gathering, directly led to larger populations with greater immunities and more specialized labor and knowledge. For Diamond, however, this is merely the beginning of his explanation. In the rest of Part 2 he moves his questions further back: If farming is a more fundamental cause, why did not all of humankind develop sedentary farming societies in the years after people settled the globe?

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