Guns, Germs, and Steel (part 2)
If you want the short version of this book, you can trace pretty much every later societal development back to farming. Farming allowed for a couple crucial advantages, that unlocked development in other arenas.
- Larger more dense populations
- Not everybody needed to be self-sufficient (allowed for specialization outside of farming)
- Allowed people to form a permanent settlement.
Interestingly, the factors that make farming successful in today’s world are quite different from the factors that made farming suitable for hunter-gatherers. Many of the world’s now most lush and productive climates, never developed farming of their own accord. A suitable environment was not necessarily the one that made farming the most productive, but the one that made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the most accessible.
The Rise and Spread of Food Production
History’s Haves and Have-not’s
Not every environment was equally hospitable for developing farming. Places that are incredibly productive now, were often suitable only when farming was first developed elsewhere. Farming only arose independently in five spots around the globe. From there it expanded to neighboring territory, once someone else has figured farming out, it’s much easier to improve on it than to discover it from scratch yourself.
To Farm or not to Farm
We can think of hunter-gathering as the status quo state for a newfound human society and remember that farming began in a very rudimentary state. The acceptance of farming is a cost-benefit analysis question to one of these hunter-gatherer societies. In a very suitable environment (many domesticable plants/animals), the scales very quickly shift toward favoring farming. Elsewhere, when candidates are sparse, or not capable of fully sustaining the population on their own, the adoption is usually more gradual. However, note once any one society develops productive farming in a land, all the suitable land around it is now irreversibly on the track toward farming. A society with farming finds itself in a very persuasive position (through peace or force).
How to Make an Almond + Apples or Indians
To start, it’s useful to orient your mind around the idea that if a wild plant is domesticable over a long period of time, the humans inhabiting the area will inevitably domesticate it. Human societies that still live in the wild have an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of their local environment and are extremely adept in interacting with it.
At a surface level, it’s really hard to tell what sort of wild plant is suitable domestication. Almonds and Acorns serve as a cool case study to express the point. A wild almond seems a highly unlikely candidate for domestication: it’s not an especially productive plant and more importantly it contains CYANIDE. Yet somehow, over the course of history, through likely careful and extremely gradual artificial selection by humans, almonds were slowly bred to reduce their cyanide content to a non-harmful quantity. The acorn by contrast seems a great candidate for domestication. It’s calorically dense and contains a nutritious protein content. But even now, we’ve never been able to domesticate it to a useful extent because we’re constantly thwarted by squirrels who are exponentially more productive acorn planters than we are. Some generally suitable environmental factors for society changing plants are (some plants are asymmetrically more useful than others):
- Large grain size (more calories/effort spent planting)
- Plants that allow for intentional planting and harvesting
- Self-fertilization that allow for artificial selection (otherwise beneficial mutations just get wiped out)
There are certain climates (the Mediterranean climate) that grow wild plants that fit the above description well. Hence, why the Fertile Crescent had five founders crops, that even today remain some of our most productive and valuable crops while most other regions had none. From there, the main other advantage is a geography and climate suitable for diffusion of advancements. This allows different societies to pick out the most viable advancements among themselves.
Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way
It is for livestock as it is happy families. An animal can be perfect in all ways but one, yet that’s all it takes to prevent them from ever being domesticated. These are the factors that filter the many large mammal species down to the fourteen species that had an impact in the ancient world. (We haven’t domesticated a new species in the past 4500 years.)
- Meat Diet: The animal has to be primarily a herbivore. It’s just too inefficient, calorically to raise a carnivore.
- Slow Growth Rate: The animal has to grow relatively quickly. The elephant seems like a fantastic animal to have on your side, until you realize it needs to be raised for like 10–15 years before it reaches adulthood.
- Incapable of being kept in captivity: Some animals evolved to survive on huge expanses of land. A single cheetah expects a humongous expanse of land and will refuse to mate without sufficient space.
- Nasty Disposition: You can tame some wild animals, but on balance there’s no reliable way to keep, say a bear in a cage, without it ripping a few heads off occasionally.
- Tendency to panic: There’s some animals that behave extremely erratically
- when startled. That means death for either the animal or its keeper.
- Social Structure: Animals that already have a social structure are much, much easier to domesticate. These animals are docile and responsive to the alpha, humans simply take the place of the alpha.
Spacious Skies and Tilted Axes
The orientation of a continent’s major axis, i.e. North-South vs. East-West is a major factor in how easily farming spread. An East-West major orientation, like in Eurasia, makes the diffusion of new discoveries occur far faster. A horizontal axis orientation means the climate changes far less dramatically from one region to another. The real deterrent to easy transportation of new technologies are ecological factors, not distance. That could mean impassable barriers or unfamiliar conditions, but more commonly it simply meant your existing crops wouldn’t fare well over some land barrier. In North America the rate at which new discoveries spread was far slower than in Eurasia. The three big crops discovered in Southwestern America took ages to spread to the rest of the continent owing to this. Additionally, the lack of a large land bridge greatly limited diffusion between North and South America.
It’s kinda crazy, but the fate of human history as it were, was more or less determined by the availability of a few key wild plants and domesticable wild animals.