Monday, April 16, 2012

The Evolution of Societies

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.


  1. Even though we have read that people went from hunter gatherers to farmers if humans don't have a choice when and where they are born, it is a random choice or pure luck what kind of society and class they are born into. Just like he says some are more lucky than others depending on where they settle and what resources they have. So maybe there was no transition after all, maybe some people were hunter and gatherers while other were farmers it might have taken them years to find one another and the hunters realized they can just sit back and have their resources grow instead of going out and hunting. I think this can also be said about our society today there are those who are more fortunate and those less fortunate and there is a pattern that those who are less strive to be more like the others.By taking ideas and spreading them it makes us evolve more and more each day.

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    An interesting and fun video that kind of relates to the book/discussion

    I was also struck by the evolutionary parallels drawn in Guns, Germs, and Steel and the discussions from Moalem's book. It is absolutely wild when you think of seemingly unconnected factors that can have profound impacts on the advancement of a society. In class we discussed how the animals available to domesticate had a profound influence on the development of Africa versus Euroasians. Diamond also brings up how Eurasia's sheer size had an advantage to its early habitants, which I also found fascinating. The large size and variety of climates provided a wealth of various plants and animals suitable for domestication, and allowed people to exchange the best from their own corners of the world. The orientation of climates made it so innovations and domestications made in the east, relevant across distance to populations in the west with similar climates. For example in the first millennium BC the Mediterranean areas of Europe adopted Middle East animals, plants, and agricultural technology, two millenniums later, the rest of Europe followed suit. The benefits of having lang mass and different but interchangeable centers for innovation, evolution, and domestication were lacking in other continents, and led to extraordinary set backs in the populations. I though all this was pretty fascinating, and a phenomenon now abolished by globalization...

  4. Like Donald and Emily, I found Guns, Germs and Steel similar to Survival of the Sickest in the trait that overarching oversimplifications are made from specific examples. It seems as if Diamond often presents evidence that support his predetermined conclusions, while neglecting those that run counter to them. His emphasis on geography and not enough attention on human decision making and culture present a biased viewpoint which is fascinating, yet unconvincing. However, to his credit, Diamond does admit that many differences also stem from lasting economic differences between continents over time, and he also did an admirable job of summing up thousands of years of evolution into his book. Also, in his epilogue, he states how China, the Middle East and India are exceptions to his larger theory, as many complex forces combined to the rise of power of these expansionist regions.