Agriculture – humanity’s worst mistake – or not?

jaredJared Diamond’s article, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” written in 1987, has reportedly become a standard discussion point in anthropology classes – and it’s definitely a fascinating and provocative statement. His central thesis is as follows:

Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.


I’ve read Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and found it fascinating and convincing – although I know there are disputes about it – but I have a feeling I should look at it again.

In that book, he at the least raises some very good questions and makes some good points. I remember from “Guns” how certain diseases – especially those that transferred over from animals – only developed after humans adopted agriculture etc. So it’s clearly the case that agriculture produced problems. The question raised by his article is whether on balance agriculture was a good or a bad thing for the human race.

So these are the questions and comments the article provoked in me:

Interestingly, since I would have expected Diamond to go the other way, given his strongly implied critique of modern society in this piece, Diamond agrees with other experts – including Steven Pinker (see link to my other blog post below) – that early, hunter-gatherer societies were considerably more violent than modern societies – based on the evidence we have.


So I would take that to be a significant counter-example to his argument that introducing agriculture (by implication entailing the subsequent development course of the human race) was a mistake – given that presumably one would agree that lower average levels of violence among human beings is a good thing.

A very basic point – in terms of survival and in terms of becoming the dominant form of human existence: hunter-gatherer societies have clearly not been successful comparatively. They are now minuscule by comparison to humans living based on agriculture and its consequences.

I frequently find that Diamond’s evidence is unsatisfying and rather unconvincing. For example – his argument that the average amount of time spent obtaining food appears less IF we compare it (by implication) to people’s average work hours today. But first of all this is based on TWO examples of hunter-gatherer groups. Which begs the question – what is the AVERAGE time spent by hunter-gatherers obtaining food? If Diamond is also including “working” for food (rather than simply “obtaining” – although this is left unclear *see updated note below), then modern-day people do spend considerably more time than 12, 14 or 19 hours a week working (on average), but they are certainly working for more things than just food, many of which wouldn’t have been available to Bushmen – which we can debate the merits of – but it’s certainly not just food. And the reference also leaves out how much time hunter-gatherers spend working for things other than food.

Same point with his reference to ONE study of bushmen’s diets, saying its calorific input was high – what was the average including the OTHER studies?

There seems to me to be a basic undermining retort to his overall argument: even if we allow that conditions for human beings were INITIALLY worse under agriculture, that of course doesn’t mean that it didn’t eventually lead to much better conditions. And remember Diamond is boldly playing the long game in his argument – he’s talking about the last million years of history – so he’s inviting a critique on these terms.

For example – he says that lifestyles of hunter-gatherers weren’t nasty or brutish – but they were definitely short.

Quote, from a study in Illinois:

Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years,” says Armelagos, “but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years.

Great – but 26 years is supposed to compare favourably to now? Average life expectancy for ALL humans born in 2013, according to WHO, was 71.

More trivially, he comes up with the interesting fact that hunter-gatherers in the region of Turkey and Greece averaged 5ft 9 for men – and was considerably lower in 3000 BC under agriculture. I checked and it has risen above that today – even it took a long time!

But given these considerations above, his following statement,

“Thus with the advent of agriculture an elite became better off, but most people became worse off,” is demonstrably false – in the long-term.

Despite continuing, serious problems, most people – a large majority of the current 7 billion on the planet – are definitely better off today by most of the usual measurements, than they were as hunter-gatherers. (ie the classic health outcome measurements of under five mortality and longevity, and they are much less likely to die violently, not to mention access to things that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have had – like information about far away places, new and different ideas, far away peoples).

See for example “Getting Better” by Economist Charles Kenny. (Though in fact, even the blurb for this is misleadingly pessimistic – the overall trend is for convergence between economies and incomes world wide (yes between the developed and developing world) – even if there’s been increasing inequality recently within the west – see economist Thomas Piketty:

A global convergence process in which emerging countries are catching up with developed countries seems well under way today, even though substantial inequalities between rich and poor countries remain.

Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (p. 72). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Lurking behind (or not so behind) much of his argument is a critique of population growth: “Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production.”

pikettyBut while population growth is an important issue, most experts expect it to shade off during this century and to level out:

The rate of global population growth peaked in the period 1950– 1970 at nearly 2 percent per year and since then has decreased steadily. Although one can never be sure of anything in this realm, it is likely that this process will continue and that global demographic growth rates will decline to near zero in the second half of the twenty-first century. The shape of the bell curve is quite well defined (see Figure 2.2). Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (p. 99). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

And according to the World Bank: “In 1960, women worldwide had an average of 5 children. The rate has since halved, and in 2012, women had an average of 2.5 children across all regions.”

Warnings by population alarmists like Paul Ehrlich, who predicted that “hundreds of millions” would die of famine in the 70s have proven to be wildly off target. (A very generous reading of famines in that period might put it at around 2 million deaths – meaning that at the very least, Ehrlich was off by a factor of more than 100).

And the average person lives with an abundance of food available to him or her, not to mention safe water (yes, many don’t, but the vast majority do have these things).

And finally, without agriculture we could not have organized or developed our current societies – with its chain of government, education, technical advances, massive developments in healthcare, education, transport, dissemination of information and overall knowledge. We now have the most extraordinary access to an enormous wealth of information and knowledge, literally at our fingertips. For me that is an absolutely stupendous development. We would not have had the transformation provided by the scientific process. We would have no books, internet, the spread of abstract thinking, the intellectual architecture that developed after the Enlightenment – including human rights and international law; and, indeed, no discussions like this; and maybe more trivially we wouldn’t have had comforts like heating, refrigeration, and far greater protection from the elements. Less trivially (I suppose) I wouldn’t have been alive to write this and it’s a fair guess that friends of mine reading this wouldn’t be alive. And while he argues there was art under the hunter-gatherers – of course, beautiful stuff – we have had an unimaginable outpouring of creativity in all the arts for centuries – most of it made possible (not to mention the consumption of said art) by living in settled, organized societies.

So the question remains, on balance, whether agriculture was a good thing or bad thing for humanity – whether agriculture was a “mistake”. It’s a question that’s hard to answer, because you can’t distance yourself to make a disinterested choice, and I don’t think humanity really “chose” its course, in any meaningful sense. I think it’s more of a gut level, emotional question. Does modern society fill me with such despair that I think it would better – let’s say if it was practically feasible – to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? I think I definitely come to a different conclusion from Jared Diamond.

And here’s why I’m more of an optimist – another of my blog posts.

Post script – this recent article confirms many of my questions – working time was much longer than the claims above; and leisure time was undercut by the conditions of violence and threat hunter-gatherers usually live under. The claim about working hours had to be radically revised when the original author admitted that he hadn’t included time for food processing, tool making, or general housework.

The threat of disease was actually higher in mobile groups than in more sedentary groups that used horticulture: “Much is made of the increased risk of infectious disease in large, concentrated, sedentary populations, but comparatively little attention has been given to the risk of ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ common among hunter-gatherers. For mobile groups, infants, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals have little opportunity to develop resistance to local pathogens. This may help explain why infant and child mortality among hunter-gatherers tends to be so high. Across hunter-gatherer societies, only about 57% of children born survive to the age of 15. Sedentary populations of forager-horticulturalists, and acculturated hunter-gatherers, have a greater number of children surviving into adulthood, with 64% and 67%, respectively, surviving to the age of 15.”

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