Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 2, Chapter 8 : The Rise and Spread of Food Production (Apples or Indians) | Summary

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Summary

Why did agriculture develop in some areas and not others? And why were some of the most fertile regions, such as California, largely uncultivated? Chapter 8 makes explicit much of the argument from the previous chapter. Diamond begins the chapter by pairing particular crops to specific regions and asking why, for example, flax was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent but not in western Europe or North Africa—where it also grew wild—until much later. Diamond compares three regions: the Fertile Crescent, eastern North America, and New Guinea.

Peoples in the Fertile Crescent developed food cultivation much earlier, in much greater variety, and with greater intensity than other peoples. Because of this, the area was the first to develop dense population settlement and "as a result entered the modern world with more advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epidemic diseases with which to infect other peoples." Agriculture developed here, Diamond argues, because of several geographic advantages. They include a Mediterranean climate, an abundance of wild, harvestable, self-pollenating plants; a large area in which to cultivate and develop plant diversity; and a predictable seasonal variation. Compared to other Mediterranean climates, the Fertile Crescent had a range of elevations, which allowed growing and harvesting seasons to progress for longer parts of the year and provided a wider variety of big mammals available for domestication. No one, Diamond asserts, seriously believes the peoples of the Fertile Crescent possessed "distinctive biological features" that facilitated this process.

Diamond briefly entertains two questions about this process: In places where agriculture did not develop, might hunter-gatherers have missed cultivatable plants, and might cultural factors have prevented some hunter-gatherers from making the change to sedentary agriculture?

He answers both questions in the negative, based on anecdotal evidence of his time spent with hunter-gatherers in New Guinea and on a study of seeds in an archaeological site in the ancient Middle East. Diamond argues ethnobiology, or the study of peoples' knowledge of their natural environment, shows prehistoric peoples' knowledge was extensive and likely accurate. After all, their survival depended on it.

In the next section of the chapter Diamond moves to compare New Guinea and the United States to the Fertile Crescent. New Guinea had two major deficits: one, there were no large grains to be harvested, so New Guinean agricultural practice involved only root vegetables and fruits; and two, New Guinea had no large animal suited to domestication. The eastern United States had only four crops that lent themselves to domestication, and the lack of variety therefore prevented cultivation from becoming a complete food source. Diamond concludes the chapter by arguing it was not a failure of the peoples to develop agriculture, but rather a factor of the environment. Indeed, in regions in which the natural biota provide enough regular sustenance, the choice not to explore intensive agriculture was a reasonable one.

Analysis

This is perhaps the most crucial chapter in the second part of the book. Here, Diamond lays out a step-by-step case for why some areas and people developed agriculture and others did not. The title, "Apples or Indians," is a way to frame the question of whether it was for human reasons—such as culture or intelligence—that agriculture never developed in some places, or if it was because of the features of the natural world. If anything, Diamond is arguing it is neither; humans developed with their natural world to best suit their particular interests. For those that did not develop agriculture, the "entire suite of wild plant and animal species" were enough to sustain them and offered a successful form of competition from intensive agriculture. That many of these people did domesticate certain species as a dietary supplement supports his point.

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