In a Nutshell: Human Evolution and the Unequal Distribution of Resources

In a Nutshell: Human Evolution and the Unequal Distribution of Resources

In the talk you read, Jared Diamond discusses “the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years.” (This talk is basically a hyper-quick summary of his bookGuns, Germs and Steel which I highly recommend). Diamond, a “biogeographer and evolutionary biologist,” is every bit a historian, as you can see. Historians look at causes and effects, patterns and change over time, trends, and especially things like motivation for deeds done or not done, the results of these actions, etc. Common historical inquiry includes questions like: What were the causes of the Great Depression? What advantages did the North have over the South that might have led to the North’s victory in the American Civil War? What was the role of women in community building in the American West? In his Changes in the Land, William Cronin asks what important changes did the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England have for that region’s plant and animal communities? And finally, Diamond asks in part: why did Europeans conquer African Americans and American Indians and not the other way around? (Of course there are many more questions, but you get the idea).

When studying human evolution, Diamond considers of course, plant, animal, and human biology.

Your Response Papers (RPs) will be based on this reading. In your RPs you may address anything you want as long as it’s related to the reading, but below I provide you with some prompts in case you’re having a hard time coming up with a question to discuss.

–What academic disciplines is Diamond calling upon? What tools does he use?

–How is Diamond coming to the conclusions that he does?

–When historians tell stories, we usually say things like “so-and-so ‘discovered’ such-and-such.” Or “these people can be characterized like thus and such.” How is Diamond’s story different from what we usually hear.

–What inferences might we draw from Diamond’s discussion regarding the way the different genders have developed between hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies?

–What questions did Diamond’s talk bring up for you? What would you like to more about and why?

–Has Diamond’s talk caused you to reconsider any of your preconceived notions? How so?

–We humans, some more than others, tend to think of history as a story of human beings getting better, advancing, etc. Following this mode of thought, American history is a series of unfortunate events that were necessary for the ultimate betterment of all involved. How might someone misconstrue Diamond’s argument and how might that lead one to think that things like Indian Removal or Indian boarding schools, for example, were necessary.

For more Diamond see: I particularly like this one. Here, partly in response to business leaders like Bill Gates, Diamond addresses how humans have organized themselves in the past and how we might organize ourselves today in the interests of concerns like maximum productivity and wealth production, among other things.

Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel on YouTube:

Some reminders (for this Response Paper and others):
(this first RP, b/c it’s the first and b/c it’s a bit abstract, may be for some of you, the most difficult we’ll have. Don’t go away. We’ll have more RPs this semester and they’ll be more concrete).

–I am not asking you to go through each question above and answer them one-by-one. The questions are meant to be prompts for discussion.

–Make sure you make reference to the readings in your RP. When you mention Foner or Zinn, you’ll want to cite the page where you’re getting your information or ideas.

–Be careful of biological determinism. That is, Diamond is not saying that we are biologically predestined to do A, B or C. In talking about gender differences, you’ll want to be careful to avoid generalizing with things like “women are biologically inclined to do A and B, while men are biologically inclined to do C and D. ”

–Some of you like cut and dried answers. You’re not going to get them in this discussion. There are facts, and you can have as much fun with those as you’d like. Use them to support your points, but they probably won’t be your points.

–Your grades, your valuable thinking processes that we want to hone and keep in shape, thinking about our human history and that of our country is all very serious business. That said–be serious, but have fun!


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