Explain why, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel, epidemic diseases almost never originate or are sustained in hunter-gatherer societies, though they can have devastating results when they do break out.

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Diamond points out that the advent of agriculture was a "bonanza" for disease-causing microbes, and the development of cities was even more important. This is because agriculturalists live a sedentary lifestyle, in the midst of their own sewage and disease-carrying rodents and insects. Hunter-gatherers, being less sedentary and often nomadic,...

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Diamond points out that the advent of agriculture was a "bonanza" for disease-causing microbes, and the development of cities was even more important. This is because agriculturalists live a sedentary lifestyle, in the midst of their own sewage and disease-carrying rodents and insects. Hunter-gatherers, being less sedentary and often nomadic, are less likely to be around these disease-causing factors. Also, many diseases, smallpox being a particularly deadly example, originated with livestock, and hunter-gatherers by definition do not live in close proximity to livestock like farmers do. Another reason has to do with population density. Hunter-gatherers usually live in small communities and are not in close contact with people in the same way that people who lived in urban areas were. Hence diseases were more difficult to spread (aside from the fact that cities were also very dirty places as well). Finally, diseases are, as Diamond observes, "evolution at work," and if they are to flourish, they need large populations to do so. If they kill off an entire population quickly, they themselves die out quickly, because they have no hosts. On the other hand, when diseases do strike hunter-gatherers, they tend to be particularly deadly, because hunter-gatherers have had no opportunity to gain immunity to them. But the rise of civilizations has seen the rise of "crowd infectious" diseases that depend on large populations to spread and flourish (and kill). These include mumps, measles, smallpox, polio, and AIDS. So even though crowd diseases were very deadly when they struck small populations, they were far less likely to flourish within them.

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The answer to this question can be found in Chapter 11.  Pieces of the answer are scattered throughout the chapter.  One place to find much of the answer is in the pages beginning with p. 205 in the paperback edition of the book.

Epidemic diseases do not usually originate in hunter-gatherer societies because they are closely tied to animals.  On p. 207, Diamond provides Table 11.1, in which he lists some major diseases that have come to human populations from animals.  These include such killer diseases as measles and smallpox.  Hunter-gatherer societies do not typically live in close proximity with animals in the way that farming societies do.  Therefore, epidemic diseases do not pass from animals to people as readily in such societies.

Epidemic diseases cannot sustain themselves in hunter-gatherer societies.  They need to have large populations in order to survive.  This is because epidemic diseases kill large numbers of people.  Diamond discusses on p. 204 the fact that epidemic diseases tend to kill nearly everyone in a hunter-gatherer society.  This is bad for the disease because it robs it of hosts for the germs.  Therefore, these diseases can only sustain themselves in large populations where there are plenty of people who can survive the epidemics and keep the germs alive.

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