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GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production 
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
DWill wrote:
That's a good point about fishing as a surviving big-time hunting activity. Maybe as the oceans become more and more depleted, fish farming will displace the hunting of wild fish.

Diamond uses words such as 'primitive' and 'advanced,' but sometimes he puts these in quotation marks. Being quite familiar with some h-g peoples (though perhaps these aren't 'pure' h-g groups), he seems to be aware that civilization is bought at a price. We don't have to subscribe to 'a noble savage' view in order to reflect on the evils, as well as what seem the benefits, of our civilization. H-g life might have been in some variations 'nasty, poor, brutish, and short,' but so can modern life be this way for many.

If we ever learn how to manage fish stocks, the wild fishery might go on to great things. I hope so, wild fish tastes better than farmed fish! I found it interesting that JD talks about the Japanese tradition of raising and slaughtering grizzly bears but did not mention that Japan is one of the greatest fishing nations of the world. At some points, I think he leaves out obvious facts because they don't support his argument.

I think there is adequate evidence to suggest that the farming life can be 'nasty, poor, brutish and short' as well .. it may have been the cradle of our modern civilization but there were many pour sods along the way who paid a big price. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like to be amoung the first humans in an unoccupied area and somehow survive ... it takes time and energy and a huge amount of work to clear land and make a farm productive especially with rudimentary tools. So they must have relied on hunting-gathering initially.

I found the Spacious Skies chapter unconvincing. I'm sure that similiar conditions at similar latitudes does mean that crops are more likely to do well, but there are so many other significant factors as JD admits at the end of the chapter. Altitude is a big one. Even a casual observer can see that crops that are doing well in a lowland area and possibly into the foothills of a mountain range quickly fade out with rising altitude. And rainfall often varies with altitude, soil conditions, winds .. I just think its a huge leap to attribute so much to latitude and continental axis.

Just an aside but JD's focus on the Pacific made me think of the travel and migration of Polynesians over huge distances where the Melanesians did not migrate in this fashion even though these people (as JD points out) were of the same stock originally. In fact the Melanesians were quite the opposite, generally staying within one valley, island or other defined area hence the survival of so many unique languages.



Wed Dec 14, 2011 7:54 pm
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
giselle wrote:
If we ever learn how to manage fish stocks, the wild fishery might go on to great things. I hope so, wild fish tastes better than farmed fish! I found it interesting that JD talks about the Japanese tradition of raising and slaughtering grizzly bears but did not mention that Japan is one of the greatest fishing nations of the world. At some points, I think he leaves out obvious facts because they don't support his argument.

I think there is adequate evidence to suggest that the farming life can be 'nasty, poor, brutish and short' as well .. it may have been the cradle of our modern civilization but there were many pour sods along the way who paid a big price. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like to be amoung the first humans in an unoccupied area and somehow survive ... it takes time and energy and a huge amount of work to clear land and make a farm productive especially with rudimentary tools. So they must have relied on hunting-gathering initially.

I found the Spacious Skies chapter unconvincing. I'm sure that similiar conditions at similar latitudes does mean that crops are more likely to do well, but there are so many other significant factors as JD admits at the end of the chapter. Altitude is a big one. Even a casual observer can see that crops that are doing well in a lowland area and possibly into the foothills of a mountain range quickly fade out with rising altitude. And rainfall often varies with altitude, soil conditions, winds .. I just think its a huge leap to attribute so much to latitude and continental axis.

Just an aside but JD's focus on the Pacific made me think of the travel and migration of Polynesians over huge distances where the Melanesians did not migrate in this fashion even though these people (as JD points out) were of the same stock originally. In fact the Melanesians were quite the opposite, generally staying within one valley, island or other defined area hence the survival of so many unique languages.

I think I'm not getting your point about JD not mentioning fisheries, giselle, I mean as far as his central theory is concerned.

JD seems to do a solid job of presenting how almost all of us shed our hunter-gatherer ways and became settled folks dependent on agricultural surplus. It was truly evolutionary, though food production is sometimes called a revolution in human society. It was almost glacially slow. I share your feelings about the loopholes in the "Tilted Axes" chapter. To his credit, JD brings up the exceptions to his rule, but these do appear to water down the force of the east-west dominance in Eurasia. I was skipping ahead to the chapter titled "The Future of Human History as a Science," and from reading that I concluded that JD would have been wise if, right off the bat, he had told us what his book attempts to do and what it doesn't. In that chapter, he brings in the variations of history caused by culture, by the influence of extraordinary individuals, and by mere chance, all of which begins to make it clearer that JD is attempting an explanation of human history on the very widest scale. He's giving us the view from 25 miles above the earth, not the near view that shows us where our swimming pool is. He therefore may seem to be backing off in that late chapter, acknowledging that human history, looked at as a science, will never be close to physics in its precision, and that his theory can be only a general one. But scientific methods can be applied to understand history better, and this I think he himself does in the book.

I'm going to post a little about the criticisms of the book soon. The most telling one in my view is that the book often reads like a "Just So" story, in the vein of "How the Leopard Got His Spots." Why did China, with all of its early advantages, not lead the modern world in place of Europe? Well, it got to the point where its main strength--geographic simplicity and political unity--became a hindrance. It went from "just right" to "too hot," in Goldilocks terms. Europe, on the other hand, built up to the "just right" level of fragmentation that fostered innovation through competition and held it long enough to have its way in the world. It's clear that had China actually maintained its lead, all of its supposed weaknesses could have been counted as its strengths and that Europe's fragmentation would have counted against it. In other words, this particular methodology of Diamond's suffers from easy reversibility and is much too convenient. There are times in the book when Diamond might have been better off saying, "Dunno, but here's just one way we could look at this problem."


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Last edited by DWill on Fri Dec 16, 2011 10:00 am, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Dec 16, 2011 9:58 am
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
I appreciate your points DWill. My only point on fisheries is that I think it is a clear and substantial example of a surviving 'hunting-gathering' activity that has impacted lives and shaped socieites on every continent over millenia and it has not been wiped out by the conversion to the 'settled' life of farming. I acknowledge that it may be wiped out be other factors, like mismanagement of resources. I have also noted that JD seems to make statements then modify or even back away from them later in the book. He does not provide footnotes and specific references.

I recognize that JD is operating at 25,000 feet (or higher), which is necessary when trying to explain a history of many millenia encompassing an entire planet with all its diversity. And this is fine, but the limitation is that details that might have momentous importance and impact are below the radar.

With regards to your comments on the 'just so' criticism, very interesting. In addition to your comments, I would observe that history is not over, it is being written every day. For example, we may see in our lifetimes the next cycle of world power shifting and China reclaims its long lost position of dominance and Europe recede to a minor power. Would the roots of this change (were it to happen) be found in guns, germs and steel or an updated list of root causes?



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Fri Dec 16, 2011 3:32 pm
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
giselle wrote:
I appreciate your points DWill. My only point on fisheries is that I think it is a clear and substantial example of a surviving 'hunting-gathering' activity that has impacted lives and shaped socieites on every continent over millenia and it has not been wiped out by the conversion to the 'settled' life of farming. I acknowledge that it may be wiped out be other factors, like mismanagement of resources. I have also noted that JD seems to make statements then modify or even back away from them later in the book. He does not provide footnotes and specific references.

I recognize that JD is operating at 25,000 feet (or higher), which is necessary when trying to explain a history of many millenia encompassing an entire planet with all its diversity. And this is fine, but the limitation is that details that might have momentous importance and impact are below the radar.

With regards to your comments on the 'just so' criticism, very interesting. In addition to your comments, I would observe that history is not over, it is being written every day. For example, we may see in our lifetimes the next cycle of world power shifting and China reclaims its long lost position of dominance and Europe recede to a minor power. Would the roots of this change (were it to happen) be found in guns, germs and steel or an updated list of root causes?

Fishing is an interesting example where a major food source--maybe the most important of all, worldwide--comes straight from non-domesticated sources. It does seem that JD should have mentioned this activity at some point, if only to anticipate objections and try to explain how fishing doesn't alter his theory of continental development. During the period that JD is concerned with, the 13,000 years before about 1500, I would think that fishing would have provided mainly subsistence but not the potential to rack up food surpluses that grain and livestock provided. When industrial methods of catching fish and storing them became available to fisherman, that changed things. But it had to wait until relatively modern times. Fishing as we know it today is also done by settled people, even though they may travel far out to sea to find their prey.

Diamond wrote the book in the early 90s. That timeframe provides a perspective on the point you raise about the balance of power (economic/military) shifting. Diamond points to the rise to dominance of Japan. Yet even at the time of his writing Japan was beginning a long economic slide that has left it today quite a ways behind the status that was being predicted for it. China has taken over the role of up-and-coming economic behemoth. But as to your doubt about the roots of this change lying in the China of 8,000 years ago, you and Diamond disagree on that. He does believe that the advantages gained by the early food producers have generally extended even into the present time. The major exception he mentions is the Fertile Crescent itself, where the combination of somewhat fragile ecological conditions and careless over-exploitation by humans, removed the economic heart of that region. He does mention the danger to China of the same environmental collapse happening.


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Fri Dec 16, 2011 5:38 pm
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
I've not given up on this discussion, just fallen behind. I will be sitting in a doctor's office waiting room tomorrow afternoon and I promise to make good use of that time. I'll be back on board tomorrow evening. Until then....


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Mon Dec 19, 2011 9:55 pm
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
DWill wrote:
Fishing is an interesting example where a major food source--maybe the most important of all, worldwide--comes straight from non-domesticated sources. It does seem that JD should have mentioned this activity at some point, if only to anticipate objections and try to explain how fishing doesn't alter his theory of continental development. During the period that JD is concerned with, the 13,000 years before about 1500, I would think that fishing would have provided mainly subsistence but not the potential to rack up food surpluses that grain and livestock provided. When industrial methods of catching fish and storing them became available to fisherman, that changed things. But it had to wait until relatively modern times. Fishing as we know it today is also done by settled people, even though they may travel far out to sea to find their prey.

I'm wondering if there is documented evidence that hunter-gatherers (including fishermen) lacked the capability to accumulate surplus? For some reason, we seem to think that the hunter gatherers were a desperate, starving lot who could never organize themselves well enough to develop because they were always on the move .. certainly this is JD's premise .. I just wonder if it is fact? To my knowledge, hunter gatherers actually spent only part of the time on subsistence food, depending on seasons and herd movements etc., and in some seasons gathered together in camps and temporary communities. I accept as fact that they were outcompeted by farmers and the resulting rise in population and concentration of population then drove development (along with disease and eventually severe environmental problems etc.) ... but I think JD too easily dismisses the h-g's as a footnote of history, an evolutionary dead end road.

With regards to fisheries, I would think that people migrated along major waterways, like the Nile and the Mississippi ... both of these rivers (and many others) basically run north south across the latitudes that are so central to JD's theory of east west migration. The rivers provided everything, water, food and transport .. they may also have impeded east west movement. Water of course is essential to crops so once irrigation was developed a major, reliable water source, preferably year round, would be required. So, sticking close to major rivers and their tributaries would make sense. Also, major river valleys may have similar growing and climatic conditions over a long distance even if latitude changes.

Thanks for the 'criticisms' link that you posted, I will check that out.



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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
D. does mention that in extremely favorable conditions, h-g life could become settled, because there were such ample resources available to people regardless of season. The reason for nomadic hunting-gathering would have been the need to follow the seasons or animal migrations. However. that doesn't address the question of food surpluses. There would be the potential to lay up stored food in times of plenty in the absence of agriculture if the culture practiced smoking or drying of fish and meat, perhaps storage of wild nuts, etc., but Diamond suggests that the scale of this simply wasn't sufficient to get civilization going, with its dependence on large numbers of specialists who had no hand in providing the food that sustained them. You'd need to ramp up the capacity of a given area of land to produce food, which is what agriculture is all about.

I don't get the impression that you get, though, as to his personal viewpoint on the value of hunting-gathering. He just seems hard-nosed about it to me, pointing out what seems to be the obvious fact that hunter-gathers were either absorbed by farming cultures or were destroyed by them, because of the greater military power that followed from having grain- (or corn-) based food surpluses. Even though that life was undoubtedly very hard, with exposure to the elements and starvation sometimes not far away, devastating diseases appeared to be unknown, because humans didn't live in close quarters with domestic animals or in concentrated numbers. Then you have to add in the stratification of society that came along with agriculture and population growth. It begins to seem more like a trade-off than a steady rise of progress.

Good points about the importance of river valleys. In most, but not seemingly all, of the areas of original or early food production, the major rivers were a base of operations.


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Last edited by DWill on Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
yes. good point about the rivers, Giselle


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Wed Dec 21, 2011 4:03 am
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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
At the end of Part II JD does qualify his focus on latitude as a determining factor by saying there are many other factors, so the 'river' point would fall into this basket. Still I think he has turned a complete blind eye to the impact of waterways and fisheries as a major h-g activity, likely one that has shaped history, and I think this is a weakness in his argument.

Although he qualifies the latitude argument, he doesn't deal with the underlying problem that I have with his theory - he wants to show us that environment was the major determining factor in human development, favouring some, and by ommission, that cultural factors were secondary or not determining. I do appreciate that he is challenging our thinking on these points and I am enjoying the book for this reason but I am struggling with this environmental determinism message.

I have moved on to part III but one last comment on part II, which I think is salient when one considers the impact of environment vs culture. When a group of people who know their land really, really well, who have developed an intimate knowledge of their land and a mythology and culture around life on that land .. when they decide to move/migrate this is a huge decision, a huge step into the unknown. My guess is that they would only do it for a very good reason.

To be successful they would have to prepare and during that preparation I would think they must have sent out 'scouts' to inform them of what they will encounter in terms of natural and human obstacles or friendly/unfriendly humans, to find trails or waterways if they can travel by boat, to find food sources that will support them when travelling, to have some idea of where they are going and why. Those who failed to do this would likely have perished so would not have been part of the successful migration that eventually shaped the human world. These scouts would have found the best ways, the mountain passes, waterways etc. but may have had little idea of where they would end up ... but one thing for certain, they would not settle down again until they found a place that provided the basics of what they needed ... water, food, shelter, security including but not limited to a land and food production opportuntiy that they understood and could work with. Again, those who failed to do his would likely have perished so they would not have shaped the human world.

Where I am going with this is that I think the effectiveness of planning, looking ahead, anticipating, decision making, scouting and the ability to do all this up front and while on the move would have had a significant, perhaps determining, impact on success. If they failed at any or all of this (a bit of Anna Karenina factor here), their likelihood of successful migration is low, I would think, hence their impact on the overall human migration over history would be negligible to non-existent and its unlikely that their method of food production, whether it be h-g or farming, would even enter into the historical equation, they would drop into the evolutionary bit bucket.

On the other hand, the successful migrants would establish their food production and would impact human history in an evolutionary way ... but I would argue that the determining factor was their success in the strategies of migrating (ie cultural factors) whereby they overcame obstacles and took advantage of favourable conditions be they natural or human. They would require these skills to succeed, they would have to be adaptive, to learn in fairly short order, how to survive and eventually prosper. I think this goes way deeper than the simple point of whether or not the food and growing conditions they are familiar with exist in their new locale.

I don't reject JD's argument for food production/environmental determinism entirely but I think it is merely one factor among many and the other factors are largely cultural not environmental.



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Post Re: GG & S 2: The Rise & Spread of Food Production
The role of culture in this grand historical pattern is something many commentators feel is important and not adequately addressed by Diamond. What he says about the ability of culture to create idiosyncratic responses is that this happens on a more local or regional scale, but that over wide areas such as continents, the effect won't change the overall trend. He's writing in opposition to a conventional view that some cultures have simply been more successful than others, and the only explanation for this success differential is that the people themselves must have been more able, smarter. But Diamond has told us that there isn't any evidence that genetic differences in humans touch on their general fitness to manipulate their environments. People everywhere have the same endowment as far as we can tell. (We've already mentioned that he undercuts this claim with his belief that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners.) Although cultures obviously have differences, these differences don't create the pattern of continental development that he sees; geography does that. Generally speaking, I'm with him on this.

It might be that people long ago who moved about went through a process like the one you described, giselle, but if this is just something that humans in general did, Diamond might not find it significant, because it wouldn't seem to explain the differences in how the world developed, and that is his whole reason for writing the book. What people may have in common he wants to exclude. It's already quite a long book, after all.


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DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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