Was the agricultural revolution a mistake?

I’m continuing to work my way through Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and have just finished his section on the agricultural revolution.  This is the transition from a hunter-gatherer foraging lifestyle, which humanity had followed for hundreds of thousands of years, to a settled farming one about 12,000 years ago.

Harari describes the transition to farming as almost happening by accident, where foraging for grains led to some of it falling out of containers on the ground in places and sprouting, that effect eventually being noticed, and finally controlled.  One thing led to another, and before people realized what had happened, they were spending the day in back breaking labor farming the fields.

He describes it as wheat actually domesticating humans rather than the other way around, since wheat went from a crop with limited ecological success to covering large portions of the planet.  He characterizes it this way because he thinks that, for humans, the agricultural revolution was a disaster.  We went from frolicking in the wilderness with easy lives and diverse diets, to lives of drudgery and much more limited and often inadequate diets of a few staple crops, leading to malnutrition and all kinds of new diseases.

Why didn’t people just go back to the old lifestyle?  Because agriculture is a trap.  Farming enabled a much larger population, and once it started to increase, it was impossible to go back.  And as farming spread throughout the world, foragers were forced to either retreat or take up the plow.  That and farmers quickly forgot that the foraging life had ever existed, much less how to live it.

Of course, today we look back and our current lives are pretty good.  But, Harari asserts, that’s only because of millenia of progress on the backs of a humanity which was stuck in bondage to the land.  He asks whether a three year old Chinese girl dying from malnutrition in first century China would take any comfort that in 2000 years it would result in the world we have.

This is an interesting notion, but I think Harari is vastly underestimating the difficulties that existed with the foraging lifestyle.  He asserts that foraging population was kept under control with hormonal and genetic mechanisms for reproduction, which sounds dubious, and admits that sometimes foragers resorted to abortions and infanticide.

Actually, from what I’ve read, infanticide is pretty common in foraging populations.  That and euthanasia overall, of parents too elderly to continue keeping up with the band, or of sick or seriously injured brethren.  It’s been noted that the skeletons of foragers are more robust than the later farming ones, and that’s often assumed to be from a more healthy lifestyle.  The idea that it represents brutal selection pressure against less robust individuals is seldom considered.

Harari discusses how vulnerable farmers were to swings in the climate, and the need to store food as a hedge against bad years.  What he seems to overlook is that farmers had that ability.  Foragers didn’t.  They were far more vulnerable to those swings in climate.  The foraging life was probably pretty good when food was plentiful, but likely brutal when it wasn’t.

All of which is to say that the hunger gatherer lifestyle was probably not the natural utopia many assume.

I’m not saying that history should be viewed as a relentless march of progress.  Progress is never guaranteed.  But the idea that humanity stumbled into agriculture and then trapped themselves in it seems to assume those first farmers were rubes.  My experience is that when scholars assume people were idiots who didn’t understand their own interests, those scholars have become too locked into their own ideas.

But maybe I’m overlooking something?

53 thoughts on “Was the agricultural revolution a mistake?

  1. Agriculture was a side hustle as it developed. Large scale agriculture, in place of mixed agriculture and hunting and gathering, was a manifestation of “civilization.” The driving force? Taxes.

    Grains could be dried and stored and they had to be harvested when ripe or would spoil. Imagine taxes based upon food that can spoil. Imagine taxes based upon crops that can be left in the ground (like potatoes). Grain agriculture was driven by elites who wanted others to work for their leisure. Large scale agriculture required coerced labor (as it was a considerably more strenuous life than before) and many people did choose to “go back” but this was only possible when the skills still existed. Men who left their families to “go back” left behind women who could labor and who might not have had all of the skills needed to “go back” themselves and worse, had the capacity to increase the number of captive laborers. When local labor became insufficient, raids upon neighboring communities provided additional labor and women to make more laborers. Mass agriculture led to making slavery a much more common state. Estimates are that in the year 1800, more than half of people in the world could be described as being in some state of slavery (chattel slavery, serfdom, involuntary servitude, etc.)

    This was the cost of large scale agriculture: massive human misery. And what did the elites do with their leisure time? One primary activity was the expansion of war, adding to the misery already created.

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    1. It’s worth noting that farming existed for several thousand years before civilization developed (10,000 BC – c. 3500 BC). It’s a period actually longer than recorded history, during which the largest polities appear to have been villages. Although who knows how many village empires rose and fell during those prehistoric centuries.

      But there’s no doubt that agriculture enabled our hierarchical instincts to win out over our egalitarian ones. The hierarchies became increasingly deeper and more rigid. Writing, which enabled many of the large scale endeavors you describe, actually mitigated it somewhat, with pushback against the hierarchies becoming more pronounced in the Axial Age, c. 500 BC.

      It’s also worth noting that our understanding of war is largely a modern construct, formed by how informed we are of industrial warfare and its horrors. In ancient times, actual pacifists were very rare. Often the population was just as eager to go to war as the leaders. Greek democracies didn’t go to war any less than kingdoms did.

      All of which is to say, I think the idea it was all a scam is oversimplified. No doubt a lot of scamming went on, but seeing history through a Marxist lens brings its own distortions.

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  2. He left out alcoholism…first agriculture may have been more to brew beer than bake bread. And disease.., dense populations of people grain and rats equals bubonic plague. And I have wondered if mono- culture intolerant of weeds and monotheism intolerant of heretics feed off each other.

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    1. I used to wonder how the first alcoholic drinks were discovered, thinking that someone must have been pretty desperate to drink that foul smelling brew. But that was before I realized that fruits left lying around naturally ferment, and that people likely would have been familiar with the effects going back deep into prehistory.

      If the foragers were free to travel, I agree. But I’m not sure they had that kind of freedom, to just cross into neighboring bands’ territories, or to go into another band’s region that happened to be lush that year, and take their food supply. I suspect conflict resulted, the worst kind of desperate and vicious conflict.

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          1. Yeah, horticulturalist like the Pueblo’s here in American SW lived in groups of 150 or so. But horticulturists were already wreaking havoc in their environment as well as each other. Genuine h/g would be more like the bushmen in the kalahari desert…

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    1. Harari actually lists cases of evidence for forager warfare, such as graves with numerous bodies with clear signs of damage from human weapons. Forager warfare would have been a small scale affair compared with later ones, but when they happened, they appear to have been ferocious.

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  3. I think lack of access to plenty of land may have required farming, so Harari might be right. Farmers have a dense population – strength in numbers – which, other things equal, should allow them to defend “their” land well. Foragers meanwhile have less incentive to spend blood defending their right to access a particular patch of land. Rinse and repeat, and eventually you have essentially all land being farmed except what is so rugged that only herding or hunting is practical.

    It is possible for this kind of evolutionary process to proceed to the detriment of all, even if nobody preferred farming to foraging when given a real choice. Of course, humans being as diverse as we are, there are always a few with unusual preferences. Maybe just enough to get the process started.

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    1. I think it’s possible things were happening at two levels. On one, there is a game theory determination that switching to farming is the best approach. But we were foragers for a long time. We evolved as foragers. It may be literally in our DNA. Probably our instincts will always stir at the prospect of living out in the open and hunting and finding food.

      But I suspect those same instinct taint our own assessments of the differences today, including Harari’s.

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  4. From your report, I’m not too impressed by this Harari guy. Farming was accidental? As opposed to clever humans observing the plant cycle of life, being well aware of seeds, and trying to improve on nature? Seems more likely to me. I quite agree they weren’t rubes!

    “Frolicking in the wilderness” demonstrates a very poor understanding of what that life likely entailed. I suggest we dump Harari in the middle of the wilderness and see how he fares.

    Farming meant a regular food supply and community. It led to a more stable society.

    “He asks whether a three year old Chinese girl dying from malnutrition in first century China would take any comfort that in 2000 years it would result in the world we have.”

    WTF is that supposed to mean? As opposed to what? Dude,… I think you’re reading a book written by an idiot. (It’s amazing what gets published.)

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    1. So far I’ve been posting on aspects of the book I disagree with. And I’m boiling down arguments he develops for several thousand words to a few sentences, so you may feel differently if you ever read him at length. For instance, he never uses the phrase “frolicking in the wilderness”. That’s my quick summation of a lot of writing, my own takeaway, which may not be entirely fair to him.

      Here’s the text on the three year old girl with surrounding context:

      Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?

      What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl? It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.

      Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (pp. 82-83). Harper. Kindle Edition.

      I disagree with his conclusion, but to be fair to him, he does have some logic for it.

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      1. The longer text doesn’t help. It’s worse than cherry-picking, it’s making up a fantasy story to support his assertion.

        “‘Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages.'”

        Then what were all those average people doing farming? Why didn’t they go back to the presumably better way of life in the forests? Quite to the contrary, farming seems to have offered the average person a benefit, hence the attraction.

        “‘A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed.'”

        So he says. But maybe, if she actually understood the question, she be proud of what China became.

        “‘What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl?'”

        Strength in numbers, steady food supply, home ground, stability — all advantages.

        (I wonder if Harari is one of those gluten-free folks who think mankind went downhill ever since we started eating wheat.)

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        1. I agree with much of what you say. Although I do think Harari is right that going back wasn’t an option, except perhaps in the earliest stages. Of course, the fact that people didn’t go back (or at least most people didn’t) is an important data point.

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  5. You have to wonder whether the absurdity of land ownership came about because of the adoption of agriculture. What an absurdity that individuals can lay claim to the land and exclude all others from it. One rocky planet and it should be shared not hogged. As should all its resources. Having said that, no doubt savage tribes of hunter gatherers worked hard to exclude others from their hunting territory. Like dogs pissing on tree trunks. Humanity could certainly do with learning some new tricks. Our existing behaviour comes from the animal world.

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    1. One of the themes Harari explores, and which I’ll eventually write about, are concepts that only exist because we collectively agree they exist, such as ownership. But like you mention, many animals are territorial. And although many like to deny it, we are definitely animals.

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  6. Hmmm. How to put this …

    I haven’t read “Sapiens”, so everything I say here is based on the OP. I agree that characterizing the agricultural revolution as a disaster for humanity is an overstatement, because, here we are, and we would not be here in our current state but for said revolution. However, I also agree with Harari that the life of the typical hunter gatherer was probably more enjoyable, happier, than the life of the typical pre-industrial farmer.

    Mike, why do you think the difficulties of a foraging lifestyle are *vastly* underestimated? I expect your points on infanticide and euthanasia are correct, but I don’t see how that negatively impacts the lifestyle of the majority, non-euthanized population.

    As for climate change, are you, Mike, suggesting that bad years were worse for foragers than for farmers? While storing food seems like a capability for farmers, why do so many people even today starve in prolonged droughts? Seems to me that long-term storage of food was the exception more than the rule, so much so that it became a note-worthy story in the Bible.

    All-in-all, it comes down to natural selection, and at this point it’s cultural selection. The farming culture out-competes the foraging culture. And so it goes.

    *

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    1. James,
      I’m saying Harari in particular is vastly underestimating the difficulties. But as I noted somewhere else in this thread, we evolved as hunter-gatherers, so that lifestyle is going to have some appeal for us. I don’t doubt that on a day to day basis, a forager might have been more happy than a farmer. (Although it’s all relative to expectations.)

      But while it undoubtedly stirs something in us to contemplate that life, it’s easy to not fully appreciate the downsides. Consider having to euthanize one of your newborns because it was born too soon after the previous one. (You have no idea that sex leads to babies, so it never even occurs to you that abstinence might be an option.) Or having to kill a parent because they can’t keep up any longer. Or your spouse because they broke a leg and can no longer stay with the band. Or anyone else you care for. And at the back of your mind, there’s is always the awareness that you yourself could become the next person that has to either be left behind or put out of their misery.

      Or if there is a dry spell and vegetation has thinned out. You know of lusher vegetation to the east, but there are already other bands there, and the land probably can’t support both of you. You’ll probably have little choice to go anyway and try to annihilate them before they annihilate you.

      That’s all aside from sleeping out in the open, subject to temperature swings, weather, predators, and many other things.

      I’m not saying the farming life is happiness and light. Ancient farmers had many of their own hard brutal choices all the time. Infanticide, for example, didn’t end with agriculture. But there was more room for an injured or sick person to recover, or for an elderly relative to be taken care of.

      The patriarch Joseph is probably more myth than real, but even if he existed, he didn’t invent grain storage. Granaries go back to the beginning of farming. The oldest found date to 9500 BC. I suspect farmers stored more when the seasons were less certain, but probably got lax after long stretches of plenty, and suffered for it in a sudden drought. Getting people to consistently think about the future is never easy.

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      1. No offense, but you’re missing the thrust of my, and I would guess Harari’s, argument. The downsides you focus on are 1. not daily (not even once annually), and 2. colored by your current (presumably agricultural) morality, as opposed to what would be the accepted morality of the culture. For example, I would be shocked if foragers did not know that sex led to fertility. There would just be less stigma for ending a newborn life. And loss of a parent or spouse will be difficult in any case, but it might be significantly easier if that parent or spouse is in agreement with the decision.

        Shelter is a reasonable argument for your position, but I simply don’t know enough about typical sleeping conditions for foragers to know how much difference it would make. I admit that, as of recently, I no longer go backpacking because of the discomfort, and I can’t convince my children that the accompaniment of my aged wisdom is worth it to them to carry all my gear.

        *

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        1. It doesn’t require morality, just common human instinct. You don’t grieve over those close to you because moral rules say you should. (At least most of us don’t.) We grieve because of someone close to us being gone, or suffering. And if we had to be the instrument, well, we can do what we need to, but if given an opportunity to avoid it, we’d probably take it.

          I was taught in college that people didn’t figure out the sex-baby thing until they started domesticating animals. Sex was supposedly just something everyone did for fun, and babies just showed up. Although I’m not sure what the evidence or reasoning might be for that, and quick googling didn’t turn up anything, except for an Aeon piece pointing out that animals don’t understand that relationship, so it might have been my world history professor winging it.

          Anyway, Harari notes (in agreement with other writers) that we know very little about prehistoric foragers. Modern foraging cultures can give us some ideas, but no foraging culture today is completely free of influence from farming cultures. In any case, foraging cultures were probably very diverse anyway, so there were probably a variety of circumstances and environments.

          One thing I did mention in an earlier draft of the post, but had to cut, was that the first farmers were probably not born foragers. There was a culture, called Natufian, that was largely sedentary in the middle east. They largely got it for free due to lush region they lived in. That culture persisted for thousands of years. The first farmers probably came from that background. So these may not have been people who had first hand experience with the foraging lifestyle. Farming may have been a response to a drying climate as the ice age ended. Although I don’t know if that was the sequence in other regions of the world where it arose.

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  7. Hi Mike,

    I appreciate your relaying thoughts on Harari’s book. Seems like an interesting read. My initial reaction is that trying to figure out whether one group of humans was happier than another without the preservation of any firsthand accounts, from a great many people, is probably pure guesswork.

    I can definitely appreciate the ratchet effect of agriculture, and the difficulty of “going back” once community sizes increased, but I suspect there must have been at least a perceived upside at the time. It’s hard for me to imagine that the first communities that established an agricultural base as at least part of their means of survival found it to be pure drudgery compared to a life of hunting and gathering. And I also suspect it wasn’t a black and white one or the other, but probably a mix. I doubt malnutrition was the first result, right? That must have come years if not centuries down the road after the benefits of agriculture resulted in population growth (and the establishment of larger communities), which eventually reached the point at which famine and malnutrition became a very real possibility. I can see it becoming a hamster wheel at that point.

    In the meanwhile I would think larger human communities and the first “cities” would have seemed like quite an amazing innovation, with the possibility to enjoy stable shelter from enemies and predators, meet more people, have fixed points on the map that could have lent a stability to trade and communications, etc. And perhaps in the beginning these developments provided better access to specialists, more social networking, etc.

    Does he talk about the domestication of animals in this process also?

    Michael

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    1. Hi Michael,
      Excellent points.

      I agree that trying to nail down how happy one population was in relation to another is probably pointless. Happiness is a very relative thing. Most oral cultures can’t preserve traditions for more than a few centuries. Meaning farmers after the first few centuries would likely have known nothing about the foraging lifestyle and what to compare their current circumstances to. Certainly none of the mythologies from later cultures remembered anything about foraging times.

      Although there would have been a transition period in each region after farming arrived, where people would have known about both. Was farming more like an invasion, with foragers in retreat? (That’s how Harari characterizes it.) Or did large numbers of foragers see what was happening in neighboring regions, decide it was a good idea, and adopt it? Or some combination? Apparently there is mtDNA evidence for actual human migrations with farming, so it had to be at least the combo.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution#Europe

      Harari characterizes population growth as being pretty immediate. I think that’s logical. The alternative is to posit that people held back for a long time. I’m not sure why that would happen. A complicating factor is that the earliest farmers probably came from Natufian culture, which was sedentary, except not by farming, but simply by being in a lush region. As that region dried due to the receding ice age, they may have turned to farming. So they might have had a high population to start with. (That’s my own spculation, not Harari’s.)

      My stance is that people probably understood their own day to day interests better than we do from millenia away. But there’s a lot we don’t know.

      I agree that the earliest cities, probably trading centers, must have seemed amazing to anyone alive at the time.

      Harari does discuss the domestication of animals. He describes it as being evolutionarily very good for the domesticated species, since we skyrocketed their population, but horrible for them individually, and goes on a long description of the many terrible ways such animals are treated. He also claims most infectious diseases (smallpox, measles, tuberculosis) were transferred to us from domesticated animals. (Per wikipedia, smallpox is thought to have come from rats, and measles from cattle, so he’s probably got that about right.)

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      1. Thanks, Mike,

        Something hard for me to follow in this discussion is how words like “immediate” and “invasion” and “adopt” work in terms of the time scales involved. When we’re looking at a period of twelve thousand years, a change that occurred over two centuries might be called immediate, or an explosion perhaps. But from a boots on the ground perspective it could have seemed quite gradual, no? If a human generation ten thousand years ago was fifteen years (just winging it), two centuries would be 13 or 14 generations, which strikes me as a “long” time on the human scale. It doesn’t seem likely there was a talk given on a Friday night by some agriculturalist around the fire, and Monday everyone chucked their spears and napsacks into the river and starting making shovels and scythes.

        In terms of the population growth, this link (scroll down to the one entitled How Has World Populatoin Changed Over Time?) suggests the rate of population growth from 10,000 BC to year 1700 was about 0.04%/yr. I am in no way saying this is the definitive answer, just curious about the scale of what Harari is calling a sea change in population growth. The human population around 10,000 BC was probably 1- 10 million people worldwide depending on who we query, (and I have no idea of the accuracy of that). But if you take 10 million people and put some on South America, some in Mesopotamia and Europe, some in India and some in China, it doesn’t seem to me that basic foraging resources would have been exhausted. Of course I have no idea, really. It’s just a question from one not well-read at all in this particular field. Were resources actually that scarce without agriculture? If not, there was obviously something either obviously good about growing some food, and/or something obviously quite difficult about foraging.

        Which means, and I think we already agreed to this, the choice for agriculture probably had obvious upside to those who elected to do make such a transition at the time. The other thing is when you mention Harari’s notion of it being an invasion, am I mistaken in the thought that agriculture developed independently in various early societies/civilizations in diverse parts of the globe–in the Andes, in China, in Sumeria, etc.? It kind of seems like a “natural” evolutionary trend or something. Like a mode shift populations go through fairly reliably when faced with particular pressures or inflection points.

        Which gets to what seems the more interesting question: if he views agriculture as a trap with such terrible downside, what in his mind was the bait? It seems like people all around the world in distinct and potentially unrelated populations took that bait!

        Michael

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        1. I think his answer would be that agriculture was like a drug addiction. Once you have the population growth you have to keep doing to maintain the population growth. Nobody wants their children to die and the options for going back to foraging, although likely possible for some time, become increasingly closed off.

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          1. Agreed James. That’s the “ratchet” effect I wrote to Mike about above. I think that makes perfect sense. But to keep with your analogy, what was the initial high? What was the hook that got us into that mode? The assertion that we traded a relatively good life of foraging for a life of malnutrition and drudgery doesn’t make sense and I doubt Harari is suggesting that was the immediate choice. I’m thinking surely the downside only revealed itself later. Just curious what he thought the initial upside was that got us hooked… and suggesting it may have been something of a “universal” phenomenon because it occurred at multiple points on the globe in parallel, though I’m not certain that is the current thinking on the matter or not.

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        2. Hi Michael,
          I think you’re right that it would have been a very gradual transition. As I noted, for the earliest farmers in the middle east, this is complicated by the Natufian story. But as farming spread out into Europe and other parts of western Asia, it seems like each region would have gone through a transition period that might have lasted for centuries. A key question is, was this transition period like European settlers crowding Indians off their ancient hunting grounds, or more like a technology spread? I think the likely answer is it was a mix.

          Historical population estimates is a source of fascination for me. Another source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estimates_of_historical_world_population#Before_1950
          I don’t think Harari is asserting that the population exploded overnight. Just that within a few generations, it was already exceeding what an unmanaged land could provide. His question was, what 10% would they sacrifice to return to the old ways? Of course, this is on a region by region basis. Lush regions could support a higher population than desert regions.

          Jared Diamond pointed out that this is an issue even today, with many regions at their limit in the population they can support, leading to periodic breakdowns.

          Harari does acknowledge that agriculture developed independently in multiple areas of the world. It then spread to surrounding regions. I agree that the fact that multiple groups of people thought it was a good idea, a convergence of development, seems to bolster the fact that there had to be something immediately beneficial to it. It’s makes it less likely to be a giant accident we just stumbled into.

          I think Harari does acknowledge there was an immediate benefit that attracted people. His contention is that it took a while for the bad consequences to be realized, but by then, it was too late. Even after only a few years, there would have been too many children to just go back.

          Again, I think the people had a much clearer view of their immediate interests than we do, and don’t buy his reasoning here.

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    1. He readily acknowledges that we’ve benefited enormously from it. His contention though was that hundreds of generations suffered for us to get here, that for them, the benefit wasn’t there.

      Of course, most of the people in those hundreds of generations wouldn’t have even existed if agriculture hadn’t arisen, so saying they didn’t benefit, at best, only seems plausible within a very narrow range of “benefit”.

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  8. Some reading material.

    Against the Grain

    . https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0300182910/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_image?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers

    . https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/161132940X/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_image?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Fire: A Brief History

    . https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/029598144X/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_image?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Earth Transformed

    . https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1464107769/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_image?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Ruddiman argues that humans beginning with agriculture have been modifying the Earth’s climate for almost 10,000 years and we may be living in an extended warm period because of this influence.

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  9. — He describes it as wheat actually domesticating humans rather than the other way around, since wheat went from a crop with limited ecological success to covering large portions of the planet. He characterizes it this way because he thinks that, for humans, the agricultural revolution was a disaster. We went from frolicking in the wilderness with easy lives and diverse diets, to lives of drudgery and much more limited and often inadequate diets of a few staple crops, leading to malnutrition and all kinds of new diseases.

    Haha. I got a good laugh reading your frolicking summarization which caused me to picture a bunch of hunter gatherers dressed in Flintstone’s garb and frolicking after a woolly mammoth in search for the day’s meal.

    I agree with what I think is the spirit of you portraying what Harari said as “frolicking with easy lives” in the sense that comparing farming to hunting/gathering is not really comparing apples to apples. I’m sure sometimes the hunter gatherer lifestyle was brutal and sometimes quite leisurely. These days one can see any number of videos on YouTube of a wild animal (I personally love lion videos) lounging on the ground in what looks to be a very relaxing state. Just as one can see any number of videos of any wild animal suffering tremendously.

    I interpreted it more that a hunter gatherer life was, on average, more fulfilling (despite the challenges) because successfully navigating such a lifestyle required humans to actively pursue fulfillment of all the needs that evolved to best guide them through surviving in such a lifestyle in the natural ancestral world. In order to survive as farmers in societies that were quite structurally different from a hunter gatherer societies, people had to start often suppressing a number of needs. Cultural norms of all sorts were invented to guide in the suppression of these needs, which would have left people feeling less fulfilled on average. As an example that I’ve seen you mention before, in order to survive in large farming communities, our egalitarian instincts had to be suppressed in favor of our hierarchical instincts. It might be argued that this could make satisfying our social needs to be more challenging in many ways.

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    1. Thanks Eric.

      That’s a good description of the situation. I actually think the hunter gatherer lifestyle calls to us across the millenia. There’s a reason a lot of people still like to hunt, even though it hasn’t been strictly necessary for survival for millenia. It just feels good, a representation of the fact that we evolved in that milieu.

      But it’s a sad fact that our long term interests are often not best served by doing what feels good. In many ways, that’s us making full use of our enhanced ability to simulate possible futures. Farming, when you think about it, is altering the environment to keep our food close at hand, so that we don’t have to go out and find it. From a logical perspective, who wouldn’t see that as better than the alternative? Even hunting and fishing today, with all the modern equipment, is often done in places where the food has been pre-concentrated already.

      I suspect those who had to deal with the day to day realities of finding food in the real wilderness as the only way to survive, weren’t plagued by our fantasies about it.

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      1. — But it’s a sad fact that our long term interests are often not best served by doing what feels good. In many ways, that’s us making full use of our enhanced ability to simulate possible futures. Farming, when you think about it, is altering the environment…

        Wyrd and I are currently involved in an uber-discussion, and this is one of the topics we’re covering. When you say “our” long term interests, are you referring to individual humans, or the species as a whole? If you’re referring to individual humans, I sadly have to agree that to survive in the current environment this is the case. If you’re referring to our species as a whole, what are the (or some of the) long term interests we might have for ourselves as a species? In both cases, might we make use of our abilities to simulate possible futures to try to design environments that both benefit our long term interests while also benefiting our genes (one example of which would be feeling more satisfied by more robust need fulfillment)? Given the state of our civilization today, can we argue that many people’s long term interests are actually being served?

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        1. That comment was very general, and was meant to apply to individuals but also all levels of human organization. For the species as a whole? I don’t have much except for the obvious answers.

          Clearly we’re now paying the price for not taking the possibility of a global pandemic seriously enough. Hopefully that’s a lesson most of the world is learning.

          I think the rise of toxic populism around the world shows that we have a problem. Not just the US, but any economy currently feeling the pressures from globalization. Until those pressures are addressed, we may get rid of a Trump or Bolsanaro at the next election, but the anger that produced them is still there, and will vomit up others like them.

          Climate change is a species wide danger. We will eventually address it. It’s inevitable. It’s only a matter of how bad things have to get before we start doing it. People will suffer less if we address is sooner, more the longer we delay.

          I’m sure there are lots of others we could go on about, but that’s enough for now.

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          1. These are definitely issues (course corrections?) that need to be dealt with. They are examples of unintended effects from previous attempts to alter our environment to achieve some purpose. Going as far back as the agricultural revolution, it seems pretty evident that the most prominent purpose of altering our environment in such a drastic manner (compared to the natural ancestral hunter/gatherer environment) at that point in time was to increase our survivability. But these days, is that still the case? Or more precisely, in 50-100 years (or however long it takes) when our robotics technology will likely be able to automate pretty much the entire process of producing the goods needed to satisfy our physiological needs, will that still be the case? Have we transcended evolution in the sense that we are so adept at altering our environment that we can create pretty much any environment necessary to suit our genes instead of our genes being forced to suit the environment, as was the evolutionary case in the ancestral world?

            If we have transcended evolution in this sense, what should be the purpose of our future attempts to alter the environment (ignoring the inevitable necessary course corrections along the way)? If, in 50-100 years, it was somehow possible for everyone on the planet to agree to shut everything down (except for the robots producing the necessary goods to stay alive) and to take a year or two to start from scratch and design the structure of civilization based off an agreed upon goal(s)/purpose(s) for that civilization, what might such goal(s)/purpose(s) be? I don’t think we have a good sense of this at this point. I think we are stuck between old cultures and new technologies and are just winging it as we go along, acting as if we still need to survive when that is less and less the case as time goes on. We could solve the three course corrections you listed (and others not listed) in a variety of ways depending on what we choose to be the goal(s)/purpose(s) or our civilization. How we solve them (if at all) will be telling of our decisions of how to proceed into the future.

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          2. Well, while I think in principle there’s nothing preventing us from someday reaching the point your describe, I’d say let’s not count our chicks before they’re hatched. We’re not there yet. Until we get there, we do still have to survive, and get past a whole bunch of nasty problems. I’m cautiously optimistic we can get past them, but note the “cautiously”.

            You talk about altering the environment, but by that point we may be able to alter ourselves more easily. Genetic engineering is in its early days (and has had some cautionary setbacks alerting us not to get too ahead of ourselves here too), but eventually we should be able to engineer ourselves to fit a range of environments.

            Anyway, what does a society with the robots doing everything look like? I did a post on this not that long ago, which I think you commented on. Short answer: I don’t know. Speculative answer: we might have a civilization of game players, artists, and other endeavors we can’t yet imagine.

            Many people worry about the dangers of AI. Most of it is overblown. But one worry I don’t think gets enough attention, is what a fully automated civilization does to us over the long term. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Frank Herbert’s Dune. It posits a far future civilization that has long ago rejected AI. In Herbert’s original conception, it wasn’t because the machines were evil (as later prequel novels would portray them) but because of how degenerate humanity had become with them doing everything. A reformation movement led to a species wide taboo against all thinking machines.

            Herbert largely did it so he could tell the kind of story he wanted to tell. But I could imagine a posthuman civilization where the minds descended from biological humans are required to be contributing members of society, to avoid that degeneration.

            The alternative might be that, in the long run, the machines evolve into the main vitality of our civilization, with us as sort of like the queen bees, fat bloated entities at the center of vast technological frameworks.

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          3. Hmm, I’ve read Dune (a long time ago) but not any of the later books. I never picked up on that aspect of the civilization rejecting AI. But thinking back to it, yeah, none of that exists in the Dune universe. Maybe I should go back and reread it after all these years. 🙂

            Yeah, I know it’s easy to get too ahead of ourselves, but it’s also easy to get too lost in the weeds and not have any sort of consideration of future goals (not accusing you of this by any means, but I am accusing many current leaders of this).

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          4. On Dune, it’s been a while for me too. And I can’t say I enjoyed the subsequent books, but many do. But if you have a copy lying around, the relevant info would be in the Appendices in the back of the book.

            To be fair to leaders, they’re going to be judged on how things are going right now, not how well we’ve prepared for the next generation. If you want to blame someone, blame the electorate for being short sited. It’s why I often say the best way to promote things is to the voting public, not to elected politicians, who are just going to follow what the public and their donors demand from them.

            And to even be fair to the voting public, a lot of the things the intelligentsia say we need to worry about don’t always speak to the fears and challenges everyday people are struggling with, so the public has some justification to judge things by their own experience.

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  10. Thank you Mike. That definitely is fair, and as someone who so recently has argued for the benefits of restorative justice over retributive justice, it shows how easy it can be to quickly default to a more natural (or maybe emotional is a better word than rational?) state of mind.

    Back to thinking about how best to raise the voting public’s ability to think more towards the future despite their everyday fears and challenges!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What you’ve written about here is one of the few things I remember (albeit vaguely) about the book. I guess I wasn’t as skeptical about his claims that life was in some sense better before farming, but I’m a sucker for origin stories about “the fall” from the garden of Eden…we ate an apple from an orchard and there’s no turning back? Sure. Why not.

    To me the appeal of the foraging lifestyle was all the free time. I don’t doubt that there was a lot of work involved in foraging, but when you look at animals in the natural world, they do seem to lie around a lot. And I do appreciate his criticism of a life of so-called convenience, but I think it probably applies more in our over-complicated current world, and only in certain cases.

    That said, animals are territorial and will sometimes fight for resources. We are/do too, but in a more sophisticated way. I’m reminded of foraging for black raspberries in Vermont and coming across another forager…we greeted each other awkwardly and pretended we weren’t checking up on a berry patch that was about to ripen. I can tell you, as I walked away, my thoughts were not entirely civilized. Anyway, I can see how that impulse to guard resources would lead to farming. It’s hard to guard something when you’re on the move and you haven’t yet invented spy cams. But I think Harari had it the other way around, that farming led us to guard our crops from thieves. (Did I get that right?)

    Well, if you ask me, life without bread is not worth living.

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    1. It is kind of interesting that farming developed in the same region that the Garden of Eden was supposed to be in, where Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge and were cast out to be….farmers.

      If we take that as a metaphor, then the spread of the farmers was the spread of the Tree of Knowledge, gradually forcing everyone out of Eden.

      But as I noted in the post, the foraging life was almost certainly not the Edenic one. Actually, the life of the Natufians prior to the development of farming may have come closest to that kind of scenario. They lived in a lush land which provided enough food for them to essentially get a sedentary life for free. The subsequent development of farming may have been a response to the drying climate.

      So rather than being forced out of Eden, we had Eden dry out from under us, and we had to take on the arduous task of building and maintaining it.

      On the raspberries, good point. Imagine if that encounter happened, not within a fun pastime type scenario, but in a life and death one, where each of your tribes were crucially dependent on that food source. Foragers go to war too.

      I’m totally with you on bread. I also think a life without any intellectual stimulation would be pretty desolate.

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      1. Can I join in here (hopefully it’s not too rude)? I’ve thought a lot about things along the line of what you said here: “I also think a life without any intellectual stimulation would be pretty desolate.”

        So, wouldn’t we have had intellectual stimulation in those days as well? I mean, if we evolved the ability to process things intellectually in the first place, wouldn’t it have been a trait that we obtained because it gave us a survival advantage? Definitely we weren’t reading books or inventing calculus yet, etc. but we would have still been solving the problems of the day. The difference with today is that, like we have to luxury to eat as much food as we have money to buy, we also have the luxury to spend as much free time as we have on intellectual endeavors (as well as more things to ponder now than any one human could ever hope to get to even if we could live for hundreds of years).

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        1. Absolutely Eric, anyone is free to jump in.

          It’s worth noting that my statement is made from the perspective of someone familiar with my current life, and the opportunities it provides. If someone offered me a hunter-gatherer life, I’d find it desolate. But I almost certainly wouldn’t if I’d been born to it, and knew nothing about books, science, internets, and all the rest.

          It’s all in what we expect. The question is, what might a hunter-gatherer choose if suddenly offered to continue their life as-is, or switch to a modern one? I suspect it would vary by individual. But I’m struck by Jared Diamond’s observation that most people from traditional societies, when they get access to western living, take to it very fast. Although there are always those who don’t.

          It’s why I think the practice of leaving uncontacted peoples alone is problematic. It assumes everyone in that society has the same preferences.

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          1. Oh, sorry. I read too much into your “life without any” phrase, assuming you meant that hunter/gatherer humans weren’t capable of intellectual endeavors.

            But yes, I agree that not everyone in society has the same preferences. I do feel that everyone has the same sets of intrinsic needs and that, despite variations of “how” the needs are met, I think that one will most likely choose to take to the culture that they feel has the highest likelihood of meeting as many of the needs as possible, regardless of the way in which they are met. In contrast with Jared Diamond’s very valid observation, I’ve also heard accounts of American soldiers defecting and joining the Indian tribes they were supposed to displace back when we were spreading out west. I’m sure both directions were seen countless times throughout history.

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          2. Yeah, I haven’t heard of any studies (or looked into it). I also wonder what percentage of “defections” ended up being “the grass isn’t greener on the other side” experiences where there were some regrets afterwards.

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