The human condition beckons the curious, engages the scholar, and stumps the wisest of philosophers. Despite the pitfalls awaiting the intrepid explorer, its very nature demands examination, especially since it is the human in question doing the examining.
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One could argue that nothing whets the appetite quite like self absorption, but the truth of the matter is that through examination comes illumination, and with illumination comes understanding. Once we understand how and why we came to be, we can, with some level of accuracy, project a path of future human behavior. One could even, conceivably, shape future human conduct with such knowledge. Whilst many scholars and philosophers have contemplated humanity, two in particular have entered the fray with gloves on. Jared Diamond argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) that continental environment has played the largest role in determining the fate of future humans while Paul R. Ehrlich explains in his book, Human Natures (2000), that the evolutionary processes of genes, culture, and environments have been the most responsible culprits. While each professor makes a series of solid and provocative arguments, there is still room within both for questions, further contemplations, and divergent thinking. Perhaps most engaging is the thorough foundation they provide for the student of human nature devoted to the study of contemporary adaptation and survival within the technology world.
Diamond’s main contention rests on three major environmental features that helped shape the future destiny of the early human: wild plants that could be cultivated into crops, wild animals that could be domesticated into pets and livestock, and continents that extended along an east/west axis versus a north/south one. Areas that contained all three features tended to flourish. Eurasia, it seems, not only has more species of plant life that has been domesticated than other continents, but the plant life itself is more protein rich, containing more calories per hour of gardening than foodstuffs grown in other parts of the world. These aspects entice the hunter-gatherer to settle down and begin farming since the advantages of such are quite clear. Eurasia also contains a higher percentage of large domesticated animals; these livestock not only added to the provisions available to early humans, but they also helped till the ground, fertilize the soil, and harvest the final product. A seemingly negative side effect of large domesticated animals (that actually turns out to advance the owning society in the long run) is the fact that many of the most horrific germs impacting human life have mutated from them, passing on to humans. Those humans who survived (small pox, the plague, etc) passed on their immunities to their offspring. Those humans who were not exposed to such animals and thus such nasty germs did not develop immunity over time and suffered massive epidemics when exposed (think: Native American populations ravaged by small pox in response to, in some cases, even simple contact with other natives who had met with infected Europeans). And, finally, the axis of the continent determined, to some extent, how far a given domestication would travel. An east-west axis is more desirable since plants are more likely to grow at the same latitude while animals are more likely to thrive in similar conditions. Of course, anything (from desert to mountain range) that prevented peoples and cultures from interacting tended to block subsequent sharing of livestock and seeds, but the idea is that the easier one’s environment makes it to share one’s animals and plants the more likely people are to meet, trade, and learn from one another.
As previously stated, those areas of Earth that possessed all three major environmental features are the ones whose societies progressed along the continuum from band to tribe to chiefdom to state. Since the world is diverse in so many ways, with a variety of environmental features and domesticable plants and animals, a broad range of human societies developed with the inhabitants of Tasmania on one end of the extreme, “who abandoned even bone
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tools and fishing to become the society with the simplest technology in the modern world” (258), to the advanced European societies possessing the guns, germs, and steel of the title. The benefits of these three columns of civilization lie within the larger populations and sedentary lifestyles achieved within those populations. These two concepts, then, allow for all the trappings of civilization that the modern human tends to value: advanced technology, centralized political organization, writing systems, and, of course, the coveted guns, germs, and steel.
Diamond’s argument along the way often has the feel of a historical fait accompli, as if the humans involved were bound into strict channels of destiny and had no control along the way. It is easy to commiserate with the reader who pauses and wonders, “If A + B = C, then why doesn’t A2 + B2 = C2?” It seems that for some cases, in some situations, with some people or animals or plants, evolution works just fine. In others, however, the whole natural selection thing simply does not work out and obstinate living matter refuses domestication in any finer sense of the word. This is one confusing aspect of Diamond’s argument. For example, if, over the course of 10,000 years, humans selected out edible foodstuff repeatedly, looking for specific characteristics, it only follows that those characteristics might develop into a domesticated plant form. After all, we have the edible domesticated almond versus the poisonous wild one. What happens if no human selected out that plant? Over the course of 10,000 years, nothing beneficial for humans would happen. Perfectly comprehensible. But the argument states that if x, y, and z plants were not domesticated then they are truly incapable of being domesticated. Period. (Ditto with large animals.) How is this possible? The argument continues: if they were even conceivably domesticable, then modern day farmers or botanists or scientists of some particular stripe would have found a way to do so. Since they haven’t, this proves the point that they are incapable of being thusly tamed. Of course, this flies in the face of all we know regarding the many thousands of years necessary for some forms of natural selection or evolution to proceed. What could the plant eugenics of yesteryear or the scientific plant-breeders of today do against the weight of so many millennia? Granted, Diamond’s discussion within the larger picture far outweighs these simple gnat-like annoyances. However, to be perfectly frank, a scholar and scientist of his ilk has no need for such a disingenuous argument. Another example of annoyance proportions is the bizarre idea that the wheel could not be invented in the Americas because the Indians did not possess large domesticated animals (beyond the llama/alpaca which was limited in geographic scope). However, Mexican ceramics reveal that the wheel was invented for toys. What, then, prevented the Mexicans from
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taking that invention a step further and inventing the wheelbarrow or rickshaw (though, admittedly, the rickshaw
was not invented until the late 19th
century by all disputed reports except Montanus
’)? Diamond’s discussion of this development feels weak and not at all up to par with his remaining chapters. Ehrlich, then, is appreciated for his reminders that we are, indeed, unique and that we should not apply larger, overarching truths to the individual.
Rooting one’s self in Diamond’s rather more engaging points, however, one cannot help but find intriguing similarities between the geographical and biological worlds of yesteryear and the technological worlds of today. Even more provocative is the idea of applying these concepts to a university setting. What constitutes an axis within a class, a building, a department, a campus? Are technological advances or innovations easily shared, adapted, and adopted? Or are they eschewed for traditional strategies, entirely new technologies, or political alliances? One might deduce that an east-west axis might lie along fields of study or disciplines. If this is true, then what steps can be taken in order to minimize inefficient transfer of technological adaptations? How might one department learn from another while yet honoring the uniqueness of their own? Another thought revolves around the population size of a given course, department, college, or university. If the effects of isolation and population size on the development and maintenance of technology are widely documented in the realm of human cultures, what is the carryover to a university setting? If population equates potential investment, greater competition, more innovations, and a greater pressure to adopt new technologies (Diamond 1999), then how many is too many or how few is too few in order to achieve such desirable outcomes? And, finally, does an awareness of such matters then make us responsible for not only producing research-based and stellar expectations (of ourselves, our programs, our schools) but for demanding that those expectations be met?
An understanding of human natures, of how we came to be the way we are, of how we may, foreseeably, develop, is of paramount importance to determining who we want to be and where we want to go. This basic understanding allows us to make informed decisions, even detailed action plans, and, perhaps even more important, allows us to feel that we may have some control over our destinies, regardless of Diamond’s assertions to the contrary. The education world, in specific, had better sit up and take note: for if we – we teachers in the trenches, closest to our subjects, our students, and our situations – are not directing our own destinies, a centralized bureaucratic black suit, replete with standardized testing and federally mandated curriculum, will be. And that’s an evolution I’d rather not witness.
Ehrlich, Paul. (2000). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Diamond, Jared. (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.