The Curse of Agriculture

“The Sanctuary,” Elif Batuman, The New Yorker, Dec 19 & 26, 2011

In our high school Social Studies classes, we were taught the development of agriculture was the key achievement of prehistoric humans that made all the rest of civilization possible.  Once we abandoned the hunter-gatherer culture for an agricultural one, we could settle down and build cities whose fertile land supported the non-producing governors, priests and artisans, and eventually led to the development of money and writing.  Every benefit of civilization we owe to agriculture.  The shift to agriculture was so important, it is called the “Neolithic Revolution.”  It was all good.

Recent evidence now suggests the switch to agriculture was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race, the origin of the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.”  Some even make a compelling case for the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for the switch to agriculture, “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”

According to skeletal evidence, agriculture brought a steep decline in the standard of living.  Early farmers had more anemia and vitamin deficiencies, died younger, had worse teeth, more spinal deformity, and caught more infectious diseases than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.  The average height decreased six inches from the end of the ice age (about 8,000 BC) to 3,000 BC in Greece and Turkey, whose people are still short.  Hunter-gatherers typically spend less than twenty hours a week obtaining food, while farmers toil from sunup to sundown.  Because agriculture relies on the mass cultivation of a small number of crops, a whole community’s existence has often been wiped out by a single season’s failure.

Then why did humans so readily adopt agriculture?  A theory is that they were seduced by the transient abundance initially produced until the population growth caught up with the food supply, at which point, it was too late to change.  They had to constantly farm more, even to this day, just to keep everyone alive.  Agriculture feeds the catastrophic geometric population growth that is destroying the world’s ecology, a growth approaching its limits and bound to end badly.

In the story of the Fall, Yahweh curses Eve:  “In pain will you give birth to children.  Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”  This could refer to the drop in women’s status to that of mere producers of children needed to till the land.  The availability of goat’s milk and cereal may have led the women to wean their children earlier, causing them to have more debilitating pregnancies.  The inheritance of agricultural land made paternal lineage vital, which led to many of the woman-supressive Sharia and Biblical laws seen in the Middle East today.

Cain, the farmer, kills his brother and goes on to found the world’s first city.  The Old Testament is full of territorial wars, the threat of exile, of sibling rivalry, all brought about by the grim new scarcity economy of agriculture.  Of the Ten Commandments, six are simply rules for living harmoniously in an agriculturally-based society.

Most hunter-gatherer societies throughout time and place are not monogamous, do not have nuclear families, and, therefore, have no need to severely control female fidelity.  In addition, they work less, enjoy their work more, are unconcerned with private property, and treat their fellow tribesmen better.  Which society is more Godly?

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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