Was the Agricultural Revolution a mistake?

Here’s an interesting article on The Dawn of Everything, which seeks to challenge the sort of ‘grand history’ narratives of Harari, Pinker, Diamond et al:

With the disclaimer that I haven’t read the book (but plan to), its central target seems to be the sort of teleological ‘force’ of history, leading (depending on whether you follow Rousseau or Hobbes) inevitably to humanity’s fall from grace or ascension to properly rational animal, replacing it rather with a narrative where humanity isn’t so much the unwitting victim of history, but a meaningfully active agent, trying out various projects, abandoning them, perhaps taking them up again, thus upsetting any claim of overall progression towards some ‘end of history’. I don’t have any means of really evaluating either its claims or those of Harari et al, but it seems at least plausible to me that one might succumb to the temptation of creating an ex post facto just-so story that brings history in line with some great narrative, sweeping the actual messiness under the rug somewhat. (Certainly, the fact that both humanity’s ascent to greatness and its fall have received spirited defenses working from the same historical facts is an interesting data point in this regard.)

We look at hunter-gatherers today and think they live on the edge only because they have already been forced from all the rich lands by farmers. Their life style seems to have been pretty good, back when that’s how people lived.

A friend who is a fairly serious amateur archeologist says that the archeological evidence suggests that almost no one “made that transition”. Hunter-gatherers and herders lived near farmers, and observed that the life of farmers sucked. Farmers worked harder, ate less varied and less healthy food, and got sick more often.


Farmers had more food per acre, and ate more total calories, and had more children. And those children wanted their own land. And the higher population density of farming communities meant that farmers won wars against herders. And took their land, and killed or enslaved or drove off the hunter-gatherers. Farming seems to have spread across Europe, he tells me, at about the rate of one farm-width per generation.

Similarly, farming people would start little city-states at the edge of the Mediterranean, and much like the indigenous people’s of the Americas, the locals would not realize the growth-potential of those little settlements until it was too late.

Cain killed Abel and took his land.

The agricultural revolution was not so much a mistake, as typical behavior of the perfidious farmers stealing from decent people.

Not having read the book, I find it’s premise slightly flawed. While it may be true that paleo dieters and Jean-Jacques idolized the “noble savage”, this does not mean most archeologists or historians do as well. Many acknowledge the limits of the evidence, refrain from “Just so” and were the sources used in this book. I wouldn’t characterize Harari’s writing style in this way either, he acknowledges this is a simplification and things happened differently in different places.

I enjoyed “Bullshit Jobs” and suppose this work will also be witty - but condescending. In the sweep of history, things like jobs are pretty insignificant and everyone deserves the right and dignity of work whatever that may be. People have needs and thus can never be born free. Of course cooperative societies have existed and flourished without elites, but a progressive society without a military may still have to eventually deal with warmongers. The problem is not idealizing societies or assuming one knows the forms of governance. The problem is different societies are very different but still interdependent.

I’ve read The Dawn of Everything, and it’s seriously worth it. It’s the best nonfiction book I’ve read for many years – a landmark study in this field, and a change of paradigm.

There’s one huge difference between Harari, Pinker, Diamond et al, and Graeber & Wengrow. The former are dilettantes who present simplified and outdated pop-science ideas. Graeber & Wengrow are professionals who have spent their lives studying this field, and they’re familiar with a very wide range of the latest scientific research and current academic discussions.

This is not a sensationalist book, or some pop-theory. It’s hard science, and a model of clear, rational, logical, scientific argument.

Unlike the others, G&W never say ‘this is my big theory, and it’s true for such and such reason’. They rather say, ‘These are the possibilities. There’s this, and this and this, and perhaps this. The first one was suggested by so-and-so, and it seemed reasonable at the time, but this paper and this paper and this book show that it doesn’t stand up, for these reasons. This other theory has this evidence in it’s favor. However, there is also this fact and this fact that tend to make it unlikely. It’s possible that future discoveries will turn up more about this, but new research currently shows… etc. etc.’

They back up everything they say with many hundreds of citations, a lot of them within the last decade or two, and they put together a meticulously argued, logical case.

That may sound boring, yet it’s anything but. Almost every page has fascinating and eye-opening discussions and interesting new information.

“This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast. There is not a single chapter that does not (playfully) disrupt well seated intellectual beliefs. It is deep, effortlessly iconoclastic, factually rigorous, and pleasurable to read.”

― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan

They dispose of Harari, Diamond etc. in an almost casual way, using plenty of hard facts and clear logic. Their attitude to these writers is something like that of an amused parent explaining to a child why some weird idea they’ve got into their head is wrong.

I’ll have to read it. I think it might have been you (?) who once recommended Oliver Rackham’s book on the English countryside and that was unexpectedly good for such an esoteric topic.

I recently read Graeber’s book as well–specifically in response to this excellent article about the book (and about Graeber–who died not long after finishing Dawn of Everything): Review: ‘The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity’ - The Atlantic

My biggest take away from the book is that a lot of established wisdom in this area was not and is not based on as much “firm” knowledge as lay people like ourselves had really maybe believed, Graeber has a lot of evidence poking quite a bit of holes in common received wisdom about the development of early civilization.

It wasn’t me. I recommended James Rebanks’ books on English farming in the Lake District.

Çatalhöyük existed for a little over 1,100 years from 7,500 BCE until 6,400 BCE. In the lower levels of the city there is scant evidence that they had any knowledge of agriculture or the domestication of animals though such evidence exists in the more recent upper areas of the city. This would suggest that agriculture and animal domestication is not required for civilization as we once thought.

It could be that in some areas there was no choice but to switch to agriculture. Human beings got quite good at hunting, and combined with climate change or other pressures the it may have been increasingly difficult to sustain a large population via hunting.

Purchased. Now let’s see if I get around to reading it. :wink: I find I don’t do as much recreational reading as a age. Or maybe I spend that time reading stuff like the SDMB, instead of actual books.

Without agriculture, we’d still be living in caves, or yurts and wearing animal skins. And have no technology. No pure hunter/gatherer has time to mine ore, develop engines, refrigeration or tupperware, the telephone or radio, or be layabout philosophers.

Maybe that would have been a better thing for the planet, but no one would have the time or energy to debate the issue. Or the ability to have seminars with other H/G clans around the world, or even farther than the next valley.

Again, as has been pointed out, there is ample evidence hunter-gatherers didn’t spend nearly as much of their time “hunting and gathering” as you expect, most of their time was in fact free.

I don’t believe that hunter-gatherers didn’t fail to develop complex things like writing and record keeping, which lead to iterative complexity, because of lack of free time. I think it’s more lack of need. Keeping track of who owned or controlled what in a formal sense wasn’t necessary in a hunter-gatherer scenario to nearly the same degree. Settlements and early forms of property rights and complicated economic arrangements eventually needed ways to keep track of it. A lot of the earliest forms of writing we have found appear to be ledger and accounting system type stuff.

Why stop at agriculture?

Orbiting this [sun], at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. And so the problem remained, and lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.

The way I see it: wrong, right, dubious, right, right, right, very wrong.
And I agree that the Agricultural Revolution was probably a mistake, but it is too late now to reverse course. We are doomed. Enjoy it while it lasts, we are still the privileged ones.

Wild predators don’t spend much of their day hunting either. Because they can’t afford to do so.

Hunting is erratic. No hunter can afford to deplete reserves on a 12 hour hunt on a typical day. Because it’s too erratic, too likely you will come up empty. So a limited time is spent, find a good spot, then spend most of the day napping and hope you are lucky. Next day, repeat. Then you get lucky, get a kill and can hold onto it. So you gorge, then more napping days as you sleep off your overeating. It’s not like you’re going to be writing your next novel doing all of this. You are competing with other hunters, animals and humans, in likely a competitive environment, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

Ag getting more hours devoted to it was a feature, not a bug. Because of the high probability of results that will help the farmers live, they can afford to invest the time in farming. Hunter/gatherers can’t, because they have to keep so much on reserve at all times. The ability to use time productively is an asset.

I can’t help but think that the reason we can even have this discussion because agriculture became a thing.

I think you’re greatly underestimating how plentiful birds, fish, and game were in many places in earlier times, and how much of hunting was a cooperative enterprise.

Could you explain this? Even if you put farming as far back at 15,000 years ago and use 25 years as a generation, that’s only 600 generations. That would imply a “farm width” is about 5 miles, unlikely until very recent times.

I read Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and was very impressed. I plan on getting Dawn, although 700 page books dismay me. Too bad that he died recently. I read that he and Wengrow were planning more books.

It all comes down to how you define what should be considered a con and what a pro, and how you weigh them against each other. It’s more work to tend sheep then to go out and hunt a sheep whenever you need one. But with tending sheep comes the reliability of the sheep being right there when you want some mutton instead of being somewhere out in your hunting grounds. Not to mention you’re never going to invent peccorino romano if you only get a tiny amount of sheep’s milk every time you happen to kill a sheep with young lambs.

I’d say that the agricultural revolution wasn’t really worth it for the individuals (other than those who got to live who would otherwise have been exposed due to illness or injury), but today we have reached the point where we could have the same stability for less work, if we hadn’t codified “everyone should work 8 hours a day and the distribution of the resulting product should be controlled by people who consume the production of tens or hundreds of people to make their leisure time fractionally better than their neighbor’s”.

I don’t think the way you’re talking about this is consistent with what we know about human hunter-gatherers and how they operated. You’re talking more about how solitary predator species often operate, where they may go many days without eating, and often rely on lying in wait etc to pounce on prey. Human hunters in prehistoric times, if what we have seen from hunter-gatherer societies that existed into the 19th-20th century and were well-studied by modern anthropologists, and some that still exist today, seem to operate at almost a vastly higher efficiency rate. It is cooperative hunting with tool use, if is far more effective than a solitary animal hunting prey.

Of course there is significant variation based on where and what time of the year. There are some parts of the earth where human HGs enjoyed basically year-round pleasant climate and plentiful forage with minimal effort, and possibly plentiful animal harvesting as well. Very northern HGs probably had it worse in some respects, but even in those cases we see some evidence they “worked smarter not harder”, for example cultures developed that would take advantage of very plentiful caloric sources in the northern climes–large reindeer herds, large gatherings of seals / walruses, easily kill whales etc. Some of these large collections of animals were massive before modern times, some of the northern reindeer herds were so massive that the humans that lived off of them didn’t even put a serious dent into their population, for example.

The ease of forage is also probably underestimated, there have been anthropologists who have spent time with Amazon indigenous peoples who have remarked on how some of them can go into the woods and literally come back in 45 minutes with a huge amount of foraged food that could easily last them days. These people have incredibly learned eyes and incredibly practiced skills at knowing what to grab, what to upturn to look for various things etc etc.

I do not think it is accurate that human HGs had to spend most of their non-hunting time asleep due to lack of energy.