Diamond In The Rough

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”.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 at 9:55 am and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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14 Responses to “Diamond In The Rough”

  1. Mark said:

    Did early farmers not suffer from drought, cold, famine, and the other calamities you list as bedeviling hunter-gatherers? Have you read any estimates of how much time humans spent hunting and gathering daily? Some estimates are around three hours.

    There was a duality to the social domination brought about by agriculture (and indeed by any system of social domination: think Goldman Sachs): functionality as well as exploitation. The next time you visit a castle, cathedral of pyramid, will you see only the grandeur or will you also reflect on the brief, exploited, unhealthy lives of those who built them?

    You might want to do some further investigation with regard to the stratification systems of hunter-gatherer bands.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Mark, for the particularly intelligent response. In fact, I heard contemporary hunter-gatherers work about 14 hours per week in most studies, so your estimates are similar to those I found. I cannot help wondering what they did the rest of the time. Perhaps the definition of “work” needs clarification in these academic studies. If a Pulitzer went to Diamond—who missed the horticulture stage completely – then perhaps a review of the literature about “time on task” is needed.

      As for domination, we are descended from primates. I am surprised at how well we get along, to be frank. Some scholars say that the Neanderthals were on the menu for Cro-Magnons, from whom we originate as a species. Finally, please Mark, if you do not mind, help me with a literature search on hunter-gatherer bands. Thanks again.

  2. ELIZABETH HAMM said:

    IF YOU EVER GET IN THE DOUBLE HELLEBOURS AMETHEST GEM AND PAINTED DOUBLE WOULD YOU CONTACT ME I WANT 2 OF EACH PLANT AND CANNOT FIND THEM ANYWHERE EXCEPT IN CANADA THANKS

    • George said:

      Thanks for your post. Hellebore information is coming to you soon. Thanks also for your business. Hellebores are mother’s milk to us here at the old bloggie.

  3. DCL said:

    Wow, That book has been out for years, so you must have just read it to give such a commentary. Plus, what does that have to do with horticulture?

    Lumping prehistoric persons in with hunter-gatherer societies in general is a bit simplistic. Historically, hunter-gatherer societies have been the most stable, as they are kinship based smaller groups that work together to survive. Hunter-gatherer societies still exist and their present challenges are mainly from pressures brought on by ‘modern’ society. You’re premise that they, in prehistoric times were endlessly eaten by some beast and constantly died from some awful disease is a bit naive. And to only equate culture with modern civilization is typical of an western ethnocentric attitude. American Indians did quite well until Europeans decimated them with diseases, stuck them on reservations and basically starved them out, all for the sake of the “progress” you embrace so well.

    Modern technology has increased our standard of living, but to what ultimate cost? We are over populating the planet (some estimates say 10 billion by 2100), destroying the ecosystems that sustain us, and may ultimately destroy ourselves. All of this so we can send text messages, drive 100 miles a day and eat processed foods, etc. Really? I don’t think people in developing countries are all that happy with modern civilization when they are living among our garbage and forced into eking out an existence in plywood slums. As a society we’ve collectively lost a lot in return for the gains of a relative few. It’s easy to sit there and pontificate how wonderful modern society is from a privileged vantage point, when our society historically has and still is being built mostly on the backs of the exploited. We are living an illusion, and some would say delusion. I think Diamond was trying to demonstrate that in his book.

    • George said:

      Thanks you for your piquant and thoughtful response. As my blog’s subtitle says, “Silva rerum”, the forest of worldly things. I go off the footpath of gardening once in a while. I point out the connection to horticulture – that Diamond skipped to his detriment – in my response to Mary W.

      I disagree with your rather bizarre innuendo that I somehow represent the European colonists who wiped out vast populations of Native Americans. That is a rude, ad hominem insult. I pointed out that agriculture arose first in the Middle East and developed around the globe fairly quickly, probably through trade and conflict. You jump to me starving American Indians and shilling for J.D. Rockefeller. This is not me.

      As for modern technology and society breeding the underclass that you use to claim your moral superiority, let me ask you a question. Would you like to return to conditions of 100 years ago? How about 200? 300? No? Then how about 4,000?

      If so, you must knock several decades off your lifespan. Also, you should reconsider the “kinship-based” aspects of prehistoric social life that you deem salutary. My understanding is they were based on the survival-of-the-fittest, and their concept of “family” was very broad. Many medical researchers state that genetic illnesses stem from the long night of prehistory. Surviving in caves is not pleasant. It would be an illusion, some would say a delusion, to think so. Thanks much again.

  4. mrs. Jeanne Dozier said:

    Thank you for your thoughtprovoking essay;

    Where does the professor obtain his food???
    Does he devour ‘Stone Soup’ from our childrens’
    story book?
    I am perhaps oversimplying but once the gentleman
    get’s his hands in the dirt, he will be smitten
    with “Agriculture” the rest of his life.

    Friends who have never personally gardened, but now entranced with their ‘patio gardens’ of a variety of vegetables.

    Thank you.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Mrs. Dozier, for your hilarious response. I love the Stone Soup bit. You are also right on the money. Thanks again very much.

  5. Mary W said:

    Bravo! Prof Diamond would do well to consider your comments. Would that we could send him back to see if he’d survive!

    • George said:

      Thanks, Mary. That is the point I was trying to make. Send him back to see how he likes it. It might help to shut him up about all this nonsense, the worst of which is that he skipped the process of domestication which is – blast of trumpets – gardening! Horticulture preceded agriculture. You cannot change from hunter-gatherer to farmer without the long middle passage of plant and animal adaptation and breeding. These domestications take place in enclosed spaces such as pens, corrals and gardens. Taming wild plants and animals. High walls. He skipped that part. I didn’t focus on it in my article because it would have weighed it down. But it is a stunning omission on his part. I’m guessing he has addressed gardening and animal breeding, but not thus far in print. And he’s a professional! Weird, isn’t it? Thanks again for posting.

  6. Marshall Smyth said:

    George, Though Diamond said the things about agriculture as you repeated, it did not seem at all to be his main point. His book seems mainly about reconciling the reasons that some civilisations had been so far advanced ahead of others, stating that the rise of agriculture always preceded advances in government and technology. He spoke of the ways agriculture itself spread, how in some continents, Asia and Europe, being vastly wide east to west, the growing of similar plants could be done at greater and greater distances and thereby spread. How on other continents, North and South America, the greatest stretch geographically is north to south, and how that slows the spread of agriculture and therefore the rise of civilisation and its things.

    I actually feel that this grand civilisation of ours can be seen as a cauldron of greed. First was a division of labor. Nothing wrong with that, but then comes the greed. Why for example can it be seen that a CEO makes many millions, even if he or she fails, yet the woman who cleans his office, working hard, lives in the range of poverty? Surely the cleaning woman works harder, burns more calories, worries about missing a spot, worries about doing her job well lest she gets fired. It is only greed George. This division of labor became distorted. One person planned the early irrigation ditches, others made those ditches. The planner got the harem, someone cooling him with giant peacock feathers on a wand, the ditch diggers got the sore backs.

    But you are right to feel that Diamond’s assertion that agriculture was a big mistake is a wrong assertion to make. I just feel that what our ancestors did with the attendant civilisation that came with agriculture was wrong in some ways. Greed it seems to me, is a form of laziness. Wanting more for doing less. History could have slowed down or speeded up without greed, but either way, maybe there would be a world without the big bombs if greed, ie laziness, could have been averted.

    • George said:

      Thanks for your typically passionate post. I cannot speak to the origins of greed, per se. However, it has little to do with agriculture, in my opinion. I think it is probably related to our primate ancestry. But I’m no scholar.

      As for Dr. Diamond, his views of agriculture are the bedrock of his subsequent speculations. He wrote the original screed from which I quoted him in Discover magazine in 1989. The rest is pop culture history. His books are, in fact, geography studies. Who would have thought a geography book would sell? It does if you make outrageous contentions, which he does frequently. Otherwise the books are a snooze-fest.

      You raise many fine points about greed. I wish I could help you. Christ did a lot to change that. Before moral laws, folks ate each other. You would have been grateful to wake up every day. Thanks again.

  7. Shane said:

    The introduction of agriculture certainly hasn’t abated the perils of drought, famine, cold and disease. Nor predatory beasts in places such as Africa. In fact agriculture has not brought food security for many in this “modern” world, one only has to look at the lines at the food kitchens around our own nation. The quest for food remains relentless as ever and when you’re hungry it is hard to innovate whether prehistory or modern day.

    • George said:

      Thanks for the interesting post. I disagree that agriculture “certainly hasn’t abated the perils of drought, famine, cold and disease.” That is exactly what agriculture has done. Drought and famines are less frequent as devastations, and when they do occur are greatly abated by the surplus food provided by worldwide agriculture. Cold and disease ditto: cold is solved by heat and heat is provided by systems based on the towns and cities – civilization – born during the rise of agriculture. Disease is greatly abated by improved nutrition. Of course, the distribution of food is based on supply and demand types of economics (the notable exception being home vegetable gardens). But the point of my piece was that agriculture is precisely not to blame, as Professor Diamond has done. Indeed, such a thing as a “food kitchen” would not exist without the domestication of plants and animals. Thanks again.

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