Nearly all scholars agree that the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago was the wellspring of human civilization, innovation and creativity.
Not so Jared Diamond. The geographer and author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” famously declared agriculture’s adoption the “worst mistake in the history of the human race” and a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
We might dismiss his contrarian claptrap as an attention-getting, professor-bites-woolly-mammoth gambit. Yet his conceit is recycled frequently by authors who should know better. Indeed, some environmentalists and impressionable college students drink the Kool-Aid. Dr. Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling guru.
The dawn of farming—mankind’s domestication of plants and animals—arose around 8,000 B.C., following the 250-million yearlong night of prehistory. The practice of agriculture was introduced in the Middle East, emerging around the world over several millennia.
Before domestication, the life of our prehistoric forebears was a relentless quest for food and shelter. The nomad desperados, never sure of their next meal, were ever at risk of becoming lunch for lions.
Providing a measure of control over their food supply, agriculture allowed people to organize and plan as never before—collaborating to irrigate, plant, and harvest farmland and safeguard and breed livestock.
Nomads no more, people could stay in one place, build houses and create settlements that grew into villages, towns and cities. Surplus grain and livestock catalyzed trade and allowed societies to embark on strategic projects—civic and religious buildings, fortifications, roads and bridges—that yielded no immediate benefit. Thus, a notion of the future—and a new sense of consciousness—developed like the very plants and animals themselves.
Culture grew out of agriculture. Consider Sumeria where year-round farming began in the 6th millennium B.C. A short list of Sumerian firsts includes the development of writing, the first schools, first historians, first pharmacopoeia, first clocks, first arch, first legal code, first library, first bicameral congress, first epic literature and first love songs.
Since then humankind has harvested endless innovations: the great religions, marvels of science and technology, democracy, philosophy, the printing press, space travel, masterpieces of art and architecture, hot and cold running water and the internet.
Diamond points out agriculture’s negative side effects. The rise of farming, paradoxically, provided people with a less nutritious diet (heavy on carbs and starches). Crowded cities and long-distance trading brought new maladies. Societies became stratified by gender, wealth and status, and people worked far more than their nomadic antecedents.
But Diamond overlooks several factors. Agriculture’s rise coincided with an increasing global population that could not be sustained by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Improvident cave-dwellers had polished off much of the earth’s megafauna.
Diamond shrugs off the perils—drought, famine, cold, disease, predatory beasts—bedeviling our nomadic ancestors. In place of what the philosopher Hobbes called the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” life of prehistoric folk, his rosy view comes closer to the “primitive communism” described by Marx and Engels.
It was likely communism of the Stalinist kind, with prehistoric Uncle Joe never sparing the club to ensure the submission of his terrified brood—practicing what historian Richard Hofstadter termed “Darwinist collectivism.”
The dawn of agriculture revealed new horizons of knowledge, interaction and self-expression. To blame social inequities on agriculture is folly. Prehistoric human life was social Darwinism’s golden age.
Who would trade the glories of 10,000 years of human culture for the eat-or-be-eaten semi-conscious demi-life of prehistory?
Professor Diamond apparently would. I see him now—Diamond in the rough—leading his entourage in ambushing a rhinoceros and encircling wild boars. In their surplus leisure time, the hunter-professor assures his shivering captives that, predators and frigid nights notwithstanding, this is la dolce vita. I imagine, too, the mute reply etched in their taut, weathered faces and flinty eyes, “What a catastrophe—the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.