Newmark's Door: Rankings of economics blogs

Intellectual Garbage Pickup on Guns, Germs, and Steel


Time for some unpleasant but necessary intellectual garbage pickup on the critics of Guns, Germs, and Steel over at

An ordinary human being, on reading:

Ozma: Diamond... argues that the inhabitants of this Eurasian landmass started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants than did prehistoric humans living elsewhere on the planet. There are pages and pages of discussion of wild plants with a large, oily seed yield -- the kinds of plants that would be good candidates for domestication. At first reading, my problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the "wild" baseline.

But my fuzzy doubts [about Diamond] are mere amateur ankle-biting as compared to the expertly rear-end-kicking article lead-authored by John Terrell of the Field Museum (full reference below). It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond's argument. It also offers a thoroughgoing critique of Diamond's thesis and evidence. Highly recommended reading...

would think that the article cited challenges Jared Diamond's belief that the inhabitants of Eurasia 12000 years ago had a larger and more promising array of potentially domesticable plants than did people living elsewhere, and presents evidence that Diamond's claims about Eurasian agriculture's ability to draw on a broader portfolio of plants is false.

The ordinary human being would be naive.

The article doesn't.

What the article does do is to point out that lots of people spent some time farming, some time hunting, and some time gathering (blackberries, anyone? there are still a few left); and to point out that people who are not-farmers alter the landscape (planted any Baobab trees lately? Set any forest fires to enlarge clearings so that there will be more deer about?). It goes on to claim that we simply should not talk of the "domestication" of particular kinds of plants or animals--or at least the article claims that "any knowledgeable fly-rod fisherman... has domesticated his or her surroundings... at least as skillfully as a farmer domesticates the Indiana landscape by turning the sod and planting corn and soy beans..."

Here we see the fly fisherman:

Here we see the cornfield:

Notice how the fly fisherman has "domesticated" his or her surroundings at least as skillfully as the corn farmer has?

Never draw to an inside straight, never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never trust a reference to an article in a journal of "Method and Theory."

In case anyone has any doubt, there really is a meaningful difference between "hunter-gatherers" and "farmers."

There really was a "Neolithic Revolution"--a surprisingly short period of time nearly ten thousand years ago when technologies of farming and herding spread throughout large parts of the world, and that the resulting greater availability of food pushed global human populations through a powerful upward inflection point. My friend Michael Kremer tells me that we do indeed believe that it was the case that global human populations were nearly stable at 4 million or so for the 10,000 years before 10,000 BC, and then grew forty-fold to perhaps 170 million or so by the year 1.

Here are three selections from the article--John Edward Terrell, John P. Hart, Sibel Barut, Nicoletta Cellinese, Antonio Curet, Tim Denham, Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Kyle Latinis, Rahul Oka, Joel Palka, Mary E. D. Pohl, Kevin O. Pope, Patrick Ryan Williams, Helen Haines, and John E. Staller (2003), "Domesticated Landscapes: The Subsistence Ecology of Plant and Animal Domestication," Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10:4 (December)--that will give you a good idea of what it is actually about:

White's claim that agriculture was a new kind of relationship that arose in prehistory as a response to growing food shortages might be called a "Lost Eden" hypothesis that overlooks what Charles Darwin taught us.... What White saw as the old [pre-Neolithic Revolution] equilibrium of hunting-and-gathering is difficult to reconcile with Darwin's observation that all species--even those "in the wild"--compete with one another for their survival.... Consequently, as John Odling-Smee and his colleagues have observed, it is hardly surprising that--contrary to simple dictionary definitions of adaptation--"organisms not only adapt to environments, but in part also construct them.... [I]f it is true that hunter gatherers have and have always had abundant and accurate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the places they inhabit... then knowing how to hunt and gather is not so different from knowing how to plant and cultivate. Knowledge of what works... is power... a way of "controlling," or "harnessing" that many conventionally associate with the idea of domestication.... [T]he intrinsic commonalities of foraging and farming would be easier to see.... Then it might be more obvious than it evidently now may be that any knowledgeable fly-rod fisherman or Inuit seal hunter has domesticated his or her surroundings--here, trout streams or Arctic shorelines--at least as skillfully as a farmer domesticates the Indiana landscape by turning the sod and planting corn and soy beans...

It is not surprising, therefore, that few people know about traditional African ways of managing this continent's many species of useful plants... the seeds of over 60 species of uncultivated grasses are commonly harvested in Africa, and there is a long history of intimate relationships between people and certain trees and tubers. The baobab (Adansonia sp.), the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), and the karate, or shea (the butter tree, Butyrospermum sp.) are a few examples. Karate grows in many parts of the Sahel in West Africa. The edible oil extracted from the fruit of this tree is important to the diet of savanna peoples, where this species enjoys a nearly sacred status.... Abyssinian oats (Avena abyssinica), Guinea millet (Brachiaria deflexa), African rice (Oryza glaberrima), and safu plums (Pachylobus edulis) (Harlan, 1989) are not intentionally grown, but when they do come up in fields or gardens, people are careful to protect them so that they can eventually be harvested, nonetheless.... Since A. abyssinica is less dependent on human intervention, it serves as a food to fall back on when other species fail (Harlan, 1989). Many archaeologists have noted a relationship between old village sites and the baobab, a tree whose wide distribution on the continent is thought to be largely the result of human propagation (Wickens, 1982).... Young baobab rely on humans for survival, humans turn to mature Adansonia for sustenance. The bark is used for fiber, while its leaves and roots are used as medicinal herbs. Its fruit is eaten and used as shampoo. While young, Adansonia are sometimes hollowed out, so that as they mature the opening deepens, becoming a cistern, trapping rainwater for dry season use. These few examples show how we cannot fully understand and appreciate the long history of intimate relationships between people and selected trees and seeds in Africa using current ways of thinking about and modeling domestication...

Just as the set of relations... shown on a provisions spreadsheet summarizes a community's actions at a given time, so too, a chronologically ordered sequence of such spreadsheets would be a database for exploring human-landscape interactions over time and space. The history of these interactions might be expressed, for instance, as a subtraction matrix showing patterned local change over time; or as a topology for exploring points of continuity or discontinuity between people living at different times and places.... [T]he major difference between the tables of species conventionally published in archaeological site reports and a provisions spreadsheet is the added stipulation that one must try to gauge the likely harvesting skills... used in the past at the site in question to harvest the species evidenced.... Whether it makes sense to identify at least some of the species arrayed on a provisions spreadsheet in themselves as "domesticated" is a moot question... plants, animals, and people may evolve together.... To the degree that these interactions have influenced human behavior enough to make people the dominant force behind the continued survival of local plant or animal populations, it might make equal sense to say that any species found on a provisions spreadsheet time after time attests to the success with which that species has "domesticated" (shaped) the behavior of the people.... Consider the case of Zea mays. Starting in the early Holocene as a geographically restricted species in Mexico, maize has successfully spread worldwide through its interactions with people, and it has been able to do so because people take pains to create living conditions for this crop that are favorable to its survival. People do virtually anything they possibly can to help Zea mays triumph over pests and competitors; they have expanded this plant's geographic range by helping it boost its genetic fitness in marginal environments; they have developed processing techniques that boost its nutritional value as a staple food; and where and when people fail at such tasks, famine and death may be the price they have to pay. Our species' success and that of Zea mays are often so intertwined that deciding exactly who domesticated whom might be beside the point.... From this perspective, therefore, all of the species on a provisions spreadsheet may be called "domesticated species."... The story of agriculture has been about how human beings have learned to control Mother Nature's wild, impulsive ways by replacing them with our own orderly, efficient, and thus more trustworthy ways... learned to replace the lean and allusive varieties favored by nature with more fruitful and abundant creations of our own design.... However appealing this standard account may be (e.g., Diamond, 2002)... the notion that to be controlled, Mother Nature must first be changed or transformed is not only debatable, but has often been debated.... What the oft-designated "hunter-gatherers" of Australia or the Amazon have been doing to domesticate their landscapes is different from what sharecroppers have done in Arkansas, or wheat farmers do in Kansas. Yet the goal of putting food on the table in each case is not so different.... [C]oncluding that the final answer to the "origin of domestication and agriculture" question is that no single model will work leads us to regard this persistent question as a nonquestion. Therefore, as an alternative, we have turned to the twin concepts of the domesticated landscape and the provisions spreadsheet. With these notional tools in mind, we think the focus of research on the evolution of human subsistence behavior changes. What becomes challenging is not deciding how people should be classified--as foragers or as farmers--but instead, how successfully archaeologists can use what they have found to discover what people in the past were doing to put a family together, food on the table, and a roof over their head.