The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Whose dumb idea was this, anyway?

David Sucher, over at City Comforts, takes a break from blogging about the Viaduct debate in Seattle to wonder
Were they stupid?

An academic suggests that

only recently has the European standard of living surpassed that of hunter-gatherer societies.

Interesting. That implies an odd choice by all those hunter gatherers, no? Why would they step from a higher to a lower standard?
This has puzzled me for a number of years. It seems quite clear that, by certain significant measures (lifespan, caloric consumption, nutritional intake), farming was a loser of a decision for H-Gs. But I think that there are a number of explanations entirely consonant with that basic story.

1. H-Gs couldn't analyze this. Agriculture must have offered a number of comprehensible advantages, and it would have been hard to judge - especially in advance - the disadvantages.

1a. Comprehensible advantages may have included stability - I think it's easy to see ways in which humans to this day value quotidian certainty over high return uncertainty. Actually, I can imagine the New Yorker cartoon (or maybe Far Side) in my head - haggard H-G sees his compatriots mauled by a saber-toothed tiger, and thinks "maybe a nice place in the country, just a few acres with some proto-wheat...."

1b. Another (likely) comprehensible advantage would have been culture. I may be wrong about this, but I would imagine that semi-dedicated agriculture would almost instantly offer the benefits of specialization, etc. It wouldn't take much experience of pottery made by full-time potters, or clothing made by full-time tailors, to value that material improvement.

2. Agriculture benefits societies more than it does individuals. So the farming village is able to outcompete the nearby H-Gs, even though each farmer is doing (a bit) worse than each H-G. It's not as if one farmer can say, "Fuck it, I'm going to hunt and gather."

2a. Obviously, you start to get into politics and power here, as well. If that village leader has a couple dozen dedicated warriors at his disposal, he grows far more powerful than any neighbors. Aside from what that does for him (booty, wives, ego), it also makes him a more desirable leader in the eyes of his tribe. And other tribes. So they join him, whether directly or in imitation.

3. Deny the premise of the question: what village life lacks in longevity, it gains in culture. Straight-up superiority, even if the life is shorter. Hell, this is easy to see: do you want 75 years without any products of culture (save, perhaps, bardery), or 50 years with expert-made goods, art, literature, etc.

4. Directionality. It's not clear that H-G to farmer is reversible, maybe not even after just one full generation. Studies of modern H-G societies show staggering levels of detailed, sophisticated environmental knowledge. But how would you retain that after a decade of disuse?

So let's posit the transitional, horticultural H-G tribe - they have some known gathering areas where they've learned to tend the berries for better yield. They realize that, with a bit more attention, yields keep growing. At some point, in a good year (or three), they do better without so much wandering. Soon, the H-G becomes supplementary, thus becoming less all-consuming. H-G knowledge atrophies, replaced by horticultural/agricultural knowledge. A few more years, and the H-G lifestyle can't compete, because they can't do it as well anymore. And, as they fail to find quarry, or are less successful in utilizing it, they think back on that nice, reliable crop. And the words drought, blight, and (animal-borne) disease don't even exist yet....

PS - Actually, I think Jared Diamond says herding preceeds agriculture, not the other way around, but I'm not sure that affects my argument in any meaningful way.


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