The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our Earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. 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. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism,that curse our existence.

Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

Interesting essay published in a 1987 issue of Discover. The author is Jared Diamond, a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. It’s a fascinating paper, analyzing the health and well-being of modern-day bushmen and hunter-gatherers, as well as the irreversible consequences of modern agricultural society. Diamond concludes that agriculture spurned a series of shifts in human society that negatively affected our health, happiness, and harmony.

I’m torn by anti-agriculturalism. On the one hand, the evidence is pretty clear that the products of agriculture– refined grains, vegetable oils, and processed foods– are the main causes of heart disease, diabetes, and the other “diseases of civilization.” In addition, the surpluses of food created by agriculture enabled the creation of social hierarchy, empire, slavery, and the other products of economic power.

On the other hand, without those agricultural surpluses, we would have no significant trade, no means to exploit comparative advantage, no real opportunity for economic development (My Economics professor began our Advanced Microeconomics class at the dawn of agriculture, because before then, there was simply nothing to trade). Earth would be populated by tiny groups of hunter-gatherers, without tall cities, laboratories, libraries, airplanes or space shuttles. Our consciousness would be of families and local communities, without a sense of being part of a greater race or planet.

Which world would be better? As much as I like modern comforts, I think I’d pick sunshine, leisure, and perfect health over television and Nikes, but at this point, the question is entirely academic. Agricultural societies sweep over hunter-gatherers, obliterating the rich ecosystems that sustain them, and forcing them to find their place in the market and the social order. Once a society has gone agricultural, there’s no going back.

(There is, however, a way to mitigate some of agriculture’s harms. A paleo lifestyle, where we emulate hunter-gatherers in diet and exercise, seems to prevent or postpone many of the diseases that come with agriculture.)

If you find Diamond’s paper convincing, outrageous, or provocative (or hell, even if you don’t), I highly recommend picking up a copy of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. It wrestles with a lot of the big-picture ethics and human-purpose questions that Diamond raises, but in a more pensive, narrative way. That’s not to say it’s lofty and philisophical, though– it’s a quick, fun read (and plenty accessible for kids 10 and so on)…

…typed the hedonist hipster on his Macbook Pro. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?