Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 2, Chapter 6 : The Rise and Spread of Food Production (To Farm or Not to Farm) | Summary



This chapter explores the challenge behind saying with any finality how and why farming developed as it did. Diamond first discusses the problem with creating clear delineations between farming and other types of societies. He then goes on to explain the most immediate factors that contributed to agricultural production. The problem with defining a particular society as either hunter-gatherer or food-producing stems from the mix of practices of many peoples and from the evolution of various practices that eventually resemble the process of agricultural production. Indeed, Diamond points to "mobile groups of food producers"—peoples who employed hunting, gathering, and active land management—as evidence of the multiple use and evolutionary process from which sedentary agriculture developed. Some peoples, such as those of southeastern Europe, adopted food production wholesale from other regions, while other groups, such as those in the eastern United States, picked up only pieces of agriculture and traded for others.

Given this complex picture, why did peoples move to agricultural lifestyles? Diamond highlights four key factors to explain the shift: the decline of wild foods, an increase in domesticable plants, greater technological sophistication, and increased human populations. Diamond argues humans likely hunted many species out of existence and had to look for new sources of food. At the same time, climate changes brought more areas of the globe and more crops into open possibility for cultivation. The invention of sickles, baskets, and mortars and pestles also facilitated the change. Finally, there is what Diamond calls a "positive feedback cycle": with increased populations and decreasing hunting or gathering resources, farming became a means of sustaining populations. More farming produced more people, and this positive feedback loop led to rapid growth.


In Diamond's chain of questions and answers, Chapter 6 provides an important link about why certain peoples developed sedentary agriculture over other ways of providing food. For Diamond, a series of factors both internal and external to human society caused the change, including megafauna die-offs, climate changes, and an increased need by growing populations for food. Most of this work is speculative, but Diamond provides a plausible account of why these changes may have happened.

It is important to note Diamond is making the case that farming is difficult and hard work; for many peoples it resulted in a lowering of living standards from work-to-calorie ratios of hunter-gatherer societies, and its adoption was slow and piecemeal. However, once the transition was made, this change would become extremely significant to the course of human history.

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