Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Home Field Advantage

I watched the first part of Guns, Germs, and Steel last night, a three-part miniseries on PBS based on Jared Diamond's book. I haven't actually read the book, though it's on my to read list. Last night's installment basically presented the question that is at the heart of the book, namely, why are certain societies so much better off than others? Interestingly enough, it started off with the assumption that Americans are much better off than the indigenous hunter/gatherers of Papua New Guinea. I don't dispute that, but most introductory anthropology courses seem to include an essay positing that the development of agriculture was mankind's greatest mistake. I'm a big fan of contrarian arguments, even when I don't agree with them, so I've always been somewhat fascinated by this one. Had we all kept on gathering and hunting, the world would definitely be a lot less crowded and we'd certainly have a much more pristine environment. From a quality of life perspective, it's hard to argue in favor of hunting and gathering. There'd probably be less war, since there would be fewer people competing for more abundant resources and weapons technology wouldn't be too sophisticated. Still, there would be much less opportunity for people to pursue their own interests, since we'd all be too busy hunting and gathering. Ultimately, the problem with this argument is that it makes no economic sense. Gathering and hunting are a much less stable and efficient way to eek out a living than organizing into a society built around agriculture and a division of labor.

The main point that Diamond made in last night's show was that the region of the world where civilizations emerged played a large role in their eventual success or failure. The fertile crescent had several advantages over the rest of the world. It had barley and wheat, which were the most nutritious crops cultivated by prehistoric farmers and also could be kept for a long time. It was also the home of all of our modern-day livestock animals. Ultimately, the fertile crescent proved to be too dry and climatically fragile to become the breadbasket of the world, so the farmers moved to the east and west into modern-day Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia.

The other point that I inferred from last night's show was that the role that adversity plays in the development of human civilizations. The hunter gatherers of the fertile crescent did not develop agriculture until a climatic shift occurred that made the world colder and dryer. This killed off plants and herds of animals that were previously their primary food source. This is an example of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule. Had the climatic shift never occurred, the people of the fertile crescent may have kept on hunting and gathering.


MDS said...

I'm very disappointed that I missed it. I think PBS should do more documentaries based on books. I'm a big fan of Book TV on C-SPAN, although that's just interviews and speeches with authors, not documentaries.

dhodge said...

Tune in for parts 2 and 3 over the next two Mondays at 10 pm EDT.