Agriculture: boon or bane?

Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 01:09 am
Sorry 'bout the Hearst/Murdoch-esque headline here. But I need to get your attention, guys.

When I was in school, way back there in the Pleistocene era, it was axiomatic and virtually an article of faith that the switch from hunting/gathering to large-scale cultivation of foodstuffs (agriculture) somewhere around 10,000 years ago was one of the most important steps that homo sapiens sapiens ever took in their inexhorable march toward what we are pleased to call "civilization." There were no two ways about it. As far as my teachers were concerned, the development of agriculture ranked right up there with the discovery of how to make fire and what the wheel was useful for.

Thinking on this matter seems to have undergone a change in recent years. I've been reading a book entitled The Time Before History by Colin Tudge (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). Tudge entitles his Chapter 7
"The End of Eden: Farming." He says, among other things, "The general impression is growing. . .that farming in its early days was unremittingly harsh; whereas the hunting-gathering days that it replaced were remembered with affection and nostalgia..." It is his position that the switch from hunting-gathering, supplemented, perhaps by some herding of easily domesticable animals and some limited horticulture, to large-scale farming might well be one of the worst mistakes that minkind has ever made.

Thing is, he's not alone. I've read similar sentiments elsewhere lately. These are just some of the drawbacks to an agriculture-based culture that the critics cite:

-- Large-scale deforestation of huge tracts of real estate to provide space for fields of grain and vegetables;

-- Destruction of native habitat for innumerable species, many of which have become extinct as a result;

-- Increased need for hard labor on the part of members of an agricultural society (farming is very labor-intensive) inevitably leading to a class structure which eventually and inevitably leads to a slave class;

-- More (not less) danger of famine when the crop fails due to meteorological conditions. (Hunter-getherers are far less susceptible to weather shifts; they can always move on to a more fertile area while the farmer is stuck on the land he tills.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this sort of revisionist view of agriculture. Feel free to argue to your hearts' content.
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Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 02:47 am
@Lustig Andrei,
The word you wanted was inexorable.

As people are fond of pointing out these days, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Your boy here is not only employing that allegedly improved vision, he is imposing the cultural values of his particular point in time on the past, while displaying an appalling ignorance.

The earliest domesticate for which archaeology provides an example (so far) is the fig, in central Asia, and apparently divorced from any other attempted domestication. Central Asia has had so little archaeological research that is nearly impossible to recreate an image of what life was like for early modern humans there the 12,000 years ago or so when the fig was domesticated. Which by the way is your boy's problem here--he's constructed a vast edifice based on his ignorance, as well as the general ignorance of modern researchers of the conditions of the upper Paeleolithic and the Neolithic periods.

The evidence from China and the middle east is that about 10,000 years ago, game and forage foods were sufficiently plentiful that nomadic bands of humans were able to lead a more sedentary life, and eventually were therefore given the opportunity to domesticate plants and animals. It also appears that domestication arose thousands and thousands of years after early modern man moved into those regions.

Hunting and gathering is not the carefree, happy-go-lucky lifestyle that this joker wants to portray it as being. We have abundant evidence for this from historical records of contact with "primitive" peoples by Europeans over the last few centuries. If a band of early modern humans were so fortunate as to live where game and forage food were abundant, if the grasslands didn't burn up, if climate change did not destroy their preferred game herds, if competition from other predators and from humans was not life-threatening--then maybe it was not a bad life. But people didn't switch to agriculture because some evil, all-powerful guiding intelligence forced them to it. It obviously must have had attractions for them that their prior life-style didn't. It is also highly likely that the process was spread out over dozens and dozens of generations, and was not a consciously directed process. It's not as though they were sitting around the campfire and one said to the other: "Thag, we need to invent agriculture. Then we can destroy the environment and enslave our neighbors. I say we start first thing in the morning."

Neolithic man simply did not the tool kit for large scale deforestation. The earliest areas of widespread agriculture were grasslands or wetlands which could be easily put to the use, and which likely provided many of the plants which were then being domesticated. Large scale deforestation is a phenomeon which only appeas in North America in the 18th century, and in Africa later, and in Asia and South America only in the 20th century. Your boy is playing fast and loose with the historical record in his lust to make an academic name for himself by staking out a new position.

Leaving aside the undeniable fact that about 99% or more of all species which have once existed are now extinct, the extinction of species was not something which bothered anyone, or of which they were necessarily even aware until quite recently. It is probably not unreasonable to say that most people had never even heard of this as an issue until the mid-20th century or later. You can't indict people for committing acts which were not known to be crimes in their lifetimes. Many species of plants and animals were destroyed because they were considered pests. In most cases, they just got in the way.

A slave class was not an inevitable product of agriculture. The temple societies of the middle east and the Indus River valley both show that already existent large-scale agriculture was harnessed and organized by temple societies with no evidence that they relied on slave labor. Once again, you boy is imposing his values on the past. People thousands of years ago would not necessarily have condemned slavery--that doesn't excuse the institution, but again, you can't condemn people for doing things which were not considered criminal in their era. Finally, slavery of those captured in war is known to have been practiced by people who were, when first encountered by Europeans, essentially neolithic hunter-gatherers. One might as well condemn the invention of tools because they can be used for weapons and therefore tool-making lead to wide-spread and wanton murder. Please.

I've already pointed out that there was no guarantee of a reliable sustainability in hunting and gathering. Furthermore, the diet was not likely to have been all that varied, although there is now archaeological evidence that a more omnivorous diet may have enabled early modern man to survive more comfortably than Neanderthals, who seemed to rely far too much on hunting. The Dorset culture eskimos of eastern Canada and some sites in Greeland (prior to about 1000 AD--although the Norse encountered them, they were already falling to the more adaptable Thule culture eskimos even then) relied so heavily on pelagic seals, that their more or less permanent campsites are one of the clues to tracing the advance and the retreat of pack ice in the North Atlantic region. Even among early modern man, many cultures focuses so much on a few or even a single food source that anything which interferred could mean disaster for them.

Your boy, apart from applying is own pet prejudices to a sweep of history of thousands of years, displays an appaling ignorance and shallow view of human history.
Lustig Andrei
Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 02:57 am
I would suggest, Set, that you procure a copy of the book and read it before you rush to the hasty judgement that Tudge is the victim of "appalling" or any other kind of ignorance. My brief summary of the core of his argument cannot possibly do justice to the whole range of evidence which he presents. And, again, I want to emphasize that the only reason I used Tudge's book as the centerpiece here is because I'm currently reading it. His argument is neither new nor particularly idiosyncratic. I've read similar stuff elsewhere recently.
Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 03:24 am
@Lustig Andrei,
As Anatole France pointed out, that a million people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. Suggesting that agriculture created slavery, no matter how subtlely argued, is still bullshit. Decrying the degredation of the environment by people who didn't even have the concept is still a foolish thing. I read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel--i have developed a strong aversion to wasting my time on the theories of people who, first, apply their idiosyncratic values to earlier times and other peoples, and, second, who employ a glib and shallow understanding of history to a subject. If i stumble across the book, i might read it. But i'm not likely to go out of my way. The archaeological evidence is very clear that agriculture arose over many generations. By the time early modern man had become a settled agriculturalist, it's very likely that his former life-style was no longer available to him. Whether nor not it were, it obviouly appealed more than hunting and gathering. Finally, temple societies and other forms of large scale organized societies who might be blamed for wars and slavery did not arise until many thousands of years after agriculture. It was an evolutionary process, and it's pissing in the wind to complain about it now.
Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 03:27 am
He says, among other things, "The general impression is growing. . .that farming in its early days was unremittingly harsh; whereas the hunting-gathering days that it replaced were remembered with affection and nostalgia..."

The impression is growing, huh? Screw impressions, where's the evidence? Upon what basis can one allege that early agriculturalists looked upon hunting and gathering with affecction and nostalgia? Ten thousands years ago, people were illiterate--where's the evidence? Upon what basis can one allege that hunting and gathering was not unremittantly harsh?
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Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 03:33 am
By the way, Mr. Tudge is a biologist and broadcaster. While i applaud multi-disciplinary studies, i have grown very wary of people from one discipline who set up for an expert in an entirely different discipline, such as Mr. Diamond. When Mr. Tudge tells us about growing impressions concerning an absurdity for which he cannot possibly have any evidence, i seriously question his authority to write such a work.
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Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 04:12 am
@Lustig Andrei,
Isn't this kind of the same type of observation that "grampa" used to make when he said life was better back when there were no cars and everyone walked to school? Or back before TV when everyone huddled around the radii at night?

Besides, I suspect that humanity's walk down the path of advancement and technology was inevitable.
Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 05:34 am
Ive always been fascinated by pedology (the study of soil horizons) They provide information of the development of various "soil horizons" in time and these can be dated by looking for in situ left over detritus in the A2 and B horizons. SOil is a very sensitive indicator to the patterns by which we disturb it. We can date, for example the desertification and climate change in the sub Sahara, in the US West and in AUstralia all of these patterns are undoubtedly functions of colonization.
Even large expanses of our US "great Plains" were post pleistocene border forests that had been decimated mostly by cropping practices of the Pre Hopewells and the Archaic cultures of humans.
Global warming has always been blamed for desertification .Actually there were patterns of widespread desertification underway many millenia before the 18th century and on. There are soils distinctly related to our species interference, and these areas, called HAPLO_UDULTIC soils, are areas where there is little horizonation developed due to the way weve screwed with the surface by removing natural native plants and damming up streams and chopping trees for fuel. Its amazing how much rearraging of resources we are able to do in a few hundred years of occupation (let alone several thousand). Delorea estimated that there were between 60 and 90 MILLION inhabitants in the AMericas before "White Man" so there was a large ag industry that changed our environments mightily

Im doing reserach for a beginning level textbook and Ive come across some fascinating areas in our US SOuth here the patterns of colonization and cyclic denudation of forests has led to some really interesting patterns of soil horizons. I was in the SMolies recently and Id seen some areas (with accompaniment by US Forest Service soil scientists) that were denuded completely at least 3 times and the forests had regrown . The soils of each denudation sequence had shown massive wastage and evidence of small scale climate shifts that are just now being healed by forest regrowth that only extends back to amybe the 1940's
This fall, Im going to visit a grove of the only remnant native forests in theNorthern Appalachians. In Pa they have the area (only 350 acres worth)cordoned off and its a state park (yet its being threatened by enhanced drainage from gas drilling_ In other states they just keep it fairly low key cause they dont really want a lot of visitors stomping over the pedons.
Lots of similar work has been going on re: the soils being a clue to human occupation in AUstralia and in THe SUb Sahara. Theres a sub discipline using soils to discern human patterns of occupation.

Reply Thu 1 Sep, 2011 08:15 pm
I was in the Smokies, not the Smolies. Remember George Castanza and the "MOOPS"?
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Lustig Andrei
Reply Fri 2 Sep, 2011 12:07 am
Well, now that I know how you feel about Jared Diamond, Set, I can see why we're disagreeing here. For me, Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most fascinating exegeses on the subject I've ever come across. I love Diamond's writing in general and used to look forward to his columns every month when I was subscribing to . . . was it Smithsonian or Natural History?

Understand, I'm not saying that I thoroughly and completely agree with everything said by either Diamond or Tudge. But I'm always open to consideration of an interesting and well-presented argument.
Reply Fri 2 Sep, 2011 03:41 am
@Lustig Andrei,
I'm open to such things, as well. However, Diamond displayed what was either a profound ignorance of history, or a willingness to ignore it in order to forward his thesis. His thesis does not explain how Europeans managed to conquer the far east, where they not only had guns, germs and steel, but had them as early as, or earlier, than western Europeans. It does not explain how Africa was so easily conquerred, because the Africans had metallurgy, and ready access by trade to the products of Europe. He even fudges facts in describing the conquest of Peru, a key feature of his argument. The army of the Inca had already been exposed to and lost heavily to disease from Europe. It had survived and was more than adequate to fall on the Spaniard like a ton of bricks. What got Pizarro through it all was culture. Civil war had nearly decapitated the Inca empire. When Atahualpa was seized, the empire was decapitated. Culture has allowed Europeans to conquer most of the rest of the world--it wasn't some accident of technology combined with epidemiology. Diamond is either ignorant of or was willing to lie about what allowed Cort├ęs to take Tenochtitlan and destroy the Azteca. He had, literally, tens of thousands of Amerindian allies who were eager to see their erstwhile masters destroyed.

I would not doubt for a moment Diamond's word on evolutionary biology, or the contemporay culture and behavior of stone-age tribesmen in Papua-New Guinea. When it comes to history, either he doesn't know a goddamned thing, or he's just willing to make it up as he goes along.

You can dismiss Diamond's entire thesis by asking for a detailed and reliable explanation of how the far east was conquered, given that those boys already had guns, germs and steel. When i see a statement from someone like Tudge to the effect that an " impression" is growing about the state of mind of early modern humans thousands and thousands of years ago, something that neither he nor anyone else can possibly know--then i become suspicious that it's just another bullshit routine like Diamond's from someone who has strayed too far from his area of expertise.

I would suggest a comparison to Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. Like Tudge, he is a broadcaster and popularizer of science. But you'd never see a statement so ludicrous as the one about nostalgia for hunting and gathering from Rudgley. What you will see is a judicious exposition of a synthesis of recent new hypotheses on stone age man by experts in their respective fields, presented with explanations of how they reached their conclusions, bibliographical references, outlines of the major objections to their hypotheses--all by someone who is himself expert in the field. I highly recommend that book. If it had been another load of old bollocks like Diamond's book, i'd have abandonded it right quickly. Diamond is an entertaining writer, and i finished his book. That doesn't change that it was a load of old bollocks.
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