Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, NY. Chapters 4, 5, 6, & 8.
These four assigned chapters from Guns, Germs, and Steel make up the majority of Part II of the book, sensibly entitled The Rise and Spread of Food Production. And that is precisely what these chapters were regarding, with little to no stray from that. Aside from a quick little anecdotal story at the opening of Chapter 4 that was based upon Diamond’s teenage years working on a farm in Montana (which I enjoyed and thought was very important and fitting), Diamond remains rigidly adhered to presenting his information in a sequential, very essay-like format. Throughout each chapter, the author poses a question (or three), then proceeds to explain that he must ask and also answer another question (or three) before he can sufficiently answer the original question. It’s all about understanding!
Diamond covers a vast magnitude of material over the span of these four chapters. Chapter 4, as I already mentioned, begins with Diamond recalling a memory of his youth that, as is apparent, had a great effect on him. It was essentially a story of the first time he saw European colonization of the Americas and the displacement of the Natives to be something different from an amazing conquest. Diamond asks, “How did the farmers win out over the famous warriors?” This question sets the tone for subsequent chapters. As chapter 4 is essentially the opening chapter of Part II, the author uses it as an introductory summary for the rest of the second part. Diamond explores a multitude of questions regarding the origins of agriculture: What were the first plants (and animals) to be domesticated? Who exactly domesticated them? Why? Was it ultimately the land or the people that facilitated farming? Were these the best plants for farming or did our ancestors miss out on the opportunity to domesticate some better lineage of ancestral flora? Why were some early humans farming millennia before others did? Why did some groups readily accept new crops and others did not? Is an agricultural society even that much better than a hunting and gathering one? Why? Why?
I was tempted to count how many times Diamond asked “Why?” and I will admit, I did find myself occasionally asking the same question to the little imaginary Lyn in my head forcing me to read on or else I will ultimately fail the course. Whyyyy?
I have many conflicting feelings about this book! A part of me dislikes it, but a larger part of me does not. Yes, it can be a little dry; an extremely long-winded, continuous information overload. And yes, the chapters are quite long and as a university student with no shortage of assigned readings, it did feel a little heavy. But on the other hand, I am in an academic awe of the amount of research that had to have been done by Diamond in order to write just this one part that makes up just a quarter of the book’s entirety! That in itself is a beautiful and often very underestimated feat and I feel that it makes this book more precious to behold. Diamond seamlessly blends a multitude of scientific disciplines into one holy grail of agricultural history. He expertly combines extensive historic and prehistoric archaeological data also with agricultural, anthropological, and plant and animal biological data. Who needs poetic language when there is an extremely organized plethora of information at my fingertips? I don’t think it is fair to compare and criticize this book against the other readings we have done for this course. There is absolutely no way to display this sheer amount of information in a fun, light-hearted way. Anything involving this much substantiated data needs to be orderly and concise. And this book is just that – because Jared Diamond is a scientist, not a poet.