Inequality, Domestication, Evolution, and Studying Outside of Your Discipline

Following is a discussion of some main themes from our readings, for discussion. Erica discussed some others in her post.


Scientists are usually just scientists and historians are usually just historians. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is an interesting exception. His training was as a physiologist (my own area of interest), but he embarked on an intellectual journey to find the roots of inequality in deep human history, with the idea that once there was no inequality–once we were all in small hunter-gatherer tribes. Where did inequality come from? Why do some people “have so much cargo while others have so little”?

Diamond argues that it mainly stems from geographic luck. Those who ended up in regions with climates conducive to agriculture, and domesticate-able plants and animals ended up with the more advantages. They had a constant source of protein, energy, and fiber. In addition, eventually, they had animal to use for draft purposes. What makes a plant or an animal domesticate-able?

Diamond notes that medium-sized or large, herbivorous animals generally make better domesticates. Further, out of about 150 potential domesticates from this category, only 14 have been domesticated, with the big four being cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Why these?

In their article Energy and Ecosystems, Mary C. Stiner and Gillian Feeley-Harnik have an interesting answer. They argue that it was inevitable, based upon all other circumstances. As a result of our traits and the traits of those species that we have domesticated, our association with them was as inevitable as the association of algae and fungus in lichen. It wasn’t a result of our intelligence or of some great mastery we have had over other species, but rather a result of our characteristics and those of the animals we domesticated. As far as I could tell, reading their article, they define domestication as a close mutualism between two species. They don’t even limit the definition to a mutualism between humans and another species, citing the relationship between ants and aphids. What, then, is domestication? This seems to indicate that it is a close mutualism in which one species protects and exploits the other, but ultimately both benefit.

Edmund Russell, in his article Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field, tackles similar issues and questions in a very different way. His article focuses on the idea that we need to study evolutionary history, a field between history and biology. The field of evolutionary history looks at evolution, but takes into account the effect of human history on that evolution. It would also look at how evolution may have shaped human history.

To me, the main theme of Russell’s article was the great importance of interdisciplinarity when studying domestication, evolution, and history. This brings us back to Jared Diamond, who, as a physiologist, he attacked one of the largest questions of our time with great success.