“The fortunes of human societies, and therefore of global civilisation, can largely be explained by environmental and geographical circumstances alone” – this is the bold claim made by Jared Diamond in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Casting off the historian’s preoccupation with grand emperors and generals, with pioneering merchants, explorers and innovators, Diamond adopts a broader perspective which suggests that past patterns of geopolitical conquest and technological development are in fact governed by the history of agriculture.
Agriculture is so singularly important because it engenders considerable shifts in the structure of society. For one thing, it binds communities to specific tracts of cultivated land, such that formerly nomadic hunter-gatherers become sedentary. Sedentariness allows the construction of permanent dwellings and the accumulation of property (since belongings no longer have to be carried around with each migration) – and both of these must be defended in situ. Thus, a tribe becomes firmly associated with a place as well as with a way of life. Thus, ancestry becomes material as well as cultural.
Moreover, organised farming can lead to reliable food surplus, allowing populations to grow and concentrate. And the relative plenty also means that not everyone has to be a farmer, leading to diversification and specialisation of human occupations.
Trade between workers in different productive occupations then becomes crucial, leading to the creation of an economy and further strengthening the role of property. And the diversity of occupations entails societal complexity, the need for management, social stratification, and the concentration of power. Specialisation fuels technological development. And increasingly dense populations, along with proximity to livestock, encourage the proliferation of (and adaption to) disease.
On the basis of all these factors and more, the early adoption of agriculture by Europeans, Bantu Africans, and Han Chinese led directly to their regional dominance, and to the subjugation and/or extinction of other human societies who get in their way. It is a well known, for instance, that in the decades after Europeans began colonising the Americas, roughly 95% of the native population perished, due to the Europeans’ superior military technology (horses, armour, gunpowder), and to the spread of foreign pathogens (influenza, tuberculosis, measles) to which they had no immunity.
In my opinion, “Guns, Germs and Steel” deserves every beatle of hype it has garnered. If you haven’t read it already, you must.
Now, I bring all this up not (only) to heap yet more praise upon a thoroughly-praised book, but because the idea elaborated in this series of posts will bear some resemblance to Diamond’s: I shall attempt to relate the intellectual traditions of the West and the East to their agricultural traditions – specifically to the respective cultivation of wheat and rice. Perhaps you will find the connexion tenuous; perhaps you will suspect that the whole enterprise was concoted as an excuse to make a lame pun in the title. Only one way to find out.
This essay will come in four parts. You’ve just read the first part, which introduced the notion that the development of civilisation is heavily influenced by the development of agriculture. In part two, I’ll consider some underlying features of Western philosophy, and trace their evolution through the early modern era. Part three looks at Eastern philosophy, and draws some contrasts with what we learned in part two. Finally, in part four, I change gears to talk about the cultivation of staple grains, before drawing a simple parallel between the previously discussed philosophies and regional agricultural practices.