Ian Kuijt and Guns, Germs & Steel

Ian Kuijt, my colleague here at Notre Dame, is an archaeologist who has specialized in the origins of agriculture, food storage, and the emergence of social inequality. He appeared in the PBS series Guns, Germs and Steel, based on the best-selling book by Jared Diamond. So it is my pleasure to present that particular clip from the PBS documentary , where Ian discusses the emergence of food storage, agricultural practices, and changes in social complexity.

The clip with Ian Kuijt is prefaced by segments one and two on You Tube. You can click here for all the clips (1-18) from the series. Ian also has a lot of good online material about the Dhra site itself.

In the documentary, Diamond argues for an ecological approach to human history, where local ecology, microbes and geography make a large difference in which societies demonstrate “progress” or “civilization.” There is a Wikipedia site on Guns, Germs and Steel, where both Diamond’s basic argument and some relevant criticisms are presented.

If you want something directly from the horse’s mouth, here is a short interview with Diamond. He also has a longer, but still accessible, essay over at Edge. And finally Diamond discusses why agriculture isn’t all that great for human health in this essay entitled The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.

4 thoughts on “Ian Kuijt and Guns, Germs & Steel

  1. Diamond does not give his readers the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact, he gives them much less. Inexcusably for an evolutionary biologist, Diamond fails to inform his readers that it is different environments that cause, via natural selection, biological differences among populations.

    What seems to be true (from preliminary studies) is that the gene variants that were under strong selection (reached fixation) over the last 10k years are different in different clusters. That is, the way that modern people in each cluster differ, due to natural selection, from their own ancestors 10k years ago is not the same in each cluster — we have been, at least at the genetic level, experiencing divergent evolution.

    In fact, recent research suggests that 7% or more of all our genes are mutant versions that replaced earlier variants through natural selection over the last tens of thousands of years. There was little gene flow between continental clusters (“races”) during that period, so there is circumstantial evidence for group differences beyond the already established ones (superficial appearance, disease resistance).


  2. Ben, I looked at the website you linked to. Diamond is responding to the social concept of race. Like population biologists, geneticists and biological anthropologists, Diamond is not discussing population histories and genetics.

    Hsu just gets this wrong. The best example I can think of as if he as a physicist went back to try to prove the phlogiston theory about combustion, some sort of element that accounts for fire because, wow, you can see fire and something must account for the burning.

    Hsu makes exactly this error in the following line: “It has been known for some time that major continental groups (“races”) form distinct clusters.” Some might think the debate is about the clusters, how distinct are they, whether populations overlap, and so forth. But the real mistake is in conflating “major continental groups” and “races.” Not only is this bad science, it also is extremely pernicious socially.

    The article Hsu cites is actually clear about this problem in its very first line: “European Americans are often treated as a homogeneous group, but in fact form a structured population due to historical immigration of diverse source populations.” Race posits homogeneous groups, at least in the US, but that’s just stupid – talking about phlogistons rather than populations. Moreover, it’s no help in understanding how and why population might be structured (or not), historical patterns of migration and gene exchange, and so forth.

    Agustin Fuentes addressed this issue in an earlier post, which interested readers might check out: Neuroanthropology and Race – Getting It Straight

  3. In relation to Diamond’s book, I’ve just been reading a book called ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ which adds genetic change to the factors Diamond discusses.

    Another book I’m meaning to look at it Nicholas Wade’s ‘Before the Dawn’.

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