If you went to school, as I did, back in the stone age -- the 1950s and '60s -- you were taught that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago made civilization possible. You learned that as human beings gave up hunting and gathering in favor of domesticating and cultivating plants and animals, they created a food surplus that allowed for population growth, labor specialization and urbanization. All in all, it was a good thing -- or so our teachers portrayed it.
I don't know how the schools teach this subject today. I do know that a rather different view of the agricultural revolution is gaining popularity in academia and elsewhere.
Those holding this view say hunter-gathering humans were happier and healthier and less oppressed than their crop-growing descendants. By their way of thinking, the agricultural revolution was definitely not a good thing. In his book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari calls it "history's biggest fraud."
History's biggest fraud? Can Harari really back up this hyperbole? The effort he makes to do this in his in-many-ways-fascinating book seems feeble. The fraudsters, in Harari's telling, were wheat, rice, potatoes and a few other plants, who "domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa." That is, by allowing themselves to be domesticated, which many other plants refused to do, these plants tricked human beings into spreading their genes, turning the plants into an evolutionary success story.
That's a fascinating idea, one worth further contemplation. But only in the loosest exercise of literary license does it constitute "fraud." Lest further proof of the absurdity of the label is needed, Harari himself provides it. His narrative makes clear that the domestication of plants and animals unfolded over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. No single generation of humans was duped by scheming plants into a bad decision to give up foraging and take up farming. By the time the process was complete, the farming humans had no memory of their distant ancestors' hunter-gatherer past.
But let's put aside Harari's purple prose. Let's examine instead his contention that human beings were better off as hunter-gatherers. Is he right about that?
Farmers worked harder, had less free time and spent their time in less stimulating ways, Harari argues, and their work took a toll on their knees, spines and necks, which had evolved for chasing gazelles and climbing apple trees, not for clearing fields and digging irrigation canals.
Their grain-heavy diet was less healthy than the varied diet they'd enjoyed as hunger-gatherers. Because their crops could be wiped out by weather or insects or thieves or raiding enemies, they were less food-secure. They lived in more-cramped conditions that exposed them to more diseases. They sometimes ended up working for political masters who took a portion of what they harvested while providing little in return.
It's an interesting case, and while you could argue some points of it, let's assume for the sake of argument that Harari is right and hunter-gatherers lived better lives than the farmers who supplanted them. Should we, then, regret the agricultural revolution? What about the billions of human beings who otherwise would never have lived? What about civilization?
Harari admits the ag revolution bestowed evolutionary success on homo sapiens as a species. The population of human beings grew. Many modern humans enjoy the fruits of civilization, material and aesthetic, the nearly infinite number of wonderful things food surpluses enabled people to create. From our perspective, then, the agricultural revolution looks like a wonderful thing.
Harari says we shouldn't look at it from our perspective. He urges us instead to consider the perspective of a three-year old girl dying from malnutrition in first century China because her father's crops failed. "Would she say 'I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice'?"
Harari says the "essence of the Agricultural Revolution was to keep more people alive under worse conditions." That's an oversimplification, at best. We can sympathize with the starving Chinese girl and the millions of others who suffered from mankind's adoption of farming while also recognizing that over the millennia, many millions more human beings have led lives that hunter-gatherers would have died for.
And then of course there's the more fundamental fact that had it not been for the agricultural revolution, very few of today's human beings would have ever been born to argue about this question.
However valid Harari's points may be, they don't add up to the one-sided picture he paints. To the question, "Was the agricultural revolution the father of civilization? Or was it a tragedy for the individual human beings who lived it?" the correct answer, it seems to me, could be Yes.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com
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