In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explores the factors contributing to the development of human societies. Diamond’s central question asks why some societies developed fundamental advantages (guns, germs and steel), while others did not. Diamond’s approach to this question has very little to do with the intrinsic abilities of the people themselves, but rather the natural consequences of the land they happened to inhabit.
Diamond’s model of the development of civilization begins with the transition from hunter gatherer to food production by farming. I found Diamond’s explanation of this shift to be very elegant. Diamond establishes early on that farming was not an “invention” or a “discovery”, which completely changed the way I thought about the process. Diamond makes an important distinction when he explains that people in early societies did not consciously strive for the farming lifestyle as a “goal”. Instead, the shift to farming was because of natural human tendencies towards efficiency. The inevitable depletion of wild game, new farming technologies, and the ability for farming societies to support growing populations all contributed to this natural transition (110).
The way I see it, the transition to farming was the product of a process analogous to evolution, but on a societal level. Like genetic evolution, it was natural, gradual, and occurred as series of adaptations to environmental pressures. This process is paralleled throughout the book, with my personal favorite being his discussion on plant domestication. In this section, Diamond explains how the domestication of wild plants was crucial to the transition to farming. Interestingly, wild plants were initially domesticated by selection from humans. People were naturally more likely to pick and take seeds from plant mutants with desirable traits. This way, domesticated crops genetically changed to become tastier, easier to eat, and more manageable than their wild relatives. Through this simple overarching mechanism, plant domestication was achieved.
I think it’s interesting that the societal shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer was driven by an evolutionary mechanism which was mirrored in the wild plant's shift to domestication. Our past reading Survival of the Sickest came to mind, as Moalem also elaborated on the dynamic nature and incredible influence of evolution. Overall, I find the theme of evolution in the development of societies to be invigorating and extremely eye-opening.