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Is agriculture our worst mistake yet? October 29, 2007

Posted by Al in : educational , trackback

Here’s an interesting article, which puts forward an argument I would never have thought of before reading it, and now leaves me torn between modern urban society and the far healthier life of a hunter-gatherer. The article argues that moving from a hunter-gatherer way of life, to one based on heavy agriculture, has left the human race stunted, less healthy and could well be the prime cause of most conflicts in our society. I am tempted to believe this premise, and I can see that our diet, at least, would have been far healthier without agriculture. However, I am also rather fond of the perks of our move to agriculture, as conurbations would not have been possible without it, and without towns and cities we would never have had television, computers, the Internet, etc. So while I can agree that for individuals the move to agriculture may have been a bad thing, I think the pro’s outweigh the con’s.


1. L Harris - October 29, 2007

“The pros outweight the cons” – Alonline.

From whose perspective, the privileged upper classes (that’s you and me) or the farmer in the developing world?

I think that Diamonds article cannot be boiled down to a quick pick of which is better modern lifestyles or hunter gatherer lifestyles. To say “the pros outweigh the cons” misses the point. Television, computers, the internet – all compelling reasons to love the modern lifestyle but you should stop and ask how many of the worlds poor have access to these things? How many billions in the majority world have benefited from the cream of our agricultural revolution? Think about this for just a moment and there your mind will surely encounter inequality bred out of the agricultural revolution, of creating communities of haves and have nots. Globalised trade and infrastructure has now created entire continents of haves and have nots.

The pros of modern life outweigh the cons? We might as well say the pros of being a mill owner during the industrial revolution (wealth, status, property) outweigh the cons (child labour, abject poverty for most others, disease, slums).

2. Arvind - October 30, 2007

In fact, with a little more creative thought we can also question the veracity of Teles, Comps, and Web as “pros” on an individual level, even for us — the elite. Let’s for a second replace Television with Storytelling (campfires, coutyards, or the village banyan tree… take your pick). Let’s for a minute swap Computers for Games (tag, hopscotch, jump-rope, a mud pit, or a game of soccer with a ball made of nespapers and string… what’s your childhood medicine?) What I am trying to say is that we don’t need to resort to a all-encompassing altruistic perspective — something that might be difficult to access for some of us that are knee deep in the race. If we truly open our minds to all possibilities we might, through creative social experimentation, discover the secrets we fear we might have lost.

3. Al - October 30, 2007

I have to point out that I qualified my statement with an “I think” before it, and it’s my opinion that the pro’s really do outweigh the con’s. Although the hunter/gatherer lifestyle was a healthier option in many respects, their lifespan was 30-40 years due to a lack of medicine, and during these years their teeth would have rotted and fallen out due to no dental care. Only some of their children would have made it to adulthood, parasites would have been commonplace, sanitation was basic and could not have coped with an increase in population and there was always a risk of being some predator’s lunch.

It’s easy to think of simpler times as more idyllic, and in some ways they were. However, would you really be prepared to give up all the knowledge the human race has accumulated after it gained the ability to set up home and so begin to store possessions? As a hunter/gatherer man would not have been able to carry books around with them wherever they went, and so oral tradition was the only way to go – a situation which was not conducive to any form of science. These simple folk would not have been able to carry telescopes and microscopes on their treks, let alone libraries to record their observations.

Whilst they could predict seasons, they would never have been able to work out that the Earth orbited the Sun, but not that this was controlled by gravity. They would have known that the sky was blue, but not that this was caused by Rayleigh scattering of the Sun’s light. They would have seen lightning and heard it’s thunder, but never known that this was caused by massive electrical discharges. They would have known lots of basic, but spent their entire lives wondering about why these things happen – because one of mankind’s greatest attributes is curiosity, and without agriculture allowing us to put down roots and begin to accumulate possessions and knowledge we would never have learnt the things we have.

I can appreciate the satisfaction these hunter/gatherers must have felt on the days when a good supply of food was found and they were well fed and able to sit down and rest. But I would imagine that these rest times were spent making up reasons why apples fell down instead of up, or what the stars really were. I, for one, would prefer to have the knowledge we now have, and to be living in a world where, although there are great differences between one country and the next, this knowledge is being applied to try to better humanity’s prospects. I’m a knowledge junkie at heart, and I wouldn’t be without my books, Discovery channel and the Internet.

Finally: I am aware that I am living in a very privileged position in a very privileged society, and I’m very grateful for that. My intention is to enjoy this position as much as I can as I’m already halfway through my life, and I don’t expect another one. I’m sorry if this seems offensive to you, but I cannot change who I am or when and where I was born – so I intend to make the most of it.