Was the Agricultural Revolution the Worst Mistake in Human History?

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Generally, people like to view history a one long linear road to progress.

A fish climbs out of water to walk on land; a monkey drops down from a tree and stands up in the long grass, stone tools turn to bronze and iron tools, hunter-gathering turns to farming, cities grow and soon enough we rocket off into space, all the while getting cleverer and living more fulfilling lives.
Of course this is all a lie: history just isn't that simple. Instead of a linear path, history can be a lot more...well...

For example, breakthrough inventions can be discovered simultaneously, or created 'early' and then forgotten, or even developed only to be deliberately rejected. History can be doomed to repeat itself, or can be wiped away in one sudden catastrophe. 'Progress' is relative and is inescapably tied to the values of the people who live at the time: values that often seem to make little logical sense. 

So, with that in mind, I wanted to take a look at what is viewed as the biggest leap forward in human history: the Agricultural Revolution. Was it the big and 'inevitable' leap forward that we have always been told it is? In his book 'Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind' Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was instead the worse mistake we could have made.

Hunting and Gathering
Part of the Gobekli Tepe Temple

In prehistory human societies (Sapien or otherwise) sustained themselves by hunting and gathering for around 2.5million years. The land they roamed could, on average, support around 100 individuals with relative ease. The ability to roam gave us a very varied diet, and one that could be flexible enough to support us when one stream of possible food ran dry. Humans could shape their environment if they wished, for example by using bushfires to clear areas to encourage herds to graze nearby. Without the need for static property, there was less anxiety about possessions being linked to survival, so warfare was less endemic than in modern societies. There is proof that humans at this time, following a hunter-gathering way of life were culturally diverse, intelligent, and could even pool resources to build fantastic structures. For example, the Gobekli Tepe Temple was built in 9,500BC before widespread agriculture.

The agricultural revolution began around 9,500-8,500BC in Southeast turkey, western Iran and the Levenant, though it was a phenomenon that cropped up in all corners of the globe quite individually. The idea itself seems a simple one - people began to discover that they could cultivate certain types of plant and by doing so, allow themselves to create a stable source of food that they could, in theory, rely on.
So far, so logical.
But, as Harari argues in 'Sapiens', humanity's choice to move into agricultural production was, in the end, the biggest mistake that humanity has made. Instead of improving our lives, it drastically reduced our quality of lives and set us on a path that was impossible to walk back from.

The Dark Side of the Agricultural Revolution

No one can fault the logic behind the agricultural revolution: people were simply trying to work nature into providing more food for them. But in tying themselves to the land and in forcing themselves into back-breaking seasonal work humanity lost much of it's freedom, encouraged greater warfare and effectively destroyed the variety of their diet and leisure. Now that humanity were dependant on one particular crop for their diet, a huge swathe of anxiety followed.

Cultivating wheat, for example, took from dawn until dusk. If the wheat got sick, humans had to worry about the sickness and invest time and effort into curing it. If the rains didn't come the humanity would starve because of the drought's destruction of their one real food source. Wheat demanded perfect ground so humans broke their backs clearing fields and weeding away competitors. Days were no longer flexible, but were forced into routines that forced humans to worry and plan years and decades into the future. If someone threatened the land that they had put all the effort into, everything could be lost at once. Retaliation was brutal because running away was simply not an option. 

The aim was to create more food so that the individual societies could prosper, but even in this the revolution failed. While agriculture allowed the larger production of one type of food, in line the settlement and reliance on this meant that the human population swelled. Instead of human population being controlled by the resources of the environment that they lived on, agriculture warped the environment into a factory. While human population could grow, this meant that - should the one vital link the the new much shorter food chain collapse - humans died in their thousands. Hunting and gathering, like most animals, had natural fertility checks: if a woman breast fed a child for four years or so, she was less likely to fall pregnant and when food was scarce puberty occurred later. In agricultural societies children could be fed on cow milk or paste made from the crops instead, female fertility recovered more quickly, and more children could be produced whenever there weren't full-blown starvation conditions. In Hunter-gatherer societies a small band of people were maintained with steady fertility rates dependant on a shifting environment that largely plateaued it people were creative about how they pursued their food. Instead, agricultural societies could be stable for a large period, but were far more vulnerable to extreme peaks and troughs that could wipe out a thousands with one bad harvest - thousands that had literally no other way to subsist. 

Even in the peaks, when the crops were well, the quality of life was still back breaking for the majority - over time any surplus was used to feed an elite. The common farmer - the majority - in the end had a far rougher life than his ancestors and farming was to blame.

Why Choose a Lifestyle That's Worse For Us?

The agricultural revolution was never a matter of humans becoming somehow more clever and taking 'the next logical step' towards farming. The very nature of the human species is that, genetically at least, very little has changed about them: we simply haven't evolved much past the original Homo Sapiens. Once we learnt to speak, and to imagine, evolution became a secondary concern: instead of growing to adapt to our environment, Harari argues, we instead created complicated myths and social structures that allowed us to pull together and make our environment and how we responded to it work for us. This could be achieved without the need for a shift to agriculture and certainly hunter gatherers were no less intelligent than even modern people today.

So, if people were as clever as we are now, surely they noticed that they had made a bad choice? Why carry on with agriculture if humans had more back breaking work, longer hours, higher chance of starvation, less nutrition, less free time and more anxiety for warfare? Harrari suggests that the reason for this was simply time.

Around 18,000 years ago the ice age shifted and global warming took hold, creating more rain and therefore a climate more suitable for wheat to grow. Eating wheat was no simple task, it needed to be ground and to be processed in order to be edible and so people would take the crop with them to their temporary settlements to prepare. People would have camped for this 'harvest', and the wheat seeds would have found favourable conditions near humans. A camp that may have lasted five weeks would, in generations time, last a little longer and a little longer. Villages would spring up and offer the benefits of settlement such as storehouses and granaries and places to store more and more advanced tools. While initially low level agriculture would mix with hunter-gathering, it is no surprise that creative children would attempt to improve on ideas they have seen from their parents. One child might discover that using a hoe and plough was far more effective and his granddaughter might find that making use of fertiliser and fences would be more effective. As more and more effort was put in, as people became more used to a more static lifestyle, and as each generation made small improvements on the previous generation, eventually humanity was locked into a lifestyle of permanent villages and permanent farms and a weighty routine that locked them in place. People worked harder and got creative to try to have a better life. But in doing so they became more dependant and the hardest work became the bare subsistence of normality. When the population swelled past the point that hunter-gathering could support the group of humans, there was no escape. Farming was here to stay.

Is it all bad?

That's one small step for man...
Like any big mistake in life sometimes all you can do is to accept it and move on as best you can. The way the majority humanity has structured itself means that there is no viable alternative while ever there are so damn many of us. But that is where things get interesting.
the huge population is held together by creative 'myths' that allow for unprecedented social cooperation. By compartmentalising a food production method, it allows urbanisation and it also enables many sections of society to focus on other tasks than the creation of food and to co-orperate towards seemingly impossible (and 'impractical') goals that could be realised. Without the agricultural revolution there could have been no renaissance, no industrial revolution, and no silicone revolution.

Nevertheless many societies still suffer under the agricultural yolk of a low nutrition and low quality of life. As a species, we are still staggeringly overpopulated and still vulnerable to terrible drought and to the wars and psychological anxiety of having static property. Farm animals are subject to horribly stunted life-expectancies and psychological  and physical suffering. The average person simply doesn't understand the natural world around them in the same detail. Arguably, even today there are many elements of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that are superior. But we have made our beds and, lying in it, we strive to make the very best of it. While history isn't linear it is still difficult to imagine how, without the agricultural revolution, we could have ever put man on the moon.

- 'Sapiens': a brief histroy of humankind' by Yuval Noah Harari
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  1. Nice article. It seems odd, that we didn't learn not to rest on our laurels in the ice age.

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment, i'm glad you found it interesting ;)
      I'd definitely recommend 'Sapiens' for a more in depth explanation into all of this, as well as picking up 'centuries of change' by Ian Mortimer (that I should be reviewing today). While he doesn't really go into the agricultural revolution, he does go into how human society has changed over time and makes some (admittedly grim) predictions about our future and how resource-dependant we are.