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Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies' and Its Main Ideas

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Jared Diamond's study of 13,000 years of human history led him to the conclusion that societies evolved differently, depending on the geographical environments they inhabited, rather than human biology, genetics, or culture. He attempts to answer Yael's question by examining agricultural and geographic trends, a thesis that runs counter to traditional scholarship that offers cultural explanations for European and Western dominance. He claims that the rise of agriculture and the abundance of food surpluses were the primary drivers of societal evolution because they fueled technological advancement, economic development, and the consolidation of political units of resource management.

Fred Hirschy was an elderly farmer from Switzerland who had moved to southwestern Montana as a teenager and started one of the first farms in the area. At the time, many people remained from the original Native American population of hunter-gatherers. Professor Jared Diamond met Levi, a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe. However, Levi's tribe of hunters and famous warriors had been robbed of their lands by immigrant white farmers. Professor Diamond was on the hunt for an answer to a critical question: 'How did the farmers defeat the legendary warriors?'.

According to human development theories, humans lived by hunting animals and gathering edible plants. Around seven million years ago, humans adopted that system as a way of life. Following that, humans developed a food-producing lifestyle that included planting fruit trees, domesticating wild animals, and eating the livestock and crops that grew as a result. Different peoples acquired food production at different times throughout prehistory. Some adopted self-production of food, such as the ancient Chinese, while others, such as the ancient Egyptians, achieved this by attacking neighboring countries and exploiting their natural resources.

Food production was critical to the progress of firearms, germs, and steel. Many people's ability to invest in natural resources was hampered by the geography of the land. This explains peoples' natural wealth-based power over other peoples, as well as their victories in wars or repelling attacks due to the nature of their land and their knowledge of all its secrets.

In addition to animals, not all types or species of plants that existed naturally without human intervention were safe to consume. As a result, humans began selecting and growing edible plant and animal species by increasing the area allocated to these types and thus obtaining far more edible calories per acre, so that they make up 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass on an acre of land. This will eventually feed a much larger number of herders and farmers.

Human-created societies with plants and animals had more features and advantages than tribes that relied solely on hunting and gathering fruits. Growing domestic animals and livestock, on the other hand, has numerous advantages. They can be used in multiple ways. Where it is possible to eat its meat as a source of protein, use its products such as milk and its derivatives such as cheese, butter, and yogurt, and benefit from its skins and wool as clothing. Furthermore, plowing animals were critical in increasing crop quality and quantity. As these animals, such as cows and oxen, plow the land for agriculture, their droppings serve as high-quality fertilizer. Many farmers continue to prefer cow dung to all other types of industrial fertilizers.

Before the use of animals for transportation, goods were transported from one land to another on the backs of humans. Horses, camels, donkeys, and llamas made a huge impact on the human community by becoming the primary mode of transportation. Furthermore, the role of animal domestication was visible in wars, as it was one of the primary reasons for victory in the Hyksos invasion of Egypt in 1674 BC. The horses represented the army's front line in launching the attack.

Germs played a significant role in conquest wars. Many infectious diseases spread during various periods of war, and some of them were responsible for the annihilation of an entire army, such as the plague and smallpox, which began in the bodies of animals (domesticated animals), and then the infection was transmitted and developed in the human body. Ninety percent of the herders of these animals died as a result of some of these epidemics. Domestication of animals, on the other hand, continues to be a means of increasing food, which means an increase in population, as well as transportation.

Human history is rife with unequal conflicts between those in power and those who do not. It appears that the early stages of food production relied on natural resources from other places. Archaeologists are looking for evidence to prove that there was a massive population replacement throughout prehistory because the skeletons of newly arriving food producers are so different from the hunters they replaced. Similarly, when Southeast and Central Europe began to produce food based on crops and animals in Southwest Asia, in addition to pottery, their beginning involved replacing the ancient Greeks and Germans with the new Greeks and Germans. Only a few regions of the world had independently improved their food production. The people of these regions had a head start on the path to guns, germs, and steel. As a result, there have been numerous major conflicts between those who own land and those who do not.

Originally, all people on land were hunters and gatherers because they were mostly starving and lived hard life. Where today's food product merchants spend less effort, there is more comfort. According to archaeologists, farmers and herders do not necessarily exert less effort than hunters. Their work requires more hours than that of hunters. Furthermore, ancient farmers in many regions had shorter lifespans than hunters because they were more susceptible to serious diseases caused by animals.

Hunter-gatherers from northeastern Australia traded with farmers from the Torres Strait Islands thousands of years ago, between New Guinea and Australia. It is also worth noting that hunters who had relationships and work dealings with farmers eventually became farmers. As their lives progressed, it took a long time to transition from all-meat meals to meals with a focus on fruits and vegetables that may include meat. It all boils down to considering food production and hunting as alternative strategies. But why did it take 10000 years to transition from the first to the second system?

First and foremost, the availability of wild animals is decreasing. The hunting-gathering lifestyle has become obsolete over the last 13000 years. Because they rely on animals, their numbers are dwindling due to their constant consumption.

Second, many changes occurred in the climate following the end of the Pleistocene in the Fertile Crescent. This resulted in a significant increase in the categories and species of various wild plants, particularly cereals. As a result, having a large number of crops like wheat and barley became simple.

The third step is the development of technologies for gathering, processing, and storing wild foods. For example, sickles with flint blades cemented into wooden or bone handles for harvesting wild grains, baskets to transport the grains home from the hillsides where they grew, mortars and pestles or grinding slabs to remove the husks, the technique of roasting grains to prevent sprouting, and underground storage pits, some of which were plastered to make them waterproof. Before cereals could be planted as crops, all of these approaches were required.

Finally, a critical reason emerges – the link between the rise of the human population and food production, which has a direct relativistic relationship.

Plant domestication is the process of growing a plant and causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor in ways that make it more useful to human consumers, either consciously or unconsciously. They plant a variety of seeds or roots, select the best progeny and plant their seeds, use genetic knowledge to develop good varieties that breed true, and possibly even use cutting-edge genetic engineering techniques to transfer specific useful genes to achieve this goal. Plant domestication, on the other hand, has been around for over 10,000 years. To achieve their results, early farmers almost certainly did not use molecular genetic techniques. The first farmers didn't even have any existing crops to model new ones after. As a result, they had no way of knowing that whatever they were doing would result in a tasty treat.

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It is estimated that over 5000 species of animals unconsciously domesticate plants. Plants, like animal species, disperse their offspring to areas where they can thrive and pass on genetic material. When they are young, the animals disperse by walking or flying. Because plants cannot fly or walk, they must rely on hitchhiking to spread as they grow. Although some plant species produce seeds that float on water or in the wind, many others use a tasty fruit to entice animals to transport their seeds by advertising the ripeness of the fruit's color or odor.

Animals pluck and eat fruit before walking or flying away from a tree so that the seeds can spit out or defecate somewhere far away from their source of nutrition. It may surprise you to learn that plant seeds can survive digestion and germinate in your feces.

Other plants' size differences date back to the dawn of agriculture when cultivated peas evolved to be 10 times heavier than wild peas through human selection. Little wild peas had been collected for thousands of years by hunter-gatherers, just as we collect little wild blueberries today, before preferential harvesting and planting of the most appealing largest wild peas – that is, farming – began automatically contributing to increases in average pea size from generation to generation.

Bitterness is another notable distinction between the seeds we cultivate and many of their wild ancestors. Many wild seeds have evolved to be bitter, bad-tasting, or even poisonous to deter animals from eating them. As a result, natural selection acts on seeds and fruits in opposite directions. Animals disperse the seeds of plants whose fruits are tasty, but the seed itself must be unpleasant. The animal would otherwise chew up the seed, preventing it from sprouting.

Fruit size, bitterness, fleshiness, and oiliness, as well as fiber length, were characteristics that early farmers noticed in the evolution of wild plants into crops. By harvesting individual wild plants that possessed these desirable qualities to an exceptional degree, ancient peoples unconsciously dispersed the plants and set them on the path to domestication.

However, there were at least four other major types of change that did not involve berry pickers' visible choices. Berry pickers induced changes in these cases by harvesting available plants while other plants remained unavailable for unknown reasons, or by changing the selective conditions acting on plants. The first such change influenced natural seed dispersal mechanisms. Many plants have specialized mechanisms that scatter seeds, making it difficult for humans to efficiently gather them. Only mutant seeds devoid of those mechanisms would have been harvested, becoming crop progenitors.

In other words, domesticating plants, modifying nature, breeding crops to be more useful to humans, and providing a geographical advantage may have allowed people who had access to the most productive crops to become the most productive farmers. Domesticated animals are used for meat, milk, and to make clothing out of their hair. The Fertile Crescent had access to the best crops and livestock. Geographical luck is determined by the animals you live near and can domesticate for meat, milk, and hair. Following agriculture, people began to settle down and construct homes.

As the seasons changed and animals migrated, people were forced to relocate in order to find more food. Due to the unpredictability of hunting, traditional societies relied on gathering, which was typically done by women. Depending on where you live, you can gather a variety of plants. Because they were unable to live in a mobile manner, people began growing their food and living as close to a source of water as possible. Domestication of plants, altering nature, breeding crops to be more useful to humans and provide more nutrients. Geographic luck describes how people who had access to the most productive crops became the most productive farmers. Animals kept as pets are used for meat, milk, and clothing made from their hair. The Fertile Crescent had access to the most productive crops and animals.

Diamond claims that cities rely on agriculture because they require an abundant supply of food. Farmers are doing their job of providing food. Because of the division of labor, other liberties, such as mining and literature, can now function. The presence of edible and cultivable wild plant species is a natural stumbling block for agricultural development. Agriculture emerged early in the Fertile Crescent due to an abundance of nutritious and easy-to-cultivate wild wheat and cereal grains. In contrast, American farmers struggled to develop corn into a useful food product.

Having large animals that could be domesticated, raised for meat, helped with work, and provided long-distance communication was critical during the transition from hunting to farming. Diamond has discovered 14 different domestic animals. Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs are all descended from species found only in Eurasia. Only two of the remaining nine species (llamas and alpacas) have ancestors from outside of Eurasia.

According to the Anna Karenina principle, few animals are suitable for domestication. Diamond identifies six criteria for the animal, including docility, herding ability, willingness to breed in captivity, and social dominance. As a result, none of the African mammals have been domesticated, including the zebra, antelope, and African elephant, though some can be tamed; forcing them to breed is difficult. According to Diamond, the Holocene extinction wiped out many megafaunas that would have become candidate species if they had survived. As humans with advanced technologies came into contact with continents that had never previously encountered humans, the extinction pattern was most intense. Hunting at its finest.

Smaller domestic animals such as cats, dogs, chickens, and guinea pigs would be beneficial to farm communities, but not in sufficient numbers to sustain a large farming community. For example, using horses and cattle to plow the land results in more crops and allows them to cultivate on a variety of land and soils that would be impossible to cultivate using only human muscle power.

Diamond claims that geography has influenced human migration by making travel more difficult, specifically the effect of altitude, as well as the effect of climate on the travel of domesticated animals and the location of crops that would grow easily due to the sun. Humans spread east of the Great Rift Valley at some point, according to the out-of-Africa theory. The desert prevented their migration north to the Fertile Crescent until the Nile River Valley adapted.

Diamond tries to explain why Western Europeans, rather than East Asians, have dominated the world for the last 500 years. The geographical characteristics of the Asian regions where large civilizations emerged aided in the formation of large, stable, and isolated empires that did not face external pressure for change, resulting in stagnation. The numerous natural barriers that Europe possesses aided in the formation of conflicting nations. As a result of these conflicts, European countries were forced to encourage invention and avoid technological stagnation.

In the context of Europe's subsequent colonization of the Americas, it is estimated that 95 percent of the indigenous population died from diseases brought by Europeans. Many people died as a result of infectious diseases such as smallpox and measles. Similar events have occurred in Australia and South Africa's histories.

Why were Native American diseases not eradicated by European colonists? Diamond believes that the majority of these diseases evolved in dense populations in villages and cities and that the majority of epidemic diseases are spread by domestic animals. The combination of increased population density due to agriculture and human proximity to domestic animals resulted in human infection with animal diseases, resulting in European societies acquiring a rich set of dangerous pathogens against which Europeans gained immunity through natural selection over a longer period than Native Americans. Diamond made an exception by mentioning the diseases, primarily malaria, that hampered European incursions into Africa.

Finally, Dr. Diamond claims that the differences between people and societies around the world are primarily due to the geographic characteristics of various parts of the world. He contends that people and societies around the world differ significantly. As leisure time increased, allowing people to develop centralized techniques and political structures, and proximity to animals provided immunity against deadly diseases, agricultural societies gained enormous advantages over non-agricultural societies. As a result, some societies have outwitted others.

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Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ and Its Main Ideas. (2023, October 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/jared-diamonds-guns-germs-and-steel-the-fates-of-human-societies-and-its-main-ideas/
“Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ and Its Main Ideas.” Edubirdie, 11 Oct. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/jared-diamonds-guns-germs-and-steel-the-fates-of-human-societies-and-its-main-ideas/
Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ and Its Main Ideas. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/jared-diamonds-guns-germs-and-steel-the-fates-of-human-societies-and-its-main-ideas/> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ and Its Main Ideas [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Oct 11 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/jared-diamonds-guns-germs-and-steel-the-fates-of-human-societies-and-its-main-ideas/
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