In Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does Diamond challenge traditional assumptions about the transition from hunter gathering to farming?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer to this question can be found in Chapter 6 of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  There, Diamond challenges at least two traditional assumptions about the transition from hunter gathering to farming.  The first of these assumptions holds that it was natural for people to want to make this transition and the second holds that farming was never actually invented at a given time or place.

The first traditional assumption assumes that all people would want to transition from hunting and gathering to farming if they could.  We assume that a farming lifestyle gives people a much better quality of life because we know (or at least we believe) that our lives are better that those of hunter gatherers.  On pages 104-5, Diamond challenges this assumption.  He says that life was actually harder in early farming communities than in hunter gatherer bands.  It was not until farming became more established and more productive that life in farming communities became easier.

The second traditional assumption is that farming was invented at specific time and place.  At the very least, we believe, someone discovered how to farm.  The people who discovered/invented farming did so all at once and would have then become farmers where they had previously been hunter gatherers.  On pages 105-6, Diamond challenges this assumption by arguing that farming was developed in a gradual process.  He says that the people who developed farming did not necessarily even make a conscious decision to do so.  Instead, Diamond says, farming “evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.”

In Chapter 6, then, Diamond says that we are wrong when we assume that farming was invented or discovered and that people would obviously want to become farmers if at all possible.  He challenges these assumptions, saying that farming developed gradually and without conscious decisions until it was, in a sense, necessary for people to farm.  In the rest of the chapter, Diamond describes how and why this transition happened.

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Diamond’s position is that agriculture evolved as the result of many smaller decisions and environmental factors. This argument counters what he considers “standard” claims, namely, claims that state that since growing food is inherently better than being a hunter-gatherer there was a sudden shift to agriculture once it was “discovered.” Diamond argues that agriculture and hunting and gathering should be seen as competing, alternative strategies for food production. Humans, by nature, seek to obtain the most food for the least amount of work; in some cases, that meant agriculture and, in others, that meant hunting and gathering; sometimes, it meant both, or—as in his example of the early settlers of Sweden who left agriculture to return to hunting around 2700 BC—switching back and forth as conditions dictated. In keeping with the general thesis of his book, which is that human civilization evolved in response to environmental conditions, Diamond argues that the rise of agriculture can be traced to, among other things, a decline in wild edible plants, the depletion of game reserves, the development of technologies that make domesticated agriculture feasible (things like being able to safely store food, and methods for processing grain), and increasing human population densities. Once farming got started, it became what Diamond calls an “autocatalytic process”—in other words, a system “that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started.”

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First, one should note that some critics do consider Diamond's claims to originality as overstated and that some of his contrasts between his own and "traditional" positions can resemble straw man arguments.

The central claim of the book, that the technological advances and imperial successes of Europe were due to environmental factors, rather than innate intelligence, cultural factors, or hard work, is applied to the origin of agriculture as well. He argues that it was favorable conditions such as the availability of readily available plants and animals that could be domesticated that account for some groups having a far earlier neolithic transition than others. 

The next point that Diamond argues is that farming was not a unique discovery that gradually diffused geographically; instead, many different peoples began experimenting with domestication of crops and animals independently of one another.

Finally, he argues that farming was not initially superior as a method of food production to hunting and gathering; it involved considerably more work and may have only been accepted gradually.

Despite the fact that Jared Diamond's Germs, Guns, and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, many historians, anthropologists, and other scientists have taken exception to his theory of history as science. For example, Jason Antrosio, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Hartwick College and co-editor of Open Anthropology, has written a criticism of Diamond's work:

Jared Diamond: Against History" posits, " ...[A]lthough Diamond makes interesting points, his work from Guns Germs and Steel...is a distorting disservice to the real historical record. Diamond claims that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies 'choose to fail.' This claim does not withstand scrutiny. I argue Diamond’s ideas should not be promoted or taught. (Antrosio 2017)

However, Diamond's book was received with accolades by many other academians: "In this remarkably readable book, he shows how history and biology can enrich one another to produce a deeper understanding of the human condition." (Wilson 1997)

To discover which opinion of Jared Diamond's theories is correct, one must examine Diamond's reason for writing Germs, Guns, and Steel. According to Diamond, his seminal work can be summed up in one sentence in his prologue: "History followed different courses for different peoples
because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." (1997) To discuss those "differences among peoples' environments," an examination of Diamond's challenge to traditional assumptions about the transition
from hunting-gathering to farming will need to be studied.

In Chapter 6, "To Farm or Not to Farm," Diamond refutes each traditional assumption. His goal is to "explore the numerous factors driving the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle toward food production, in some areas but not in others."

  1. The first assumption that must be refuted is the idea that certain hunter gatherer groups invented or made a conscious choice to farm.
  2. Another traditional assumption to be corrected is that there must be a gulf between nomadic hunter-gatherers and sedentary food producers.
  3. This traditional assumption is a misrepresentation of both groups. Farmers were seen as active managers of their land and hunter-gatherers were just collectors of the land's wild produce.

These three traditional assumptions have created a difference between Western Eurasia and the rest of the world. Those Western Eurasians decided they were better than other groups they met. Moreover, they were more intelligent than any other group. These views eventually led to a Eurocentric view of the world and the marginalization of the other.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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