Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 2, Chapter 7 : The Rise and Spread of Food Production (How to Make an Almond) | Summary



Why are certain plants domesticated for human consumptions and others not? This question guides Chapter 7, and for answers Diamond looks first to natural properties of the plants. A plant can use humans and animals to propagate and procreate; when consumed, seeds carried in fruits are distributed and fertilized through defecation and disposal. Plants select for attractiveness for consumption—size, color, and flavor—but humans have taken some plant species that are not at all attractive—such as the almond, which in nature contains deadly poison for humans—and bred them into consumable foods. Indeed, many adaptations, such as delayed germination or hard casings, protect a plant's reproduction cycles, and humans have domesticated these plants.

But why have humans done this? Diamond makes a key comparison between almonds and acorns. Almonds, like cereal grains, legumes, and other crops, benefited from a process of deliberate experimentation and selection on the part of early human farmers to produce a fruit most beneficial for consumption. However, edible acorns are produced by oak trees, which have proven too difficult to subject to these processes. While some peoples used acorns as a primary food source—such as indigenous populations in California and, in times of famine, European peasants—extracting edible calories was difficult. Oaks must grow for many years before they produce acorns, the process of making the nut edible is extremely laborious, and humans face tremendous competition from other animals, such as squirrels, that make harvesting difficult. By contrast, it was possible to breed out the poisonous cyanide from almonds to make them edible.


Chapter 7 demonstrates how certain types of plants in certain geographic regions lend themselves to human cultivation while others do not. What this means for Diamond's broader argument is that agricultural food production, the foundational element for the eventual creation of societies with guns, germs, and steel, is largely determined by the naturally occurring flora and fauna of any particular geographic location.

This means certain peoples—in Africa or the Fertile Crescent, for example—developed agriculture not because they were particularly brilliant or ingenious peoples—Diamond would argue all humans have that capacity—but because the natural landscape in those areas, the available vegetative food sources, lent themselves to those practices. Through a process of experimentation, trial and error, and learning and creative thinking, humans took available food sources and improved on them for the benefit of consumption. In some places it was not possible, or not as easy, as in others. This is discussed in the following chapter.

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