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.