Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Luxury Trap: The Multi-Millennia View

I’m reading a fantastic, eye-opening work of evolutionary and cultural anthropology called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One of the controversial arguments the author, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, advances is the conceit that the Agricultural Revolution, which allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down into villages and cities and undergo a population explosion, was, in fact, a trap, a fool’s compromise that left us unhealthier and unhappier – more prone to disease, famine, war, and long work days. It was certainly great for the crops we tended to like wheat, which grew from an also-ran species to covering huge swaths of the Earth’s surface area. But the benefits for humans, who agreed to painstakingly care for wheat, are more ambiguous. Harari proposes that we didn’t domesticate plants; plants domesticated us.   
With time the “wheat bargain” became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brow. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of . . . 13000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of “improvements,” each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.
          Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, “Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry anymore about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.” It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.
          The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared (among) more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system(s), and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.
          Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.
          The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. 
-Yuval Noah Harari

I had a friend once who considered herself a radical reactionary, in a sense, because she wanted society to go back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. She had the intuition that people were happier back then. I, a creature of hot showers in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, would always dismiss her theories offhand. 

Maybe she was right all along. 

Speaking of human population explosions, here is a great illustrative video that I first saw in Slate.


  1. We still eat too much wheat... along with sugar and processed "food." We sacrificed health and nutrition for convenience and huge profit margins for industry. The result is an extremely wealthy elite and sick, burdened masses. I would argue a major evil of the agricultural revolution was not just a species-inappropriate high carbohydrate diet, but the class system and the corrupting concentration of power. Of course an elite class meant advancement in the arts and sciences, but now we need advancement in our respect for the dignity of all humans. Micheal Eades has spoken on the hunter gatherer diet and its benefits:

  2. Good points. Parallels to life wisdom independent of the agricultural revolution, too. I think trying to find ways to reclaim some of what was lost then (community? family cohesion? leisure? exercise? not needing so much stuff?) would be great, though I question how practical the dietary aspect is for a large population, most of which subsists on (unprocessed) grains and seems to do better than the US health-wise so long as obesity hasn't been exported yet. Also, a counterpoint:

  3. I am reading a fascinating piece about chronic psychological stress and its roots in the transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the agricultural revolution. This is actually in preparation for my own talk on autoimmunity and the impacto of psychosocial stress. This selection is supportive of the selection from your book:
    3. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle and psychological stress
    The hunger-gatherer lifestyle, unlike the agricultural way of
    life that followed, apparently depended on intense cooperation
    and sharing, backed up by a strong egalitarian (nonhierarchical)
    ethos [48]. While certainly still experiencing
    some acute and chronic physical and social stressors, those
    living in such an environment absolutely did not experience
    many of the factors in modern industrialized societies that
    create chronic psychological stress (Table 1). Social pressures
    were exerted in hunter-gatherer societies to squelch
    deviant behavior (first teasing and then, if necessary, shunning),
    but use of this pressure was rare since adherence to
    the social norm was necessary for survival [49]. Although
    hunter-gatherers likely had different levels of social stress
    than in more developed human populations, they dealt with
    a variety of life-threatening factors. Predation, harsh natural
    elements (extreme temperatures and storms), and sometimes
    difficulty in obtaining food and water, all plagued huntergatherers.
    However, the stress induced by many of these
    factors could have been offset or relieved by strenuous physical
    activity, which alters physiological and neurochemical
    responses to stress and is discussed in greater detail below.
    4. Agrarian lifestyles and psychological stress
    During the agricultural revolution, the cooperative, egalitarian
    hunter-gatherer lifestyle rapidly gave rise to
    hierarchal agrarian societies. Indeed, even a brief contact
    between hunter-gatherer societies and other populations can cause substantial social changes in the hunter-gatherer
    lifestyle [50]. The agricultural revolution resulted in the
    widespread appearance of many social roles (e.g., slave,
    prostitute, soldier, criminal, serf, etc.; [51]) that can be considered
    extremely stressful. Stress-inducing issues regarding
    oppression of women, particular social classes, and minorities
    emerged. Additional chronic stress emerged as a result
    of pressure to maintain or improve social status and infrastructure.
    Furthermore, the higher population densities made
    possible by agrarian society profoundly increased the impact
    of infectious disease and parasitism on the population, thus
    inducing further chronic stress. At the same time, problems
    with life-threatening factors that affected hunter-gatherers,
    including predation, harsh natural elements (extreme
    temperatures and storms), and difficulty in obtaining
    food and water, were still present in many cases. Thus, the
    agricultural revolution was a key element leading to chronic,
    psychological stress. It is upon this background that the
    modern lifestyles of developed and developing populations
    are built, although our genes and our ability to cope with
    stress have their foundation in the hunter-gatherer lifeway.

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    2. I agree that there are many positives to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and we should indeed try to incorporate some of those elements in our modern living (such as walkable commutes, increased exercise, stronger social cohesion and cooperation). As Cara points out, the dietary aspect could be difficult to maintain on today's earth. However, I wonder if it presents any MORE challenges than we already experience with industrialized agriculture, depletion of soil quality (and therefore food quality), etc So what led to the impetus for the agricultural revolution? One idea that I have -
      Social cohesion and cooperation is certainly one benefit of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle but "might is right" was a certain disadvantage when tribes did not cooperate or were in competition. Villages and cities perhaps allowed for a larger community to cooperate than was possible with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and provided protections against violence. By shielding from some of these physical threats, could the agricultural revolution have allowed for the free exercise of human creativity and intelligence?

  4. Interesting blog!! This is very true: "How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five?" It becomes cyclical - needing and wanting more and never being satisfied with what is.