About 10,000 years ago humanity transitioned from living as small bands of wandering hunter-gathers to large communities whose nutritional needs were met by farming. This transition is referred to as the “agricultural revolution” and whether it was a positive or negative is fraught with controversy.
On one hand, without the shift to farming our species could not have become anywhere near as populous as we are. Farming allowed for a vast increase in food as compared to hunting wild animals and foraging for wild plants. Agriculture is the foundation upon which complex civilization rests. It gave rise to specialization and great advancements in technology.
On the other hand, the shift to farming came with a lot of baggage. The explosion in the number of humans hasn’t been great for our planet or other species, and from the human perspective the agricultural revolution severed an important connection between humans and nature. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, calls the agricultural revolution the turning point “where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.”
As modern 21st century humans it may seem obvious that we’ve benefited from agriculture. Without the agricultural revolution we probably wouldn’t have houses with air conditioning, advanced medicine, cars or planes, or the internet. We definitely wouldn’t have social media. But all this technology comes with a question: are we living better lives? Being a member of modern society typically means living distracted and frantic lives. As Harari notes in Sapiens,
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?
Research into hunter-gather societies reveals a very different yet compelling way of life:
- Individuals in hunter-gather societies have greater leisure time than people in agrarian-based, technologically advanced societies. (see this study for more on this point.) Agriculture and specialization takes a lot of time and labor. Hunter-gatherers on average spend a lot less time acquiring food and much more time engaging in leisure activities and socializing.
- Eating mostly foraged wild plants supplemented with some meat from wild animals, the diets of hunter-gathers is more nutritious than that of farmers. The move to farming resulted in our diets shifting to a lot of grains and starches, fewer vegetables, and less diverse calorie sources. According to Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, “hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (today just three high-carbohydrate plants—wheat, rice, and corn—provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.)” In essence, we traded our quality of food for quantity.
- Agriculture’s negative effect can been seen in the size of skeletons through time. A study of hunter-gatherer skeletons around the end of the ice age found an average height of 5’9″ for males and 5’5″ for females. Early in the agricultural revolution heights crashed to 5’3″ for men and 5′ for women and we’ve only just recently regained our pre-agrarian heights. This reduction in height is due to poor nutrition.
- While agriculture has led to an abundance of food, it also results in famine and starvation that rarely occurred for hunter-gathers. Farming focuses on a limited number of crops and animals for food. Droughts and disease can wipe out entire harvests or kill an entire stock of animals used for food. Over the history of agriculture there have been countless cases of mass starvation. The Irish potato famine is a good example where heavy reliance on a single crop led to starvation and over 1 million deaths. This doesn’t occur for hunter and gatherers given their highly diverse food sources.
- Agriculture also spurred disease transmission. Epidemics didn’t occur when we lived in small bands of nomads with limited interaction. Infectious diseases and plagues became common only after we began living packed in close together in villages and cities.
- Farming also gave rise to stratification by class and a divide between the haves and have nots. Again from Jared Diamond: “Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.”
Here’s how Yuval Noah Harari summarizes it: “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”
Stupidity and ignorance of the human race or Sapiens…or whatever term we choose if always present. But, we also have ingenuity, curiosity, self-awareness/determination/criticism…etc.
Basically if we cannot find the answers, we may destroy ourselves. More than likely some form of life may remain, even if we destroy great portions of known resources.
As George Carlin said…
We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet! Are these people kidding? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves; we haven’t learned how to care for one another. We’re gonna save the fuckin’ planet? . . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet in the first place. The planet is fine. The people are fucked! Compared with the people, the planet is doin’ great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t goin’ anywhere, folks. We are!
We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, we’re goin’ away. And we won’t leave much of a trace. Thank God for that. Nothing left. Maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here, and we’ll be gone. Another failed mutation; another closed-end biological mistake.
I don’t think the hunter/gatherers were very good prospects from a trust company.
Reading Sapiens years ago had a profound impact on me. I totally agree with him about the agricultural revolution having been a turning point. In terms of climate change, and humans’ footprint on the planet, the agricultural revolution was the tipping point. Let’s hope we can innovate our way (see Bill Gates recent 60 Minute interview) through the next 30 years with all the know how we have gained from our advanced society.
Not so sure I agree John — the authors of the books you mention, while incredibly bright and accomplished, also have a “brand” – and on such complex topics it is always possible to support your hypothesis by weighting the evidence.
SO — moving from subsistence to the ability to distribute work across society also allowed for learning, literature, science, art, music. No agriculture no Galileo, no Da Vinci, no Emily Dickinson, no Maya Angelou, no B.B. King. Life is tradeoffs. MAybe we can be smarter going forward?
I for one have no interest in a hunter gatherer society that is dominated by a 6 foot four, 240 pound behemoth named Bear who has his way with all the women, and, when that bores him, me.
That’s a fantastic comment! Thanks.
This seems to be a very romanticized take on the life of hunter-gatherers. Personally I like my life expectancy being greater than 70 and not likely dying from a preventable disease. (wiki- Researchers Gurven and Kaplan have estimated that around 57% of hunter-gatherers reach the age of 15. Of those that reach 15 years of age, 64% continue to live to or past the age of 45. This places the life expectancy between 21 and 37 years. They further estimate that 70% of deaths are due to diseases of some kind, 20% of deaths come from violence or accidents and 10% are due to degenerative diseases.)
Great counterpoint. Thanks.