Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2005

PBS Series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part one

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:06 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 13, 2005

Despite having dozed off for ten minutes toward the end of the first installment of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I feel that I have a pretty good handle on what it was trying to establish–namely, the idea that the development of agriculture is a sine qua non for civilization.

The show centered on comparisons between Papuan New Guinea and places like ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, classical Greece and the Mayan Kingdom. Where you have corn, wheat, rice, etc, you have written languages, pyramids and great art. Where there is hunting and gathering, you get none of this. Despite Diamond’s clear admiration for the people of New Guinea’s resourcefulness, you get the sense that he is trying to explain why they are such losers.

He sets out by stating that “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written to understand why there are winners and losers in world history. This was prompted by an encounter with a Papuan named Yali who asked why the Westerners had so much “cargo”–a term they use for commodities. It originated in the cargo cult, which viewed things such as evaporated milk (and even the containers they came in) as gifts from the gods.

For Diamond, the big breakthrough occurred in the so-called Fertile Crescent, an area ranging from Southeastern Turkey to Western Iran. Looking at the ruins of a 12,000 year old town in this region, Diamond points to the existence of a rudimentary grain silo and declares that this is where it all started. The implication is that you get computer networking, Cruise missiles and MTV all from this initial start in raising crops from a fixed settlement.

He points to evidence that a formerly hunting and gathering group learned how to plant wheat seeds for future crops–thus eliminating the need for a nomadic existence. Once you have a stable settlement, it becomes possible to create housing of a more permanent nature, etc.

You can find a scholarly presentation of this in a Science Magazine article titled Location, Location, Location: The First Farmers” that Diamond wrote in November 1997:

In short, einkorn [a kind of wheat] domestication in the Karacada mountains exemplifies the enormous head start that western Eurasian societies gained from Fertile Crescent biogeography. For history’s broad patterns, as for real estate investment, location is almost everything. Plant and animal domestication was prerequisite to the growth of large, dense, sedentary human populations, in which the food-producing activities of part of the population yielded storable food surpluses to feed non-food-producing parts of the population. Hence, food production triggered the emergence of kings, bureaucrats, scribes, professional soldiers, and metal-workers and other full-time craftspeople. Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us. Thus, a long straight line runs through world history, from those first domesticates at the Karacada mountains and elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, to the “guns, germs, and steel” by which European colonists in modern times destroyed so many native societies of other continents.

Full: http://makeashorterlink.com/?Z52E22A6B

It is understandable why “Guns, Germs and Steel” might have been appeared as a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, since it dispenses with ideas of racial superiority. The Europeans overran the Lakota not because they were racially superior but because they had happened upon agriculture through the contingencies of history.

The other thing that has some appeal for radicals is Diamond’s seeming affinity for historical materialism. The notion of agricultural societies superseding more primitive (but communal) societies is obviously laid out in Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Engels writes:

“Horticulture, probably unknown to Asiatic barbarians of the lower stage, was being practiced by them in the middle stage at the latest, as the forerunner of agriculture. In the climate of the Turanian plateau, pastoral life is impossible without supplies of fodder for the long and severe winter. Here, therefore, it was essential that land should be put under grass and corn cultivated. The same is true of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But when once corn had been grown for the cattle, it also soon became food for men. The cultivated land still remained tribal property; at first it was allotted to the gens, later by the gens to the household communities and finally to individuals for use. The users may have had certain rights of possession, but nothing more.”

Diamond, who roots for the Papuans as if they were a losing team, sounds like Engels when he mourns for the more egalitarian but less technologically advanced Zulus:

“We have seen examples of this courage quite recently in Africa. The Zulus a few years ago and the Nubians a few months ago — both of them tribes in which gentile institutions have not yet died out — did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breech-loaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order — they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the lines into disorder and even broke them, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they have no military service and know nothing of drill. Their powers of endurance and performance are shown by the complaint of the English that a Kaffir travels farther and faster in twenty-four hours than a horse. His smallest muscle stands out hard and firm like whipcord, says an English painter.”

Of course, Diamond departs from Engels on the all-important question, which is how to recover the egalitarian and democratic essence of hunting and gathering societies while maintaining the scientific and technical breakthroughs of all societies that succeeded them.

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