The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race
by Jared Diamond
Our Self Image
"To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self image.
Astronomy taught us that our earth isn't the center of the universe but merely
one of billions of heavenly bodies.
From biology we learned that we weren't specially created by God but evolved
along with millions of other species.
Now archeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history
over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular,
recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our
most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from
which we have never recovered.
With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease
and despotism, that curse our existence."
- We're better off now than the people of the Middle Ages, who were better
off than cavemen, who were better off than apes.
- We have abundant and varied foods, tools, material goods, some of
the longest and healthiest lives in history.
- Most of us are safe from starvation and predators.
- We tap the energy of oil and machines, not sweat.
- Hunters and gathers have a nasty, brutish life, and because no food
is stored, there is no respite from the struggle to survive.
- Our escape from this was facilitated 10,000 years ago in the agricultural
- Why did hunter-gatherers adopt agriculture?
- Because it is an efficient way to get more food for less work.
- Agriculture gave us free time to build the glories of civilization,
from the Parthenon to Bach's B-minor Mass.
20th Century Hunter/Gatherers
Can the Progressivist view be proved?
Did people's lives get better when they abandoned hunting and gathering and
Today the few indigenous hunters and gatherers (ex: Kalahari Bushmen) have
more free time than their farmer neighbors.
The diet of hunters and gatherers is more varied than farmers eating high-carbohydrate
crops like rice and potatoes.
Adoption of Agriculture
How about in the past?
The health of human populations can be deduced from skeletal remains.
Turkey and Greece: with the adoption of agriculture
Dickson Mounds Indians:
- height dropped from 5'9" to 5'3" for males and still hasn't recovered.
When farmers adopted maize agriculture
Why did people adopt agriculture?
- was 50% increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition
- 3x increase in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general
- an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, reflecting a
lot of hard physical labor.
- Life expectancy dropped from 26 to 19 years.
Perhaps not by choice, but from necessity to feed constantly growing
Three problems with agriculture:
1) hunter-gatherers had varied diet
2) farmers ran the risk of starvation of the crop failed
3) crowding and high populations led to infectious disease and parasites
Agriculture led to deep class divisions.
Hunters and gatherers can have no kings, no special class of parasites who
grow fat on food seized from others.
Elites got the best food and were the healthiest.
Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today.
Better to be a Bushman?
Americans are an elite.
If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a Bushman
gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?
Inequality between the sexes
Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes.
Since women did not have to transport babies in nomadic existence, farming
women had more babies than hunter-gatherers, and thus poorer health.
Women in agricultural societies are sometimes made into beasts of burden:
women working while men do little.
Original “Leisure Society”
There has always been art in hunter-gatherer cultures due to the amount of
Most People Worse Off
With Agriculture, the elite became better off, but most people became worse
How did we get trapped into this?
Farming can support more people than hunting, but with a poorer quality of
Population and Conquest
- Populations rose among farmers and so did population densities.
- Hunter gatherers need a low population density: one person per 10
- Farmers average 100 times that density!
- As population densities rose, bands had to choose between feeding
more mouths via agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth.
- If farming was chosen, such bands outbred and then drove off or killed
the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers.
Hunters of the World
Daniel Quinn:: Ishmael, Story of B
Humans are Hunter-Gatherers
- Evolutionary View:
- Humans evolved for 1 million years as hunter gatherers
- Gene pool has not evolved in last 10,000 years of agriculture
- Therefore Humans are genetically hunter-gatherers
- Creation View
- God Created humans as hunter gatherers
- God provides for human life like other animals
- Humans wished to control their life, become godlike
- Adopted agriculture, civilization
- Separated from nature, saw God as promoting agriculture and war
- By historical times, they forgot they were hunters and gatherers
World Food Issues Webpage