Monday, December 09, 2013

The Farmer and the Cowman can't be Friends.

Jared Diamond's notion that agriculture was a backward step in human well being is a variation on the so-called tragedy of the commons theme. The basic idea is that individuals, each pursuing their own best interest in a rational way, can collectively damage things for all of us. Examples are so common that it hardly seems worthwhile to cite them. One that recently got some play on the idiot box was the numerous scenes of riot as shoppers strove with each other to get the good deals at Walmart.

I think that there is a good case to be made that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was such a step. Some of my cleverest commentators disagree, mostly for reasons I find unpersuasive. Briefly, the evidence is that:

1)HGs lived healthier lives, had a more varied diet, and an easier life.

2)Farming brought disease, war, social stratification and much harder work.

3)The human body is badly designed for the digging, hoeing and many other kinds of farm work, but it is well designed for HG. The proof is in the evidence of degenerative arthritic changes that we see in skeletons of ancient farmers but not their HG counterparts.**

Of course we can't go back, and very few of us would choose to do so if we could. From an evolutionary standpoint, farming was a huge success. And in modern times it has enabled a lifestyle more comfortable than our ancestors could have dreamed. No matter what its disadvantages, agriculture enabled and created civilization. HGs have virtually disappeared and had lost control of all the most productive land many thousands of years ago. All these points are irrelevant to the question of whether our HG ancestors of 12,000 years ago lived "better" lives than our farmer ancestors of 5,000 years ago.

So why does the question interest me? Mostly because I think it has lessons for us today. Increased efficiency has made it possible to exterminate most game animals and many fisheries are exhausted by our powerful fishing techniques. We are polluting and destroying our environment at a terrific rate. We do all these things by individuals making rational choices that benefit them as individuals, at least in the short run.

**Just for fun, some criticisms of Diamond's theory that don't carry much weight with me.

1)Diamond wrote an article on a completely different subject that was based on the tall (and fictitious) tales of one young man.

2)HG's eat bugs - Ick!

3)Malnutrition is good for you.

4)Rousseau wrote this stuff about Noble Savages that could almost be stretched to sound a little like Diamond's thesis if you really hadn't read either author.

5)Some farmers worked fewer annual hours than modern business employees.