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Thursday, July 14, 2005


Agriculture: Worst Mistake in Human History?

I recently came across a link to an article while reading the talk.origins newsgroup. The title of the article is "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" by Jared Diamond. He makes a convincing case that the development of agriculture caused a significant decline in quality of life for prehistoric human beings going from hunter-gather societies to agrarian societies. Based on this he concludes that agriculture was a terrible, horrible mistake for human beings. Is this right? I posted my opinion in the discussion thread on talk.origins, and thought I'd also put the meat here. Read on:

I definitely think Jared Diamond's on to something with his thesis, but I disagree with his qualitative assessment. Yes, there are lots of problems plagueing the world today, but I think it's a leap to call agriculture "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" because we have problems. It seems to me the criteria for calling agriculture a mistake would require balancing all human achievements which can be attributed to agriculture versus the problems.

Additionally, how would I compare the world we have now with a hypothetical one where humans stayed hunter-gatherers for the last 10,000 years? Surely such a world would also have different problems to balance its successes. All I can do is speculate, but wouldn't such a world still have some significant amount of misery? Hunter-gatherer societies wouldn't have overpopulation worries, but wouldn't that mean there'd have to be some enforced population control? The article mentions that H/G societies necessarily practiced infanticide because monthers couldn't have children close together (less than 4 years apart) because they couldn't be managed in a nomadic society. Would 10,000 years of H/G socities mean 10,000 years of infanticide in the absense of reliable contraception? Would every twin birth mean you'd have to kill one of the babies?

And then there's the obvious point that in a world of hunter-gatherers, most of us wouldn't exist (well, all of us wouldn't exist simply because history wouldn't have happened the same way, but for sake of argument let's say we could form today's H/G societies with a subset of the people who exist today). I'll make a wild conjecture that H/G societies might only support 1% of today's current population of 6.4 billion people. So 99 out of 100 people currently alive, wouldn't be.

Of course, I can't be sure that we wouldn't be better off as hunter-gathers without agriculture, but my point is that we can't be sure that we wouldn't be. And the game's not over yet. Human misery has been proportionately on the decline in the last century or so, and it looks like our children and grandchildren just might make it out alive and better off, as long as we continue to work on solving all those problems that still plague us. Personally I think increased conservation and environmentalism efforts coupled with development of cheap, renewable energy sources will be a winning combination that can eventually allow everyone to get close to a lifestyle Americans currently enjoy (maybe not *quite* as decadent; Americans would
definitely have to give up all those SUV's). Of course this won't be easy, but I think it's still achievable, with a lot of hard work. You can put me in the category of "cautiously optimistic."

Let me add a further point. It's easy for us to look back and say agriculture was a "mistake" because it led to a lot of human suffering, but didn't it also lead to the extreme proliferation of our species? By nature's standards, we're an extremely successful species. *Individual* quality of life may have been worsened (and from the looks of it, we've already reversed this trend for much of the world today), but the species has triumphed. From the essay and Diamond's analysis, we can see natural selection in action:

  1. Ice age ends. The environment gets milder, and flora and fauna that humans depend on for sustinence increase.
  2. Hunter-gatherer societies have increased food supplies, leading to increases in population.
  3. H/G societies reach the point where they can no longer sustain their increasing population levels.
  4. Some tribes choose to limit population growth. Other tribes develop agriculture to maintain food production for their population.
  5. Tribes with agriculture outcompete tribes that stay hunter-gatherers. Due to larger populations agriculture tribes can force H/G tribes into smaller and smaller niches while they take over more resources.
  6. Agriculture tribes dominate all over, leading to civilization.

Put yourself in the shoes (mocasins?) of those tribespeople 10,000 years ago who had to choose between agriculture and population control. Even if you knew more people would suffer, wouldn't you pin your hopes to agriculture? Population control only works if every other tribe picks that strategy. If even one turns to agriculture, they will grow and outcompete every other tribe (given the right location, with the right combination of resources). It seems to me that I as a prehistoric tribesman would choose agriculture on the hopes that my descendants may eventually live better than me, rather than gamble on remaining a hunter-gatherer and possibly having no descendants at all. Can we fault those tribespeople for not anticipating overpopulation 10,000 years later?

In short, all I'm saying is that we shouldn't judge agriculture so harshly because it led to lots of bad things. Yes, agriculture may have led to starvation, war, tyranny, class hierarchies, and subjugation of women. Agriculture may also have led to science, democracy, justice, the Internet, and having a really good chance of living to see your grandchildren grow to adulthood. Sometimes you gotta take the bad with the good.

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