Agriculture was a mistake…except to the 7 billion people who wouldn’t exist without it

Jared Diamond’s 1987 article, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, got me wondering. How do you define “mistake”? He doesn’t. What would a successful species look like? He doesn’t say. While it’s thought-provoking, it’s very hard to pin down his meaning without some explanation for those concepts.

The biggest mistake, he claims, was agriculture. He argues against a progressivist view of history, which argues that agriculture couldn’t possibly be a mistake, because it must have improved human lives or we wouldn’t have adopted it, and on those grounds, I think he’s right in principle — we adopt stupid ideas all the time. But then he tries to take an extreme opposite tack, that agriculture was bad for human beings, and there I think he’s going wrong. Agriculture produced a different environment for our species, and it had a mix of consequences.

So he argues that agriculture is labor-intensive, and actually cost us free time.

While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

I can believe that. If you have a low population density in a relatively food-rich environment, it’s not hard to get by — and you can develop a rich and interesting culture in your spare time. But I’d have to say…how much time do you spend obtaining food each week? In my case, less than an hour, and that hour is spent on quick trips to a grocery store, rather than chasing down an antelope or digging up tubers. If you’re a farmer, you spend a heck of a lot more time on food production than most of us, but only about 2% of our population is farming. Agriculture has allowed us to specialize and do other complex activities, although I do like the idea of a 14 hour work week.

Diamond also points out that other cultural problems, like higher population densities, wealth inequities, and sexual oppression are also side effects of agriculture, and I have to agree that that’s almost certainly true. But from a biological perspective, how do you count higher population densities as a “mistake”? That’s an evolutionary success story — we have expanded our population to far greater numbers than ever before, thanks to agriculture. Now other species might regard that as a disaster, and it may eventually lead to a spectacular crash, but from an evolutionary perspective, which is short-sighted and has no particular goal other than reproduction, it’s hard to argue that it was a failure.

The other problems, inequity and sexism, are consequences of the population boom, but they are not necessary consequences. They are aspects of our culture to oppose and correct, but we don’t need to return to a hunter/gatherer life style to do so.

But also, I think Diamond relies on painting too rosy a picture of life as a hunter/gatherer. Life expectancies are short, parasites and disease are common, and infant mortality is high. When you talk to surviving adults, sure, they can talk blithely of the wealth of mongongo nuts, but the dead don’t speak.

Consider child mortality. The pre-agricultural world (and also the early agricultural world) was not kind to children. Take a look at the bones of our ancestors — there are an awful lot of children dead (and obviously, those dead children couldn’t have been our direct ancestors).

Proportions of subadults (defined as individuals with incomplete skeletal or dental development) in samples of fossil hominids – Chamberlain (2006)

Site and species Subadults Adults Share of Subadults
Surface collected sites
Koobi Fora (Homo)
7 28 20%
Koobi Fora (Paranthropus boisei) 10 29 26%
Hadar (Australopithecus afarensis) 17 41 29%
Excavated sites
Sterkfontein (Australopithecus africanus)
22 56 28%
Swartkrans (Paranthropus robustus) 79 80 50%
Zhoukoudian (Homo erectus) 15 23 39%
Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) 106 100 52%
Olduvai Gorge (Homo habilis) 13 6 68%
Atapuerca (Homo heidelbergensis) 19 9 68%

About half of Neandertal remains are of sub-adults? I did not know that. Add that very young infants are very unlikely to fossilize, and you can estimate even higher rates of infant mortality. That says that this was a hard life.

I don’t think agriculture fixed that problem right away. Farming is also rough, and always has been; it may have fueled higher population densities, but then cities led to higher incidence of disease and all kinds of environmental problems — living with raw sewage in the streets could not be more pleasant than living in an open grassland. But still, we’ve seen a rapid rise in the human population, specifically in the populations that rely on agriculture, so it’s rather difficult to argue from the math that pre-agricultural societies were more beneficial to overall human survival. It’s a different kind of inequity, between the living and the more numerous dead.

Maybe it’s better to avoid regarding agriculture as a panacea, and more as an incremental improvement in reproductive success. Then, of course, we should add that agriculture was not enough: what really improved our lives was agriculture plus improved hygiene plus medicine. It’s a synergy, not just one thing.

Personally, I’d rather live now than in the neolithic. Even in the 19th century, life was more difficult. Charles Darwin, a prosperous upper middle class person, had 10 children, and 3 of them died before reaching adulthood — and he was not atypical. In the 20th, my parents had 6 kids, and all lived to adulthood (although I would have died at the age of 8 from peritonitis, and was saved specifically by medicine…and it’s impossible to know which of my siblings might have died from diseases presented by vaccinations). I had 3 kids, and we could be confident that all would live to adulthood, and they did.

So I’m kind of at a loss to figure out what Diamond considers a mistake, especially since he himself is a product of a technological society fed by agriculture. He doesn’t consider his own life a good thing?

Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?

I’m here. I’m not dead. My children aren’t dead. We aren’t living on mongongo nuts. What blessings do I lack that I’d have if my ancestors hadn’t shifted away from hunting and gathering?

P.S. Here’s another interesting take that rejects the highway-to-hell vs. splendors-of-civilization dichotomy, and also points out that many of Diamond’s points were lifted straight from other anthropologists’ work.


  1. Menyambal says

    It reads like he’s cribbing directly from Larry Gonick’s _Cartoon History of the Universe_. A book I highly recommend.

    Yeah, I know someone who is convinced that if civilization collapses, we’ll all just move out to the country and live off the land.

  2. says

    Diamond’s argument sounds suspiciously like Louis C.K.’s bit on “selfishness” where he’s talking to god and god says, “What did you pump oil FOR? Just eat all the stuff I left on the ground?”
    “I needed a job.”
    “What’s a job? ”

    Without agriculture you can’t produce the kind of surplus that allows the development of big armies. And kings and churches and stuff also absorb surplus/overhead.

  3. tiffkramer says

    I guess agriculture and social specialization was a big mistake for many ant species as well?

    As much as I enjoy Diamond’s writing, I believe E. O. Wilson has a better insight into the subject. The inevitability of the neolithic transition cannot be denied. To lament it is like wishing we were still prokaryotes or asexual organisms, reproducing by budding.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Nah, bipedalism was the biggest mistake. Just ask my right knee and my back.

  5. davidnangle says

    He’s arguing as an individual, as opposed to a member of a population. And the individual is assuming he’s the alpha in the group. This is something white American males have difficulty realizing is not the default, for humans.

  6. screechymonkey says

    I enjoy Diamond’s books, but on this point it feels like he’s just perpetuating a version of the Noble Savage myth, romanticizing the hunter-gatherer life. I say that with some trepidation, because I know he’s spent a lot of time with such tribes, compared to my…. none. But the holes in his analysis that you point out make it seem like he’s arguing more from sentiment here than evidence.

  7. says

    To give a specific example of the combination of agriculture + medicine + hygiene reducing infant mortality:
    I was born prematurely by C-section (in 1987, as it happens). The alternative was me never being born and high odds of my mother dying due to hemorrhage and trauma – in addition to infant mortality, maternal mortality is high absent medicine. Can’t do C-sections safely without careful hygiene.
    Then I got to spend two weeks in NICU with the staff regularly spraying replacement pulmonary surfactant into my lungs, until my body started making enough on its own. The primary sources of replacement pulmonary surfactant are lungs from slaughtered livestock and giving pulmonary lavage to a bunch of cows (there’s a fun prep…). Intensive agriculture is necessary for either to be possible.
    I’ve liked much of Diamond’s work, although I may need to reconsider that given his apparent failure to give proper attribution to others. But I have trouble with his saying that the things that made it possible for me to live at all and for my mother to avoid a high chance of an early and very painful death were unmitigated mistakes.

  8. says

    Ask most of the larger (not to mention tastier) species if agriculture and the concomitant population growth of humans was a mistake or not… and then feel relieved that they can’t answer back.

  9. says

    Oh! And on knees: the surgeon who worked on my ACL once told me that knees were specially designed for lying down quietly in a darkened room.

  10. says

    it’s impossible to know which of my siblings might have died from diseases presented by vaccinations

    I think this is a typo.

    I just bought Guns, Germs & Steel from Jared Diamond on a recommendation by a friend. If he was plagiarizing, it is a jarring thing, but the book reads good and poses good brain food.

    He surely is aware of the fact, that infant mortality is extremely high in hunter-gatherer societies. He even mentions deliberate infanticide as a measure against overpopulation in some such island societies.

    However assessing the “free time” of bushmen only with regard how much time they spend obtaining food is in my (amateur) opinion not correct and is a way of making the comparison look rosier in favor of bushmen. One should also count the time they spend preparing the food, the time they spend building and maintaining their own gear (bows, arrows) etc. And the time they spent walking long distances – albeit slowly – during roaming to new food sources should count as working time too. In agricultural societies all these works are done by specialized skilled workers – craftsmen, butchers, bakers and tradesmen and the whole lot.

    He certainly knows all that, he talks in the book exactly about this. He should take that into account. I have not yet read that essay however, so I am now only relying on its representation in OP.

    (And even more accurate comparison than just time would be maybe to compare the relative energy inputs/outputs of individuals in hunter-gatherer societies versus agricultural societies – how much people have to eat to sustain themselves?)

  11. Menyambal says

    I think he skips a bit there, when he points out the time spent in gathering food. He leaves out food-prep time, which also includes gathering fuel and building cooking utensils.

    Suppose our ancestors had stuck to hunting and gathering – what kind of life and technology would we have today? Well, he answers that when he shows how long hunter-gatherers lived unchanged – we’d still be eating mongongo nuts and being damned few, as was the case for a long, long time. Mind you, folks might have made progress in food preservation and storage, and even technology such as metallurgy, but they didn’t in all those years.

    Agriculture, on the other hand, kinda came and went. How many of us are grunt farmers? As he says, kings and tax men happened right away. (Priests had been mooching off the gatherers a long time back.) Our civilization and technology came from agriculture, but aren’t really based on it any more. Even our hunting and gathering is mechanized, and we’ve about hunted all the fish out of the oceans.

  12. says

    Okay, now I read the article. Diamond mentions (emphassis mine):

    In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size.

    They have to burn all those calories, because they are not getting obese. To me it says that they spend considerably more time with what should be considered work, than just those 19 hours they are obtaining food.

    The article makes some very good points (like the choice of quantity over quality – something we in modern society are trying very hard to correct), but this one I consider a bad point poorly argued.

  13. multitool says

    Agriculture was definitely the most devastating technology ever invented – for nature as a whole. It propagates two evils:

    1. No matter how green you farm, it still clears large amounts of land and wipes out whole ecosystems to feed people.

    2. Even worse, it allows us to make billions of more people, dramatically amplifying the effects of #1.

    We are in a time of major extinctions, which almost certainly wouldn’t be the case without the invention of agriculture.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like being here, and I like the cool things those 7 billion people invent and create, but those are only selfish pleasures.

  14. unclefrogy says

    well I have not read the book but I can sympathize with what has been written here. Actually I see both sides and am some what at cross minds.
    In the dark days of my youth I thought it might have been a mistake to have climbed down from the trees.
    I see his point about free time. We have to work many more hours to maintain ourselves I sure as hell am not one of he 1% who can spend 1 hr a day to pay all of my bills. All the things I have and ”need” may be fun and useful in the extreme but sure as hell do not make my life any simpler and very few are free for the finding ($$$). When I see all that vast tilled soil and the well tended orchards and vineyards. I can not help but see the remains of clear cut forests and dead prairies, the softly rolling hills all green with grass are dead forests over grazed to near death. I will not so describe what our cities bring to mind.
    Be that as it may I and we are here now. I would not be alive now nor would my parents have lived were it not for the benefits of agriculture, science and the other fruits of civilization.
    In a very short time a mere few 1000 years we have made such an impact on the earth that we have become one of the biggest threats to the whole system as could be imagined.
    It might have been better if all the early pre-homonids had been eaten by leopards but they were not and their descendants are here and are ably to see some of the long road we took to get here.
    We are not the most important one nor are we the reason for all of this. There are consequences to every choice, costs to pay. I am unable to gloss over the bad parts because Man, nor am I wallowing in guilt. Civilization as it is based and supported by agriculture I see as a decidedly mixed blessing. For me the question what do we do now?
    uncle frogy

  15. gcstroop says

    I just submitted an assignment on this very paper for my Archaeology class about 2-3 days ago. We had to create a “blog post” that either agreed or disagreed with this article. My views and points were surprisingly similar to PZ’s. I actually had to do a double-take and check my submission date to make sure I submitted my paper before this blog post went up for fear I could be accused of cheating!

  16. Richard Smith says

    At the very least, agriculture has been good for the cultivated plants. Well, maybe not quite so much for corn, as it’s been rendered incapable of natural pollination; and at least the popular types of bananas have been completely sterilized. But, otherwise, it’s been pretty good for the cultivated plants…

  17. CJO says

    It should be noted re: time spent acquiring food vs. leisure time, that he’s talking about modern-day hunter-gatherer groups and inferring for prehistoric societies. Modern hunter-gatherers have been pushed to marginal land by agriculturalists, whereas pre-agriculture, groups would have had their choice of hunting and gathering territory, presumably making the tasks of food acquisition even less onerous.

    Diamond’s work is avowedly synthetic, so the charge of plagiarism seems extreme. Does he claim all these ideas for himself, or is he doing the perfectly commonplace and constructing a thesis based on others’ original research in his field for a popular treatment? His work is popular, and so he gets called brilliant by lay reviewers for “standing on the shoulders of giants” but I don’t think he would deny his debt to many colleagues who did the work he relies on. Maybe I’m wrong.

  18. anat says

    From what I understand, Diamond counts all time spent making a living earning the money to buy food as time spent obtaining food. Considering that many US workers have very low hourly incomes and spend a relatively high proportion of said income of food, many people spend a significant part of their waking hours obtaining food. And at least in some of his sources food prep time (for both farmers and foragers) is included. I recall at least one source (not necessarily used by Diamond) that claimed foragers spend less time on all types of work (foraging plus all household chores) than the typical western 40 hour work week plus time spent on chores. (This may have been Richard Borshay Lee, according to this wikipedia article.)

    Based on measures such as life expectancy at birth, adult height, evidence for disease, well being of the majority of humans went down with the adoption of agriculture (though numbers increased), and only started surpassing the well-being of ancient foragers sometime in the 20th century, only in some countries. We couldn’t achieve our current lifestyle without agriculture, but we can’t pretend that all the suffering for thousands of years didn’t happen.

  19. erichoug says

    This is always such a ridiculous argument. The most likely reason that our ancestors adopted farming wasn’t because they made a conscious choice to do so. it was almost certainly because the other option was starving. Things happen for a reason and it is almost always a mistake to think that some ancient culture actually made a conscious decision towards one thing or another. A particular action, in this case farming, solved a particular problem, in this case starvation, so people just stuck with it.

  20. jaxkayaker says

    Diamond strikes me as someone who makes overbroad, simplistic, untestable generalizations and gets paid a lot of money for it. Nice work, if you can get it.

  21. says

    I’m living in a virtual paradise and much better than the kings of yore. Hurrah for civilization that we can have the potential of our species propogating to other planetsand/ or developing a superior AI progeny.

  22. anat says

    erichoug, from the examples Diamond shows in Guns Germs and Steel, it looks like the other option wasn’t starving but being massacred by farming invaders who wanted to convert your foraging ground to fields. Since agriculture supports greater population density than foraging the probably less healthy but more numerous farmers won.

  23. Lofty says

    The time spent gathering food from a rich source is measured in an hour or two a day. The time spent moving to a different food source when you’ve exhausted the first is measured in many more hours than that. Hunter gatherer populations were small because resources were scattered. Oh and every other animal in the neighbourhood was competing with you.

  24. tbtabby says

    Agriculture might be more labor-intensive than hunter-gathering in the short term, but in the long run is saves time because you don’t have to ream the hills searching for your next meal. Also, since you no longer have to worry about where your next meal is coming from all the time, you can devote that brain capacity to other things. You can wonder. Thus, agriculture allowed for the rise of art, philosophy, science…in short, civilization. How anyone could consider that a mistake, let alone the biggest mistake humans have ever made, boggles my mind. If you’re so find of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Diamond, go live in the woods and start foraging for nuts and berries. I give it a week before you come crawling back to civilization.

  25. CJO says

    If you’re so find of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Diamond, go live in the woods and start foraging for nuts and berries. I give it a week before you come crawling back to civilization.

    Please. knock off the posturing. The article nothing but a contrarian corrective to the progressivist notion that every “advance” on the way to our now biosphere-destroying-grade technological civilization was an unalloyed good for the people who experienced the transition. He’s not saying that it would be desirable, or even possible, for significant numbers to adopt the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or that he thinks he would personally enjoy it. It’s a classic that every Anthro undergrad reads, and its value is that it teaches one to look askance at the pieties of our oh so “advanced” society in which every day children starve by the thousands and economic migrants drown by the score amidst obscene wealth.

  26. CJO says

    Thus, agriculture allowed for the rise of art, philosophy, science…in short, civilization.

    And if you think Diamond is disputing that, you haven’t read the article. (Go on, it takes maybe five minutes to read.) The point is, until very recently, the benefits of all that rarefied civilizin’ were reserved for a tiny elite minority, and that, for the bulk of post-agriculture human history, the great majority of us would have been better off by any material measure “reaming [sic] the hills for our next meal.” (sorry for preserving the typo; it’s funny)

    Yes, our fossil-fuel and intensive agriculture -built and -dependent civilazation is great… while it lasts. Problem being, we’re taking a lot more with us than our art and philosophy and science. Three billion years of evolution to peak biodiversity are disappearing, fast, so we could… wonder? You’ll forgive other species for not being impressed.

  27. lijdare says

    I would agree that agriculture was no mistake. However, there have been noted some detrimental effects during the switch to agriculture. I am thinking of what I read about the findings from the Koster site in western Illinois. To the best of my memory they said that when the culture of corn (maize) started that the effect was that people died earlier than those previously whose diet was mostly from hunting and gathering of wild foodstuffs. I believe they also said people’s teeth were much more worn at their death. Of course, one could argue that this isn’t a result of agriculture per se, but due to the culture of maize. But in the short term for individual persons, agriculture was detrimental. On the other hand it wouldn’t have been accepted if it had not been beneficial. The proximate benefit likely being that agriculture allowed for the feeding of a greater number of people and for the population to increase. Over time the detrimental effects could be mitigated by learning and that is perhaps what the human animal does best.

  28. Vivec says

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll take our current state of shitty ecological damage and human prosperity over us being a couple hundred-thousand hunter-gatherers one bad drought away from exinction.

  29. Pierce R. Butler says

    I don’t have the time to go dig up citations, but my readings in paleontology/archaeology pointed out a consistent pattern: when you dig deep enough that the human bones you find suddenly average bigger and stronger, you’ve reached the point at which robust hunter-gatherers turned into undernourished farmers.

    In other words, agriculture takes over when population growth and limited resources make it necessary – and the subsequent further population growth make life harder.

    A counterproposal: the historic error did not involve inventing agriculture, but from failing to invent good contraception.

  30. CJO says

    I’ll take our current state of shitty ecological damage and human prosperity over us being a couple hundred-thousand hunter-gatherers one bad drought away from exinction

    Me too. But I’m a reasonably affluent resident of a pleasant city in North America. I might feel differently if I were an urban scavenger in a third-world slum or a refugee in a camp somewhere, one bad drought away from (personal) extinction.

  31. Zeppelin says

    To be fair, modern industrialised agriculture is pretty great in terms of labour input for food output. But I’d definitely rather be your average hunter-gatherer than a medieval (or even 18th century) German.
    I mean, until very recently farming societies almost everywhere were one drought/flood/unseasonable summer away from mass famine, war and plague. Groups the size of your typical hunter-gatherer troop went “extinct” all the time, and I think if I’m ever starving to death I won’t be too concerned whether my death will constitute a 0.01% or a 0.00001% decline in my society’s total population.
    Modern agriculture and the technology it enables are nice, but we got there by subjecting the majority of humanity to grinding, stultifying drudgery and deprivation for thousands of years, because we got ourselves caught in a population trap. And it’s starting to look like a modern industrialised society is unsustainable, so maybe all we’ve done is postpone the climate change-induced starvation that our ancient ancestors originally started agriculture to escape.

  32. dick says

    Rob (4) & PZ (5), my right knee has been bothering me for years. A couple of months back it got really bad & I almost went to the doctor to see if i could get a surgical intervention. I was having to go up & down stairs just using the left leg for propulsion.

    I’ve not had a racing bike for 5 years, & I just bought one last weekend. (I’ve been using a non-racing bike.) I’ve been out on it a few times now. I can, & do, pull up on the pedals, (as well as push down), unlike the old bike.

    As of yesterday, I can again walk up & down stairs normally, with only slight pain.

    Of course, this might be mere coincidence.

  33. Zeppelin says

    @dick, 35: I’ve inherited gammy menisci, and I find that my knees will crack and generally act up when I’m inactive for a while, but be fine as long as I’m getting some basic amount of exercise. So having a bit of muscle to stabilise everything does seem to help.

  34. dick says

    I should add that I regularly tested my right knee every so often*, over the two months, & it was always painful.

    * I would forget to NOT use it.

  35. Rob Grigjanis says

    dick @35:

    Of course, this might be mere coincidence.

    I don’t think so.

    I blew my ACL playing soccer nearly forty years ago. It’s been a steady decline since then, and I’ve had advanced osteoarthritis for about twenty years. Walking is painful. But, I can still get a good workout on a stationary bike three or four times a week, and enforced layoffs definitely negatively impact the knee. Go figure. I consider my self damned lucky.

  36. unclefrogy says

    And it’s starting to look like a modern industrialised society is unsustainable, so maybe all we’ve done is postpone the climate change-induced starvation that our ancient ancestors originally started agriculture to escape.

    we are also utterly dependent on the food we grow every bit as much hunter gatherers are dependent on the food they find. One of the biggest differences being the possibility of storage of yearly excess for times of poor crops which I think is probably the primary reason early people adopted agriculture in the first place. It helped to provide if not the most healthy diet, a much more stable food supply. Stability is one thing hunter gatherers do not have. though it has come with a cost in some ways a severe cost some ways a great boon but as has been pointed out a cost none the less. Nothing is free

    I seem to remember some one noticed that they could follow the adoption of maize farming by the teeth. Before maize the teeth would be severely worn down by yhe roughness of the seeds they were gathering and the amount of grit that would end up in the finished food, as maize spread north the teeth became markedly less worn down but to have many more cavities (rotten) then they had before maize arrived.
    uncle frogy

  37. anat says

    unclefroggy, foragers had a lot more stability when they could choose any bit of land to forage in. The earliest places for farming were places where nutritionally dense plants dominated. There wasn’t such a huge difference between foraging for wheat in wheat-dominated meadows vs farming wheat in the same environment. Growing wheat where it didn’t already grow was a bigger change.

  38. unclefrogy says

    Of course I forgot what it must have been like when they found the mutation that has ended up as the wheat know today. I know that the farming they would have been doing was also much closer to horticulture that what we would recognize as farming.
    by taking care of the plants they would have been increasing the yield of the grasslands they were living in

    all this talk of farming and grain has made me remember an old song that bares on this whole subject.
    John Barleycorn Must Die

    uncle frogy

  39. jacksprocket says

    “foragers had a lot more stability when they could choose any bit of land to forage in”

    They probably never had such a favourable situation- they were always interacting with other human groups, and operating over territorial ranges limited by tradition, agreement or competition. Given that agriculture developed independently at least twice (in Eurasia and the Americas), it’s probably an “inevitable” development – perhaps when the population has grown to the point where hunting and gathering ranges have shrunk to farmland size.

  40. newenlightenment says

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll take our current state of shitty ecological damage and human prosperity over us being a couple hundred-thousand hunter-gatherers one bad drought away from exinction.

    Actually the main advantage of hunter gatherer communities is their resilience. Our ancestors survived massive climate swings between ice ages, shifts every bit a s great as those we can expect over the next couple of centuries. Indeed, homo sapiens seems to have weathered the end of the ice age then its brief resurgence in the younger dryas with very few casualties. By contrast the late bronze age empires were brought down by far tinier climate shifts. Similarly the Roman empire was destroyed at least in part by very minor climate changes, that would barely have registered as an issue to our stone-age ancestors.

    Though more complex than a stone age society, the Medieval world was a great deal more decentralized and simpler than the classical empires. The late middle ages saw the Great European Famine, the little ice age, the Black Death – which obliterated between one third and half the population of Europe – the hundred years war and immediately after this the wars of the Roses, the most unstable period in Europe’s history. Within less than a century of these calamities, England’s economy and standard of living were greater than they had been before. Imagine the modern world going through a similar set of events. Even if nuclear weapons were somehow kept of the table, it would surely spell the end of our civilization.

    The fate of the indigenous communities of the new world is also instructive. While nearly all societies eventually succumbed to European conquest, the rate at which they did so is inversely proportionate to how complex they were. The Aztecs and Incas were big complex empires, capable of fielding vast armies. Once Montezuma and Atahualpa were defeated, local elites were co-opted, European diseases ran rampant through dense cities and down well-planned roads and the great empires collapsed. By contrast the Maya were a collection of smaller states and bands, the last Mayan kingdoms were not conquered until the late seventeenth century. Native Americans in the north were able to hold out until the late nineteenth century. While each tribe or statelet in these latter cases was easier to defeat, the destruction of one tribe had little impact upon all the others, forcing the invaders into a permanent struggle.

    A large society of specialized and interconnected individuals is capable of generating vast luxury and wealth, but once its foundations are eroded it quickly disintegrates, with massive loss of life. By contrast with a mass of smaller, independent communities, the death of every producer is also the death of a consumer, whole tribes or villages can go under with little impact upon their neighbors, humanity as whole therefore has a chance to quickly recover from every disaster.

    We now live in the most complex and interdependent society ever devised. How reliant it is will soon be put to the test. Climate change will push us through far bigger shifts in temperature than our bronze-age or Medieval ancestors ever had to endure. At the same time a number of diseases are becoming resistant to antibiotics, and soil erosion could leave us with little or no usable agricultural land within less than a century*. Climate change could exacerbate both problems, shifting the pattern of where diseases spread, moving plagues into areas where there is little natural resistance, and triggering crop destroying droughts and floods across the world. We shall see how wise we were to build our house upon the sand, if history is any guide the answer is “not very”…

    *See here:

  41. Vivec says

    Honestly, that doesn’t significantly change my opinion. I’d rather burn out but have had the experience of internet, smart phones, and all the other products of the modern world, than survive longer but as a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Perhaps there’s some appeal to the latter that I’m not seeing, but there’s no way I’d willingly choose to live that way if there were any alternatives.

  42. prae says

    Reminds me of the Long Earth series which I’m reading right now. They have an agriculture-free hunter-gatherer city there in the second book, but the only reason that works is easy access to population-less parallel worlds next to it.

  43. newenlightenment says

    Perhaps there’s some appeal to the latter that I’m not seeing, but there’s no way I’d willingly choose to live that way if there were any alternatives.

    I’d recommend George Monbiot’s Feral. He discusses how the early American colonizers took in native American children to ‘civilize’ them. Whenever they had the opportunity to return tho their native tribes, the children always refused to return. Ben Franklin summed this up quite well:

    When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

    Clearly there is something to be said for the benefits of uncivilized living. Even if you don’t like the idea of hunter-gather life yourself ‘Burning out and having the experience of internet and I phones’ means not only you or even humanity as a whole will go out, since we are already wiping out lifeforms at a rate faster than the Permian mass extinction it means we will take millions of other organisms out with us. This doesn’t mean we can all return to a hunter-gather lifestyle, most of us (myself included) are probably too well adjusted to civilized living and there are simply too many humans and too few sources of wild food to sustain such an existence. We can however acknowledge what we have lost and recognize our civilization for what it is, a planetary tumour which must be contained if it cannot be excised altogether.

  44. jacksprocket says

    It does raise a question, in a sort of scifi way- how many intelligent aliens shun development, and survive? Is the Marxoid idea that civilisation bears the seeds of its own destruction a missing factor in the drake equation?

  45. says

    It does raise a question, in a sort of scifi way- how many intelligent aliens shun development, and survive? Is the Marxoid idea that civilisation bears the seeds of its own destruction a missing factor in the drake equation?

    What if some alien species optimizes the equation and comes up with something that makes Giger’s ALIEN seem like Hello Kitty in comparison?

  46. anchor says

    Never mind why Diamond reaches his peculiar conclusion from the viewpoint of humans. The homo-centric standard of well-being is so off the rails it enters the territory of farce. From the standpoint of the rest of the planet (everything other than humans) its well past obvious that the metastisizing growth of the human population and the voracious appetite of the industry that needs to heep ‘civilization’ in well-oiled economic operation represents a catastrophic global extinction event that biodiversity hasn’t suffered since the end of the Cretaceous. Some have taken to calling it the 6th mass extinction. But just seeing something like this — — makes a person wonder whether the Drake equation shouldn’t include additional factors, like one that describes the fraction of emergent technological ‘civilizations’ that survive a profusion of plastic waste (ironically, processed ‘bio-fossil’ deposits containg the very same basic elements out of which life itself is composed). Then, one might consider all the other conceivable products of a technological/industrial civilization that attends excessive population growth as potential factors, and the Drake equation would bloat into something of encyclopedic proportion.* So, yeah, never mind why Diamond is so wildly off the mark. Just focus on his ridiculous premises. Tear it to shreds, it thoroughly deserves a good thrashing. Never mind bothering to look at any kind of bigger picture suggested by his idiotic premise.

    *One may assume that hypothetically comprehensive compendium would include a head factor along with a nifty flow chart that distills and boils that entire complex section down under the category of ‘overpopulation’…unless, of course, it is written by jerk-offs academically trained to dismiss any and all aspects pertaining to population aspects as Malthusian mythology with the same vehemence that Rush Limbaugh reserves for ‘liberals’.

  47. anchor says

    “…except to the 7 billion people who wouldn’t exist without it”

    That’s right. Including the estimated half of that number that nevertheless live in abject poverty and that neglected quarter that barely subsist under starvation conditions – they are also well ‘sustained’, aren’t they?

    A recent Guardian article has this as a title: “How to feed 9.7bn people? Startups take on the global food problem”

    Not a word in it about why we should not even go there.

    It’s a ‘technological challenge’.

    Oh, yeah, Its a ‘global food problem’ alright. Tell that to all the other wildlife that is increasingly being choked into extinction by human expansion.

    Hmmm…I have not seen a single butterfly so far this season. NOT ONE. I fear they are all gone. When I was a kid in the ’60s there were countless butterflies by late April. Everywhere you looked across a stretch of field, you would see countless numbers of them. Today, I haven’t seen a single one. And I live in a rural area that boasts of being resistant to development.

    Less birds…and the bees are very scarce roundabouts here too.

    Take that and plug it into our conceited and obsessive estimation of the preciousness of the laboratory quality of human life. Take that and tell us more about how important it is that atheism ought to have an enlarged ethical foundation that attends to all issues human. Take that and pretend that we can’t even begin to properly define ourselves without the environment that makes us possible. we are NEVER products of our technological prowess. we are products of nature, and to the extent that our ‘civilization’ tests and penetrates past the limits of what physical nature allows, we cannot sit on our sapient haunches and declare ourselves ‘intelligent’ without acknowledging the stupidity that attends it.

  48. numerobis says

    anchor@51: you first.

    While you complain about the population and argue it should be drastically reduced — without proposing a mechanism to achieve that — the rest of us work on environmental causes, including reducing the birth rate, which helpfully intersects with social justice.

  49. mostlymarvelous says


    Agriculture was definitely the most devastating technology ever invented – for nature as a whole. It propagates two evils:
    1. No matter how green you farm, it still clears large amounts of land and wipes out whole ecosystems to feed people.

    Depends on your definition of agriculture. Most people believe that the _only_ way to do agriculture is to clear lots and lots of land. Then when that land is “exhausted”, to clear even more.

    Some people learned to do it better.
    2000 year old garden/cropland.
    This one from Mexico is interesting. See the guy at 3.30 – no longer slash/ burn – and the other one at 5.00ish, tripling his milk production -because- he plants trees rather than 100% pasture.

    It’s not necessarily agriculture that’s the issue. It’s stupid agricultural practices like cutting/burning trees, burning crop residues and, once those processes wreck the productivity, allowing unrestricted grazing, goats and sheep especially, which guarantee trees and shrubs will never again get more than a couple of inches growth.

    For a stunning overview of what can be done as large scale restoration of wrecked farming environments, have a look at China’s Loess Plateau project. Watch from 5.30-7.50 for the before and after views. As I said, stunning.
    (Which Ethiopia and Rwanda and a couple of other countries are now emulating at their own scale and pace.)

  50. anchor says

    @numerobis #52: the mechanism for population reduction is ridiculously obvious (its called ‘birth control’ and ‘education’) and preferable to the inevitable alternatives. And I’ll tell you something else: I don’t need your snide and lofty presumption of working for environmental causes while having dedicated the best part of my last 45 years precisely within that arena, thank you the hell very much.

  51. anchor says

    Gosh almighty hell. Why are people around here so predisposed to the presumption of guilt? I’ve followed PZ since the earliest days, and can only conclude that the pernicious strain of atheist ‘asshats’ that has plagued the movement is further constipated by an excessive backlash effect that won’t leave even long-dedicated atheists alone to determine their own course,

    STOP IT!



    Make no mistake, I absolutely despise the asshat element that has infiltrated what we once imagined to be relatively free of wrong-headed thinking.

    There was a heady time when I could visit PZ’s sites in its earlier historical guises and reliably find a gusher of insight amongst the commentariat that concentrated on the actual issues involved. It made me feel I was a part of something important that could help establish . That sadly has disintegrated into desert of handwringing woe – instead of taking that challenge up and fighting it out.

    Its people just like you, numerobis, and like me and everyone else round hereabouts, who have, by small bits and degree over the years, allowed ourselves a condition of superiority which we cannot justify or validate.

    With all the obvious problems that have emerged in the hopeful association we once imagined in a common cause adherence to atheism, as a mere club, it got wrecked.

    I only wish the vitriol that is otherwise aimed onto the relatively small subset of under-educated newbies and the despicable seniors who manipulate them doesn’t so often backfire into the ranks of those of us who ought already to know better.

    Let’s at least start by not presuming something we do not have the slightest idea of what we are talking about…like, say, for example, the knee-jerk reaction that a commenter isn’t attempting to make an earnest point. Little steps, step by step. Ok?

  52. anchor says

    Ah, It just hit me: @numerobis #52 says “You first”. I did not understand what that meant until now.

    You foul bastard,

    You invite me to commit suicide:

    “You first”

    Is that now the going response on campus? Is that now the code for those who have been indoctrinated to regard population studies as Malthusian?

    I have no words against such an incredibly vicious suggestion.

    Oh, no, I can think of this: FUCK YOU.

    That’s code for FUCK YOU.

  53. anchor says

    BTW: not to worry, numerobis, I have not only managed not to produce children (and I shall refrain from the impulse of asking whether you measure up to that standard) but shall in relatively short time succumb to a battle with cancer. So, you ought to be very proud to have suggested I off myself despite I’m way past an ability to father children.

    You know, perhaps I shall give it up – because I have to contend with idiots just like you – and end it.

    I will rest easy in peace.

    And you will remain a foul bastard.

    yes…I think that’s exactly what will relieve me of the pain of humanity

  54. says

    I’d recommend George Monbiot’s Feral. He discusses how the early American colonizers took in native American children to ‘civilize’ them. Whenever they had the opportunity to return tho their native tribes, the children always refused to return.

    I don’t consider brainwashed and traumatised children a good indicator.

    Seems to me that hunger, death and misery have always been a big part of human existence, but I doubt that the average hunter-gatherer spends a lot of time wondering whether their lifestyle is a good one because over there lots of people are currently starving when they have no idea that “over there” exists.

  55. springa73 says

    I might be too late for anyone to read this, but here goes –

    I think that Diamond’s point was that even if agriculture was extremely successful for the human species as a whole, it actually made things worse for most individual humans because it required more strenuous and backbreaking work, created a more stable but also more monotonous and less nutritious diet, and exposed people to more deadly diseases. Having said that, I think that the life of a hunter-gatherer was often also “nasty, brutish, and short”, especially in areas where too many people were competing for scarce resources.

    Basically, it took until the 20th century for agricultural societies to find cures for many of the problems that agriculture caused. I don’t think that acknowledging this big downside means that one must support a return to a hunter-gatherer type of subsistence.

    As for our current industrial-technological society, it certainly has a lot of problems. Hoping that it will collapse and just shrugging off the fact that this would kill the majority of humanity is far too misanthropic and even bloodthirsty for me to understand.