Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs and Steel. Pg 116-130. Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing, United States of America.
It’s only Wednesday, but I didn’t really get a weekend. Instead, I stayed at the university microbiology lab for the greater portion of my Saturday and Sunday, only to realize that our project didn’t work out and we had to restart. On top of that, I have other classes to remain studious to, and I’m currently stressing over an important presentation tomorrow. When I have to do readings for classes when I am this swamped, the last thing I want to read is authors that beat around the bush and waste text (and my time) with vague descriptions, acting as if their reasoning for their central thesis is some sort of secret, locked away in chains of metaphors, comparisons and other literary devices I’m forgetting the name of or simply completely dismiss while reading.
Thank goodness that Diamond isn’t like that.
Diamond’s articulate and nicely formatted writing pleases me and does not try my patience as some other authors have. Though many people in our class have criticized his writing for it’s inherent “dryness,” I really couldn’t be more happy with it. When I’m on a schedule, Diamond’s very up front writing is very refreshing, he introduces a problem, then breaks down his potential solutions or explanations in a discrete manner, then discusses each point and relates them. Concisely.
I appreciate this immensely. I get so much more out of a reading when the author doesn’t drone on needlessly about something that could be said in <150 words. Forget “literary depth” or any sort of a “greater meaning,” I’ve always just thought that authors should just say what they want to, let the readers do the “greater thinking.”
But perhaps that’s just a cynical view of a science student that doesn’t find meaning in that.
The relationship people share with domesticated plants and agriculture is apparently more complex than I gave it credit for, and of course thanks to Diamond’s writing style, this is pretty apparent to me now. Diamond talks about the discrepancy of domestication rates and how this has changed how we get our food today. He analyses the ins and outs of “hunter gatherer” lifestyles and the trade-offs associated with them, articulating why this lifestyle was facilitated or weaned out of different human populations at differing times. Diamond states: “Instead, as we shall see, food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences” (P. 105-106). Diamond believes that our foraging patterns and necessity for food facilitated the domestication of plants, despite no intention of the process really happening. It just did.
However, the most interesting part of the reading in my opinion was his discussion on the fertile crescent and how the ecology of the environment had influenced the evolutionary development of their native plants. Diamond argues that the Fertile Crescent of the Mediterranean properly enabled plant domestication due to the plant’s lifestyle and environments that exist there. The long, dry, and hot season is promptly followed by a mild, wet winter, which gives the flora an opportunity to carry out a short lived growing season. He states that this seasonality of the Fertile Crescent favoured annual plants, which utilize the moisture while it is there but expire in the dry season, leaving their heavily invested seeds in place for when they will germinate once more in the wet season. Annual plants must then be extra reassured that their progeny are strong enough to germinate, as they are literally investing all of their potential genetic fitness in the following generation. Their seeds are invested, these aren’t orchid seeds (which are microscopic and possess basically no nutritive value), but grains with substantial nutrient content to ensure their success in this tremendously bipolar environment.
Diamond also states that this lifestyle has other benefits: “Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes” (p. 136). Due to annual plants only being around for a portion of the year, their growth must be very efficient, and it must ensure the success of the next generation. While the conifers around us in British Columbia spend substantial energy depositing wood to survive our winters and developing cones (which often take several years to develop), these annuals cut corners and make just enough vegetative structures to supply the energy to craft their seeds. While much of the energy of perennials is devoted to longevity and survival of the individual, the annuals of the Fertile Crescent do quite the opposite, making their seeds an ideal choice for human consumption.
It really is remarkable what a writer can explain so effectively when they write so concisely and practically.