September 4, 2005

Mankind's Greatest Mistake: Agriculture?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 4, 2005 3:06 PM

Something else I meant to post on Friday: Brad DeLong recommends a fascinating article by Jared Diamond (the Guns, Germs, and Steel guy) arguing that many of mankind's historical woes—famine, war, tyranny—stem from a catastrophic event: the invention of agriculture.

Apparently there's a lot of evidence that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is quite a bit healthier than that of the typical peasant-famer, but agricultural societies were able to dominate since they can support a larger population, albeit at a lower level of nutrition. (Sort of like McDonald's, I guess.)

The article is originally from 1987, so it's not so new, but I hadn't seen it before, and I found it really interesting. Here's an excerpt:

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (today just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and corn–provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearnce of large cities.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.

Seems like this thesis was also proposed by Tyler Durden, although in a less scholarly manner.

Tags: History, Technology

Very interesting, although they had other rampant causes of death that are much milder today (being literally chewed on, as opposed to the figurative chewing we can now experience) back in the day... Does the remainder of the article discuss such issues (protection from the groups and other trade-offs)?

Also, I think they valued physics a lot less than our society does, so I would probably been one of the weaker ones that ended up being culled (or DEVOURED) in one way or another. Not that that won't happen anyway... my mad quantum chaos skillz can only get me so far...

Posted by: Mason | September 4, 2005 9:11 PM

The article does discuss some advantages of the agricultural society in terms of how it came to dominate--the aforementioned larger population, and the fact that the tribe doesn't have to move around...

They probably valued physics insofar as you could produce better spear designs, but there's only so much you can improve Pointy Stick technology...

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 4, 2005 9:45 PM

If you're interested in following this idea to some of its logical conclusions, I highly recommend _Ishmael_ by Daniel Quinn. It has the structure of a novel--the protagonist becomes the student of a very unusual teacher--but its primary purpose is to explore what the "agriculture was a mistake" thesis means in relation to our culture (and "us" doesn't refer to Americans; it means everyone whose food is under lock and key). Quinn has written at least 4 books on this topic, each one exploring a different ramification. My favorite is probably _My Ishmael_, which is the best damning of institutional schooling I've ever read (although folks like John Taylor Gatto do a damn fine job too).

Posted by: Lanth | September 5, 2005 2:31 PM

pUblik skuuuling werqed 4 me. :) [Just to complicate the theory of what is wrong with me further, you now find out that I am a product of the US pre-college public education system. :)]

So I completely stole this joke, but I like applying it here anyway...

Posted by: Mason | September 5, 2005 4:59 PM
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