Guns, Genomes, and Steel

I’m currently watching the PBS version of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” based on the book by Jared Diamond. My take is that Guns, Germs, and Steel is a story of the rise of the genomeplex — that assortment of different species (cows, dogs, men, etc) that together make up the foundations for human culture.

In short, Diamond’s argument is that biologically-driven efficiencies in every plant and animal in the genomeplex except for homo sapiens led to the rise of homo sapiens. Clearly, biologically-driven efficiency is a powerful argument. If one’s crops provide less protein, or one’s animals are less docile, one is not going to get as far in life.

But neglecting to mention our species in a story of the rise of our genomeplex is strange. One line from the documentary I think sums of Diamond’s blindspot:

pigs do not give milk

This is obviously incorrect. Pigs are mammals. Pigs suckle their young.

Further, as far as human-drinkable milk goes — neither did cows! The ability of adults to drink cow milk comes from a mutations (several of them, occurring independently, in different places and times). Our ancestors could not drink cow milk. But our ancestors’ children were mutants.

Lactose tolerance is one mutation that occurred in some populations but not others, but there are other mutations like this too.

The rest of our genomeplex is not equal in productivity. Our species is not either.

The difference? The other animals and plants are to the extent they serve us. Humans are valuable in themselves.

Most of this world, like most of our genomeplex, has no inherent value. But humans do. And radically, all humans are equally precious.

One thought on “Guns, Genomes, and Steel”

  1. TDL,


    Near the end of the episode, the narrator mentions that Diamond believes that cultural differences between populations, these are the consequences of natural environmental differences, not the causes. That seems reasonable, and the same would be true of biological differences, too.

    Consider cows again. Some peoples did not have access to Aurochs, and so did not have to make the cultural changes needed to look after (and eventually domesticate) wild cattle. Likewise, those people without access would not have experienced cow-centric evolution, including lactose tolerance.

  2. “The more you think about things, the weirder they seem. Take milk for example. Why do we drink COW milk? Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said. “I think I'll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze 'em!”
    – Calvin

    Perhaps there's some difference between cows and pigs that makes it easier to adapt cows to give milk for humans? A wild guess – pigs give birth to litters, so they wouldn't have any milk left over for humans, whereas cows give birth to single calfs.

  3. “Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said. “I think I'll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze 'em!”

    Probably some guy who thought, “I am starving to death. I wonder if I can digest this?” And as lactose tolerance has evolved independently in different groups, one presumes that level of desperation was reached many times in many places.

    The lack of pig milk drinking is odd, as is the widespread perception of pigs as filthy. I wonder if it is because boars and pigs (unlike the extinct aurochs and domestic cattle) eat people?

  4. Got a good laugh outta that Calvin quote.

    “I wonder if it is because boars and pigs (unlike the extinct aurochs and domestic cattle) eat people?”

    As well as each other. And yet there's no mad pig disease to levy a price on cannibalism. Interesting post and discussion.

  5. Another guess: size. A cow is larger that all but the largest of pigs and higher off the ground.

    BTW, what do you suppose Calvin's reaction would have been to the realization that humans give milk too?*smile*

  6. Michael, LOL!!

    Jay, good point… but one gets mad-human disease from eating human brains, but that hasn't stopped neural mutations against that from spreading in all populations (meaning, cannibalism's so common natural selection has been busy protecting from its side-effects)

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