The previous post focused on a single, to me key, aspect of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari. This post focuses on the other aspect of the book I found compelling. The last one was about the power fiction gave homo sapiens. This one is about the Agricultural Revolution (the AR).
And other important Revolutions that followed, but the AR wrought a profound change on the human race. It was our first step towards societies and civilization. It ushered in the first cities and led to kingdoms and empires.
It also led to materialism, greed, health issues, theft, and war.
Prior to the AR, humans lived in small groups — mobile bands that lived off the land. They frequently changed location and owned only what they could carry.
Keep in mind that most of what we “know” — or rather, surmise — about our distant ancestors is largely based on studies of the few modern hunter/gatherer groups that remain. Who necessarily are contaminated by at least some aspects of modern life.
Perhaps more importantly, areas supporting such populations usually are remote and isolated. They may not reflect how average hunter/gatherer societies operated. In particular, there are no longer vast areas where many tribes roam and interact, just small isolated remote bands.
So, there is a lot of guesswork involved in saying what really went on back then. History is always a story and almost always inaccurate to one degree or another. Sometimes more than others. In some cases, it’s a complete fiction. (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”)
In any event, we can suppose that, in many ways, hunter/gatherer societies do seem a bit wonderful. Living in paradise, eating off the land, and just being. The great outdoors. There is good reason many enjoy rough camping.
There’s a lot to be said for it. Especially if it’s the only lifestyle known. It seems less ideal compared to doctors and refrigerators but for all it lacks in the conveniences, it also (probably) lacks in much human misery. People led generally stress-free lives.
In the (first) Agricultural Revolution humanity shifted to a new mode of living: growing crops and raising animals. Why chase food if you can DIY at home?
But this involves settling down on a piece of land and building permanent structures such as fences, irrigation canals, barns, silos, and a place to live. And it involves an ever-growing set of tools for working the fields and dealing with the animals. Since you no longer need to lug everything around, you can afford the luxury of specialized tools. Your possessions constantly increase. (You can always build another storage shed to keep your stuff in.)
The AR means long hours of back-breaking repetitive dull work. Fields to be cleared, first of rocks, then constantly of weeds, fences and irrigation canals to be built and maintained (fences to protect from animals that would eat the crops), seeding and harvesting must be completed at the right times, animals must be fed and cared for, and constant vigilance is required to defend against animal and human marauders. As any farmer knows, farming is hard work.
[It’s no wonder that harvest festivals were such blow-outs. It was about the only real fun they had. The next morning it was back to work.]
But wait, there’s more: The AR also reduces a diverse diet to a single staple. The lack of diet diversity is bad enough but relying on a single food source risks starvation if that source fails or is lost. The change in diet also causes health problems, some of which persist today (such as gluten intolerance).
Finally, the AR means you have to start thinking about the future in ways you never did before. You have to learn to think and plan years in advance.
One notable aspect is that it happened independently and almost simultaneously in separate regions of the world:
People in Central America domesticated maize and beans without knowing anything about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle East. South Americans learned how to raise potatoes and llamas, unaware of what was going on in either Mexico or the Levant. China’s first revolutionaries domesticated rice, millet and pigs. North America’s first gardeners were those who got tired of combing the undergrowth for edible gourds and decided to cultivate pumpkins. New Guineans tamed sugar cane and bananas, while the first West African farmers made African millet, African rice, sorghum and wheat conform to their needs.
The switch from hunter/gatherer was an idea whose time had come. It was inevitable. At the same time, it was a one-way door. We can never return to the pre-AR past. The changes it wrought were too great.
The upside, at least from one point of view, is a concentration of vastly more calories available to homo sapiens than ever before. The result — eventually — is a population explosion and the growth of cities and empires. Seen solely in terms of the survival of human DNA, the Agricultural Revolution is a huge win.
…more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.
Crucially, it allows denser concentrations of people. Hunter/gatherer groups need lots of space. “The land” in its natural state only supports so many. Agriculture enables towns and cities. (Per the last post, social fictions are also key in the density increase of human groups.) Like most things, cities offer both advantages (variety of products and services) and disadvantages (crowding, expenses, sewage). At the very least, they are a major change in lifestyle from hunter/gatherer.
Another big change is the rise of small groups of the wealthy, from local lords to regional barons, and all the way to kings. All of whom are taking a slice of your farm pie.
The very notion of owning land brings with it the notion of who owns the land. It’s one of our oldest more cherished and enduring social fictions. Ownership includes the notion of theft and its prevention. The never-ending arms race between lock makers and lock pickers.
[Owning something you made or worked for is more defensible than owning land. Who can sell land? How do they own it? Who sold it to them? On some level it’s an absurd fiction, but one we take to heart so we can have a place to hang our hats.]
So, ownership leads to thieves and guards, the ultimate expression of which is going to war. There’s a spectrum, from pinching paperclips at work to simple shoplifting and so on through mugging and burglary to bank robbery, giant public scams, and ultimately, war. It all amounts to the same primitive impulse: I want what you have and don’t care how I get it.
Bottom line, the Agricultural Revolution is a major win for the species DNA, and it eventually leads to enormous growth for the species. But it also has an enormous price, including generally higher levels of stress, anxiety, and misery. But without it, we probably don’t have any of this (for a wide range of this).
Here’s a short list of Major Revolutions for Homo Sapiens:
- Cognitive Revolution – social fictions; vast expansion
- Agricultural Revolution – diet; cities; material wealth; greed
- Scientific Revolution – Renaissance; desire to know
- Industrial Revolution – science+technology; greed!
- Computer Revolution – science+technology; greed!!
- next: Quantum? AGI?
Note the role of greed in human history. “I want more!” Our drives to expand and know are other manifestations of our native thirst. Humanity divides (roughly) into those who can find satisfaction and those for whom nothing is ever enough. One key to being happy, I think, is being in the former group.
Until the AR, greed was personal and petty. The same “I want that” impulse animals and children have. There weren’t many possessions to envy or steal. But desires not based on need or biology are as ancient as the ones that are. Desire is primal. The AR opened the door for greed on a massive scale. It turned the human race materialistic. It was arguably the moment we willingly, if unknowingly, walked out of paradise.
[I remember a road trip long ago. Spent a night in Black Canyon of the Gunnison (awesome place). We’d slept in the car (with the top down) and were up at dawn. Took a bag of granola (breakfast!) to a scenic overlook. Started feeding a couple squirrels, and then dozens showed up (they heard the news: free granola). One fat old guy (or gal) was too busy defending a big pile of granola I’d laid down, and had no time to eat any, let alone cart any off as the others were doing. Greedy! And an example: being rich forces you to work your ass off staying rich.]
I want to say a bit about the next Revolution in the list, the Scientific one. It was another sea change for humanity, and I think Harari misses a crucial aspect of what makes it important. Our stories until then, stories of kingdoms, nations, religions, contained much that wasn’t grounded in physical reality. Neither the Code of Hammurabi nor the US Declaration of Independence (both keystone documents of two great and enduring fictions) are grounded on physical realities.
[The Code of Hammurabi is the original source of “an eye for an eye.” It didn’t exactly forbid crime, especially against “lower” people, but you had to compensate the victim (or their dependents).]
But roughly around 1500, mostly in Europe, humanity began to ground their stories, not on gods, monsters, or superhuman heroes, but on the facts of the physical world. For example, Galileo, Kepler, and Brahe, were all born in the 1500s. By the time Newton came along in the middle of the 1600s humanity was well on its way to seeing the world as a mechanism — like a clock — that could be explored. And explained.
Harari seems puzzled about the success of Europeans at the time, certainly other cultures had the same information available. The problem was that cultures in the Middle East and Asia were often mired in religious traditions or tradition-based bureaucracies. Their fictions were still based on idealisms, not realities. It’s no wonder a culture that based its stories on physical reality took over the world.
And, at least on some level, that was great because refrigerators and rocket ships.
The Industrial and Computer Revolutions likewise “spread like wildfire” (or “sold like hotcakes”) because their stories were based on physical reality. Whatever else one might say about that, it has proven time and again (and consistently) to be incredibly effective, and both these Revolutions offered highly effective new tools.
As to what Revolution humanity experiences next, who can say. The future is notoriously hard to predict.
Some bits I highlighted (along with annotations):
Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions.
But he’s also pointed out how it was a series of small steps that made sense at the time. Each step was seen as improving life.
Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.
And that’s happened time and again. It might be happening right now with systems such as GPT-4.
However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’?
The author’s wandered off topic, but since he asks: because they are conscious beings. Consciousness may be special and rare in the universe, so it alone can be the basis on which to declare human sovereignty.
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.
Ha! And how has that been working out for you? About this point in the book, I lost faith in Harari, and from this point on there’s a growing level of snark and disagreement in the annotations I made to the highlighted bits.
It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
Which the Hippie Nation tried to do and ultimately failed at. Change is hard!
Almost every highlight from this point has an annotation with snark or disagreement. Usually both. I found little of value in the remaining two-thirds of the book. More on that next post.
Some last thoughts:
In contrast to the fictions behind religions and governments, the AR was grounded in physical fact, the realities of soil, sun, seeds, and water. That’s why it was inevitable. Unlike our invented fictions, we discover the behaviors of plants and animals. The Agricultural Revolution was humanity’s first step towards science.
The AR happened as a series of small steps that made sense at the time. A lesson we should try to remember as we move forward with other game-changing technologies. Or perhaps the takeaway is that humans always leap before looking?
In fact, the plants and animals domesticated us! We completely changed our lifestyle and entered into a form of eternal bondage. Who really owns who?
Does the Computer Revolution parallel the Agricultural Revolution in issuing in massive social change with as many negatives as positives? Who was it a huge win for?
Stay revolutionary, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
April 20th, 2023 at 11:38 am
When it comes to books about agriculture (not that Harari’s actually is one), I vastly prefer The Botany of Desire (2001) by Michael Pollan. In general, I like what I’ve read of Pollan’s books.
The Botany of Desire is also the basis of a two-hour PBS special that’s pretty good.
April 20th, 2023 at 11:47 am
A science fiction author I like (Frederik Pohl), in his Heechee series, has the advanced Big Deal aliens tells us that, in their (considerable) experience, no species that is both hierarchical and intelligent ever survives its own intelligence. Such species always eventually destroy themselves.
That notion stuck with me ever since. What if it’s correct?
Alternatively, and what I think might be actually happening now, a species can advance to a point and then backslide due to the pressures induced by advancing (change hurts). So rather than a constant rise in advancement to who knows what great heights (like taking over the galaxy and becoming cybernetic space creatures), existence is a series of rises and falls driven by our idealism in conflict with the realities of what humans really (tribal apes still in their asshole stage). It’s another prey-predator curve, but the rabbits and wolves here are both us.
Can we rise above ourselves? Can we ever achieve the heights of our literature and hopes? Or are we stuck forever in our primate crab bucket mentality?
April 20th, 2023 at 12:02 pm
Speaking of who domesticated who, that’s long been the question with dogs and their owners. (I’m pretty sure Bentley owns me. She certainly thinks she does.)
April 20th, 2023 at 12:08 pm
One commonality between the Agricultural Revolution and the Computer Revolution is that both created new wealth and new classes of the wealthy.
Both also involve a form of bondage to the new order. Agriculture and computers both occupy vast amounts of our time. (For most, computers never turned out to be the time-savers they were first billed as.)
Corporations were the big winners when it came to computers.
Both were inevitable one-way doors.
The list goes on…
April 20th, 2023 at 2:25 pm
While I was making the Major Revolution list, I found myself making two other lists about things that were game changers for humanity, but which I somehow didn’t think fit on the Major Revolution list. Because I could fit them on one of these other two lists:
Some major Drivers for Homo Sapiens:
Some major Tools for Homo Sapiens:
But I suspect there’s an element of dealer’s choice here…
April 20th, 2023 at 2:25 pm
“Corporations were the big winners when it came to computers.” Haven’t you heard? “Corporations are people too.”
I’m not a fan of Pollan. He is what I call a “second order narcissist”. That is to say a person who believes in their goodness/righteousness regarding others, i.e. the tribe’s/greater good. However, in fact, he and his ilk (NPR, etc.), are really self (ego) serving. Which, btw, does benefit the group/tribe/clan.
We (you and I) could have some fun in conversation face to face. I.e., around the campfire drinking some home-brew grog. 😉
April 20th, 2023 at 3:24 pm
Oh, believe me, I’m painfully aware of Citizens United v. FEC. Big corporations with deep pockets can spend money on politics because they’re people, too. Big win for Big Money. Not a fan.
I’m not clear on your complaint about Pollan. You seem to be saying he does benefit the group? If so, the complaint is? Or are you saying he’s only out for himself? I can’t say he’s ever triggered any dislike in me. I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, but there’s obviously a subjective element in how we react to an author. Maybe especially with non-fiction authors because they’re more present in the text? A fiction author is usually hidden behind the story, but non-fiction authors are themselves presenting the information to us. So, I think it’s easy to react to the author’s personality.
Heh, I’ve gotten the sense we have pretty diverse, even opposing, tastes and politics, so if by “fun in conversation” you mean something pretty active, then, yeah, no doubt! 😁 Things go better with grog! 🍻 We might want to avoid certain topics, though… 🤐
April 20th, 2023 at 2:48 pm
“Does the Computer Revolution parallel the Agricultural Revolution in issuing in massive social change with as many negatives as positives? Who was it a huge win for?”
I’d say the computer revolution is a good parallel. At least it’s interesting to think about, especially when you think about whether having computer technology saves time. I suppose it does if you can afford to hire your own IT experts to do all the computer crap for you! On the other hand, we wouldn’t be communicating right now without it.
April 20th, 2023 at 3:53 pm
It seems to be common to Revolutions that they have inseparable Yin-Yang natures. Huge upsides but also downsides. Each of them deserves more than this one post could get into. The Computer Revolution, for instance, opens worm cans of privacy, security, documentation, copyrights, business, law, and social media (to name a few). Yet, as you say, here we are with all that entails.
All things considered, I’m down with crops and cities and technology. I mean, might as well be. Most of it is inevitable, and certainly the likes of me can’t steer history (oh, if only). I like the advantages, and I think that if we ever really grew up and got our shit together we actually could deal with the disadvantages. Perhaps I’m idealistic (or spoiled by too much early Star Trek and aspirational science fiction), but I do think we could rise to great heights. Not the way things are going now, but I still wouldn’t rule it out.
April 21st, 2023 at 6:40 am
To paraphrase a former president, I feel your pain in reading so much before losing faith in Harari. I feel lucky. A 2020 New Yorker bio of Harari and a few critical reviews of Sapiens warned me off this fellow. Having saved myself the odious task of reading Sapiens, I lack a certain bona fides in being critical of it. So, I’ll restrain myself. I will say from your review so far (and what I’ve read elsewhere) he reminds me a little bit of J.J. Rousseau, another popular public intellectual.
April 21st, 2023 at 3:22 pm
I suppose it’s what I get for actively avoiding reviews. I like to approach things cold as much as possible. When I began to react strongly to Harari, then I poked around a little and found out my reaction wasn’t atypical. (I’m so irascible in general that I need to double-check my negative reactions. Don’t always know if it’s me or the material.)
Ah, well, if nothing else I got some blog posts out of it.
April 21st, 2023 at 6:34 pm
[…] previous two posts (this one and this one) each discussed an aspect of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari. […]
April 22nd, 2023 at 7:25 pm
I have to wonder, and it’s a question I’ve had for some time, this Holocene… is it the only one? Were there other times in the past, lasting for millennia, that could have spawned civilizations? Or is this it? And Homo Sapiens Sapiens just got lucky? (Guns, Germs & Steel style).
I like Pollan’s books too. Anybody who’s willing to take psychedelic mushrooms for science is OK by me.
April 22nd, 2023 at 8:17 pm
I dunno. If there was, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of them in the geological record. We used to speculate that if Africa had given rise to higher civilizations than we knew, but they were based on wood, there’d be little or no sign of them now. I’d guess once a species starts working stone and bone it leaves traces.
Yeah, How to Change Your Mind. Very interesting book! I think I might draw the line at ayahuasca. I have a delicate stomach.