The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, by Jared Diamond

This article by Jared Diamond originally appeared in Discover Magazine in May, 1987.

One of the core things that you read about when you read things by Jared Diamond is that all your assumptions are wrong. For everything that most people think makes humans special, The Third Chimpanzee has a reason why it is not so and there are actually many instances of this in the animal kingdom, at least in some form. For every reason that you thought Europeans were great, Guns, Germs, and Steel (I read this before I blogged books) has a reason why our advantages were influenced by things that were not controllable.

This article is no exception. It discusses one of Diamond’s biggest pet peeves: That agriculture was the best thing to ever happened to our civilization.

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 archaeology 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.

He talks about all the arguments from the progressivist side and how it is incredibly difficult to directly test these claims. Are we really better than hunter-gatherers? The progressivist think that it is silly to even ask the question, so they don’t feel the need to prove it. Jared answers:

While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

But as he says, studying today’s so-called primitive people is not exactly a measure of those who moved from hunter-gather lifestyles to one based on agriculture. This is where archaeology and paleopathology comes in handy.

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5′ 9″ for men, 5′ 5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5′ 3″ for men, 5′ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.

So, why would our ancestors have done it? One opinion: They were looking at quantity not quality.

The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their constantly growing numbers. “I don’t think most hunger-gatherers farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality for quantity,” says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the field,Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. “When I first started making that argument ten years ago, not many people agreed with me. Now it’s become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate.”

You see the same thing happening in Africa. There’s not enough food for the children that are there, yet there incredible birth rates. Same with other poor populations. This should also bring to your mind those in the Western world who are so focused on increasing food supplies and growing larger and larger — are we trading quality for quantity?

So, agriculture destroyed the health of our ancestors and then it made it worse by promoting disease and another epidemic problem: class divisions.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. [...]

Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U. S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be iimproted from countries with poorer health and nutrition. 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?

So what does this have to do with today?

At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

This is very much the theme of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. There are so many assumptions about our “success” and all the “advantages” we have, but very little accountability of whether they are in fact advantages. Something to think about!

Halley Suitt and Jared Diamond on the Sexiness of Alcohol

Halley Suitt writes about the sexiness of alcohol and smoking.

There used to be something sexy about smoking, but notice culturally, at least in the United States, it’s gotten about as sexy as leprosy. Smokers are treated like outcasts in offices, restaurants, just about everywhere. There has been such a cultural assassination of smoking that it’s gone from being cool (watch old movies) to absolutely not cool. I think this will happen for alcohol in the next few decades.

Some may be intrigued to learn, if they have not already, that the purpose of alcohol and other drugs has always been for sex appeal. I quote from Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:

Page after page of ads flaunted the use of cigarettes or strong alcohol, and hinted at their benefits. There were even pictures of young people smoking in the presence of attractive members of the opposite sex, as if to imply that smoking too brought sexual opportunities. Yet any nonsmoker who has ever been kissed by (or tried to kiss) a smoker knows how severely the smoker’s bad breath compromises his or her sex appeal. The ads paradoxically implied not just sexual benefits but also platonic friendships, business opportunities, vigor, health, and happiness, when the direct conclusion to be drawn from the ads was actually the reverse. [pg. 195]

The idea is that substance abuse is very much like art. It is a signal to potential mates: “Look how rich I am, I can buy things that have no use and still have money for food”; or, the case of substance abuse: “Look how strong I am, even when I poison myself regularly I am still strong.” These indicator signals are very common in animals. For example, zebras have a dance that they do when they see lions. This dance takes a long time and puts them at a disadvantage to escape, but through evolution it has come to signal to a lion that the zebra is very fast and they should both not waste their energy running when the lion will surely lose. Like alcohol, the immediate effect is debilitating, but the overall effect of the signal is an advantage.

Jared notes that it is actually very important for an indicator signal to bring a disadvantage to the practicer so that it will have an actual meaning. For example, think of something incredibly cheap, anyone can get it easily, therefore it is not a useful indicator of wealth. Similarly, drinking water is not a sign of strength, as alcohol is.

Both art and chemical abuse are widespread human hallmarks characteristic of most known human societies. Both beg explanation, since it’s not immediately obvious why they promote our survival through natural selection, or why they help us acquire mates through sexual selection. I argued earlier that art often serves as a valid indicator of an individual’s superiority or status, since art requires skill to create and requires status or wealth to acquire. But those individuals perceived by their fellows as enjoying status thereby acquire enhanced access to resources and mates. I’m arguing now that humans seek status through many other costly display besides art, and that some of those displays (like jumping from towers, fast driving, and chemical abuse) are surprisingly dangerous. The former costly displays advertise status or wealth; the latter dangerous ones advertise that the displaying individual can master even such risks and hence must be superior. [pg. 203]