For about 2.5 million years Homo sapiens were pretty content feeding themselves by hunting and gathering. During this time the plants and animals on which the humans dined lived without human intervention. Even though humans spread around the globe they continued their basic traditional means of finding food. They did that because their means of living were pretty darn good. As Yuval Harari asked, “Why do anything else when your lifestyle feeds you amply and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and political dynamics?”If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
This changed about 10,000 years ago when Homo sapienslearned to manipulate the lives of a few animals and plant species to their “advantage”. At least they believed it was to their advantage. But was it?
Harari described the life of humans after the invention of agriculture this way, “From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain, and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived—the Agricultural Revolution.”
This shift began in about 9,500-8,500 B.C. in the Middle East of Turkey, Iran, and the Levant. It probably started with the domestication of wheat and goats. As Harari explained, “By 3,500 B.C. the main wave of domestication was over. Even today, with all of our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between about 9,500 and 3,500 B.C.—wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet, and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”
At one time scholars believed that agriculture spread from this single source in the Middle East around the world, including the New World. Now most scholars agree that agriculture started up in other parts of the world without benefit of the Middle Eastern ancestors. For example, people in Central America domesticated maize and beans even though they knew nothing about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle East. China domesticated rice, millet, and pigs. North American indigenous people cultivated pumpkin. In New Guinea the people domesticated sugar cane and bananas. In Africa they domesticated millet, sorghum, wheat, and rice. From these places agriculture spread around the globe.
The fact is that it is very difficult to domesticate plants and animals because few are good candidates. Where those species lived is where agricultural domestication began by very smart humans.
I have always thought, along with most other people, that agriculture was a tremendous advancement for human society. But was it? Wendell Berry called agriculture one of the world’s worst disasters ever. Yuval Harari came pretty close to saying this too. This is how he described agriculture:
“Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the grueling, dangerous, and often Spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers, knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, or merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens rather than vice versa.”
As wild as these statements seem they do make sense. Look at the results. 10,000 years ago wheat was just a wild grass found only in a small area of the Middle East. Within a few thousand years it had spread around the world. Wheat became one of the most successful plants ever! As Harari said, “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” Wheat sure was smart. Maybe humans not so much.
Now you could reverse this argument of Harari. After all, since the domestication of wheat humans have prospered around the world so they now number nearly 8 billion. But the point Harari made it is that wheat and these other domesticated products did not really benefit individualhumans. They are no better of he claims. It did benefit the species because there are so many of us, but how does that benefit me?
As Harari said, It
“enabledHomo sapiensto multiply exponentially…This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Yet why should individuals care about this evolutionary calculus? Why would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply the number of copies of Homo sapiens? Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution is a Trap.”