Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guns, Germs and Exploding Peas

Last night at book club we were discussing Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. It's a great book, an important book, one that takes a very complex subject and renders it comprehensible to the layperson. Tomorrow I will talk about the huge and far-reaching issues addressed by Diamond. Today I'm feeling shlumpy and under-the-weather and I'm just going to be a smartass. Because one of the great joys of this book was wading through paragraphs including weighty analyses of "politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies" and "autocatalytic processes" and then coming across phrases such as "Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops" or "archaeological evidence of chickpeas".

This splendid paragraph comes from a section on how domesticated plants often varied significantly from their wild progenitors:

" A clear example involves peas, whose seeds (the peas we eat) come enclosed in a pod. Wild peas have to get out of the pod if they are to germinate. To achieve that result, pea plants evolved a gene that makes the pod explode, shooting out the peas onto the ground. Pods of occasional mutant peas don't explode. In the wild the mutant peas would die entombed in their pod on their parent plants, and only the popping pods would pass on their genes. But, conversely, the only pods available to humans to harvest would be the nonpopping ones left on the plant. Thus, once humans began bringing wild peas home to eat, there was immediate selection for that single-gene mutant. Similar nonpopping mutants were selected in lentils, flax, and poppies."

Exploding peas! Nonpopping mutants! One of my book club friends watched the DVD version, in which she said Jared Diamond was actually the star. She said the DVD was even further simplified than the book, which I guess was necessary for time constraints but also because geez, could you say any of that stuff with a straight face?

Oh! Oh! The animals! Apparently if you didn't have the good fortune to be born on a continent which housed a good number of domesticable large mammals you were basically screwed. An important distinction must be observed between tamed animals and domesticated ones -- Hannibal crossed the Alps on tamed elephants, not domesticated ones. Domesticating animals entails breeding them selectively, producing animals which are different from the wild breed. Unfortunately, a good many large mammals prove to be stubbornly resistant to domesticating. For this reason, the aforementioned Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops did NOT overthrow the Roman Empire. But then Diamond throws in some anecdotal stuff about the New Guinea villages where he has spent years, and how the people there keep pets such as kangaroos, possums and ospreys; "New Guineans even regularly capture chicks of wild cassowaries (an ostrich-like large, flightless bird) and raise them to eat as a delicacy -- even though captive adult cassowaries are extremely dangerous and now and then disembowel village people". Zebras are also apparently singularly ornery critters, who have the "unpleasant habit of biting people and not letting go", and are actually responsible for injuring more American zookeepers every year than tigers (why do tigers get the bad rap? As far as I've heard tigers usually only maul stupid drunk people who vault into their cages in the middle of the night).

In a section on various organizations of early civilization:

"A fact further diffusing potential problems of conflict resolution in tribes is that almost everyone is related to everyone else, by blood or marriage or both. Those ties of relationships binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions or larger societies unnecessary, since any two villages getting into an argument will share many kind, who apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. In traditional New Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other". So your Great-Uncle Henry canoed the rapids with my fourth cousin twice removed George? Awesome -- this spear no longer has your name on it -- high five!

Not only is Jared Diamond a kickass writer, I think I'd really like to have a beer with him some time.

11 comments:

Mom of the Perpetually Grounded said...

I'm wondering if this might give some insight into why, when the fire department was collecting money at an intersection today, I gave them some money and felt like I was compelled to ask the firefighter if he knew my sister-in-law because she's a firefighter too. He did. Was it primeval instinct because deep inside I was afraid he might whack me with his collection boot?

Nicole said...

I've always wanted to read that book and now I'm going to, if only for this sentence: "even though captive adult cassowaries are extremely dangerous and now and then disembowel village people". I never knew about cassowaries and their disemboweling powers.

And yes. Tigers. Exactly.

Amber said...

I admit I never read that book. I did read his sex book, but didn't think it was as interesting as Evolution of Desire by David Buss, which was essentially the same idea. If I ever read adult books again it is on my list. It will happen someday, right? The kids will learn to read on their own and I won't be limited to Seuss.

Betsy B. Honest said...

Hmmm... I just watched half of the made for TV doc when it came out. Then I paraphrased the gist of it to whoever would listen. I should read that book. I love mutants. And anyone mounting a rhino.

Mary Lynn said...

'Kay, I'll add that to my books to read list. I've been reading a bit more non-fiction lately.

Amber said...

My husband read that book. I remember thinking that it looked fascinating, but kind of weighty for me. And that was before I had kids and no sleep. Given my current tactic of reading while I pee, I estimate that book would take me 237 years to finish. I'm not sure I'm up to it. Maybe in 10 years?

Julie said...

ummm.... did you read the last twilight book? it was like totally awesome and the vampire sex was like so hot.

i don't think i could ever be in your book club. you guys actually read the books.

Magpie said...

I read that book, kind of, sort of, and I don't remember anything so entertaining...

Denise Nielsen said...

I'm going to add this book to the to-be-read list. Sounds like it might be a good - if hefty - read for my book club.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

I have looked at the book so many times. It still sounds interesting but I'm not so sure I have the stamina for it. I'll give it another two years. It's on my "Must Read Before I Kick It List" for sure.

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