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Blame the farmers
June 27, 2005 1:04 PM   Subscribe

Was agriculture a mistake? Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond asks this question. Originally published in 1987, it's still completely relevant today. I personally feel that memes are the real culprit, and they are inevitable in any sizable social group with a common system of communication. Could agriculture be an ancient meme which has profoundly impacted the history of mankind?
posted by mullingitover (116 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Be gentle, it's my first FPP.
posted by mullingitover at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2005


Was agriculture a mistake?

I'll tell you as soon as I finishing grazing.
posted by jonmc at 1:09 PM on June 27, 2005


Be gentle, it's my first FPP.

now, THERE's a meme...
posted by quonsar at 1:09 PM on June 27, 2005


so, the maasai were right after all.....
posted by quarsan at 1:11 PM on June 27, 2005


This is so odd I was just talking with someone about this book this weekend. The conversation stemmed from a discussion we were having about the article on China's armada outlined in the latest National Geographic, and how they were on the verge of conquering the west.
posted by splatta at 1:14 PM on June 27, 2005


Ishmael by daniel quinn.
posted by proof_nc at 1:18 PM on June 27, 2005


Now, I like Diamond's books as much as the next guy, but since when is a Physiologist/Geographer specializing in the South Pacific region, considered the expert on world anthropology? With the holes big enough to drive a mack truck through in Guns, Germs and Steel, you'd think there'd be more outcry, but I just don't hear it. maybe I need to get out more?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:20 PM on June 27, 2005


Classic stuff among primitivists like myself. This is the heart and soul of my blog, The Anthropik Network. Of particular interest here are, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," "The Opposite of Malthus," (that one really hit a nerve out there), "The Chicken & the Egg, or, Hierarchy Formation and the Agricultural Revolution" and "The Illusion of Security."

The meme bent, though, is the same pitfall that Daniel Quinn falls into with Ishmael. Cultural materialism shows us that the way we live determines the way we think (i.e., Hindus think cows are sacred because it keeps them from eating them, which would be completely unsustainable in India where they're much more necessary as draft animals). This is usually cornerstone to the initial critique of civilization, but then abandoned when we get to the solution. Our memes, like our genes, develop from natural selection. You can't consciously guide the development of a new memeplex. If you want people to live differently, you need to change the rules of the game, because people are gunna play the way they play, no matter how much you tell them to play it your way.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:21 PM on June 27, 2005


The author is asking a loaded question. Like any other revolutionary technology, agriculture had a profound impact. And, not surprisingly, some of those consequences were negative.

I also wonder how it is possible to sustain modern populations without agriculture, absent some horrible apocalyptic event. I don't envision all my fellow shoppers at the organic foods co-op gamely hunting and gathering in an effort to restore social equality.

I question the need to dress this stuff in memeology. Isn't it simpler to say, "The idea of agriculture..."?
posted by Scooter at 1:27 PM on June 27, 2005


FWIW: if any SF-bay-area mefites want to know more, he'll be giving a seminar in a couple weeks as a part of the Long Now Foundataion seminar series (Long Now previously discussed)
posted by garethspor at 1:30 PM on June 27, 2005


He's not, Pollomacho. The only problems I know of in his work are mainly details, and most anthropologists I know tend to really like him. He takes solid, widely accepted anthropological knowledge, and breaks it down in easy-to-digest prose that the average plebian can understand. Final word he is not; translator to the masses, though, yes.

Scooter, you're quite right. Modern populations cannot exist without agriculture. Diamond sees it as a problem we're locked into and can't get out of. Primitivists like myself see a massive die-off as inevitable at this point, with foraging as the sole possibility for survival. Quinn and his followers would like to see a gradual reduction in population to a more sustainable level.

The way the term "meme" is so universally abused, it might as well be abandoned for simply "idea." The original concept--of ideas being subject to natural selection--is a very good one, though. And they certainly apply here. Agriculturalists who believe that nature is their friend, for instance, will die, just as surely as foragers who believe they're conquering nature. Foragers who believe they are part of nature will thrive; just as agriculturalists who believe they're on a gods-given mission to conquer all nature will thrive. That's a meme; the idea survives because it aids survival. The Badger Song is not a meme.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:33 PM on June 27, 2005


Not a flag worthy issue, but just a note. G.G.S was also mentioned in these threads 1 and 2.

Perhaps a little more background is needed for a good FPP.

interesting idea overall though I agree with Scooter's first point. I think your second point, Scooter, is not relevant though. As, without Ag., we would not have the current population thus no need to support it. I doubt anyone is suggesting that we abandon ag. at this time, but rather it may have been a over-all negative choice that has resulted in more harm then good. Which would be an interesting point to debate.
posted by edgeways at 1:36 PM on June 27, 2005


I also wonder how it is possible to sustain modern populations without agriculture

The author himself notes that population pressures were what created the requirement for agriculture.

I quite like this article. Makes me want to go and rent "The Gods Must be Crazy" again!
posted by Elpoca at 1:45 PM on June 27, 2005


I'm also kind of tired of the term, "meme." Almost everyone on this site uses it to mean, "concept."

That and "uncanny valley."

(Interestingly, though, it appears that the term is being used with some precision in this discussion. Apologies for not othewise contributing to this post in any meaningful way.)
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:45 PM on June 27, 2005


Yes, the overall point, I think, is that agriculture was necessitated by population, but it also fueled population growth. This vicious cycle led to our population size, famines, and social inequality. Diamond points out that some of the claims of a brutish and short life for hunter-gatherers are questionable.

What I think makes this open for debate is the lack of evidence that agricultural lifestyles caused the decrease in average height and other metrics for overall health. What about war? Who's to say that the tall people weren't sent into battle and slaughtered, leaving the shorties to tend the fields?
posted by mullingitover at 1:47 PM on June 27, 2005


That did happen, mullingitover. But we also know the agriculturalists are significantly less healthy and less well-nourished. See Dickson's Mounds. Not only was there the height issue, there's also significant lesioning consistent with malnourishment.

In my anthropology of food class back in college, we went over a concept of "affluent malnutrition," and the fact that even today we're not as healthy as the average forager.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:53 PM on June 27, 2005


The Oil We Eat
posted by homunculus at 2:05 PM on June 27, 2005


Definitely an interesting question. But only answerable once we decide what humans are "for". For example, social inequality seems necessary if one wants to have a scientist elite, which seems a necessary ingredient toward building spaceships to escape the solar system before the Sun explodes. So, taking a rather long view, agriculture seems a good thing for the species.

Less long-term, Diamond points out that we've had ~6 minutes of agriculture on a 24-hour day of humanity. How many more seconds before genetic engineering renders these particular nutritional issues moot? So, a few minutes of necessary pain that has, as one result, genetic engineering.

I had an anthro professor who took a very dim view of literacy -- only good for taxation and conscription, in his way of thinking.
posted by Aknaton at 2:16 PM on June 27, 2005


I think that Diamond misses the point. The benefit of agriculture isn't what it gives, but what it doesn't require: time and resources. The advent of agriculture allowed society to expend time and manpower in the pursuit of things like developing writing, medication, and so on. It's all very well to talk about the "simple life", but there is a reason why the Bushmen did not invent pennicilin. They are not stupid, they simply lack the time to research anything, because they're foraging. Giving up agriculture means spending very little time on anything other than survival. It means a society without school, reading, architecture, science and medication. And that's no way to live.
posted by unreason at 2:18 PM on June 27, 2005


That was pretty silly. Diamond even admits that agriculture is necessary if you're going to have any people doing stuff other than hunting-and-gathering, but couches it in terms of "deep class divisions."

I think I'll take this world, with physicians and entertainers and scientists and engineers and coders and people like me, one where gathering food is taking a smaller and smaller proportion of people and effort every generation, over one where we're all equally cavemen.

unreason: one of Diamond's point is that hunter/gatherers have plenty of time for loafing, which I suppose they do. What they don't have is the infrastructure to turn loafing-time into scientific research, or engineering projects, or making penicillin, or the luxury of having (many) people devoted full-time to those tasks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:26 PM on June 27, 2005


Aknaton ... the mythology of mankind's destiny to fill the universe is, of course, a popular one in this day and age. But it seems increasingly apparent that the universe does not need, nor even want such a ruler. Ultimately, our experiments with agriculture appear to be increasingly suicidal. Greenhouse emissions over the past 10,000 years now giving rise to global warming, the eighth mass extinction in the earth's history currently going on because we currently consume some 40% of the total photosynthetic capacity of the sun, and that genetic engineering you mention--it seems to me to be, on the whole, far more dangerous than beneficial. It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where civilization could realistically continue for the next century. The only possibility I can see is the conquest of space you point to--but sharing this devastation with world after world, consuming a planet and moving on to the next like the villainous invading aliens of some sci-fi epic, hardly seems like a positive outcome to me.

Unreason, the reason foragers haven't invented as much as we have is simple. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we're the only ones who are needy. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The fact of the matter is that no one works harder than an agriculturalist. Even the most Hobbesian studies of forager workloads where nearly every daily activity is defined as "work" put the forager work day at no more than six hours. Agriculturalists work ten to twelve hours a day; modern industrialists like ourselves can shave that down to eight to ten. But none of us enjoy as much liesure time as even the most overworked forager. The Agricultural Revolution saw a drastic reduction in liesure time. And they had art, and music, and science, and even medication--I once read that shamans have as good a success rate as our hospitals. Your statements are commonly believed, I'll grant you that. But they're actually the opposite of truth.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:31 PM on June 27, 2005


What unreason said. I pretty much despise primitivism (sorry, jefgodesky): it strikes me as well-fed, self-indulgent moderns playing with "shocking" ideas because they haven't got anything better to do. If they were true to their ideas, they'd be out in the woods eating berries, not writing books and posting on the internet. A hundred years ago it was decadence, now it's primitivism. Anything to épater le bourgeois. It's fun and stimulating to speculate about the causes and effects of the agricultural revolution, but it's silly to pretend such speculation has any answers for the problems of today.

On preview: what ROU_Xenophobe said as well.
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on June 27, 2005


The benefit of agriculture isn't what it gives, but what it doesn't require: time and resources.

actually, the reverse occurred. anthropologists estimate time at work for scavengers was on the order of 2 hours per day. whereas the remains of early agricultural societies indicate the most common cause of death was overwork (evidence of acute arthritis at early ages).
posted by 3.2.3 at 2:35 PM on June 27, 2005


Languagehat ... that's exactly what I've been doing. I wasn't exactly raised in a tribe, so I need to learn these things before I go running off into the woods. Meanwhile, I write, to try to warn people of what's really going on here.

And what is that? Well, it goes right back to the Agricultural Revolution, doesn't it? Like any such massive change, it had good effects and bad effects. Unfortunately, the good effects are few, and relatively minor, and all of them help only the elite of society to control and dominate all others. The bad effects are enormous and catastrophic: desertification, overpopulation, mass extinction, global climate change, starvation, war, genocide, Republicans ... just to name a few.

It's linherently unsustainable, and the evidence points strongly to it crashing down sooner, rather than later. When that happens, the only ones with a decent chance of surviving to propogate the species are those who start learning to swim before the ship starts sinking.

So, I try to convince people online, in print, anywhere I can. Foraging can't survive 6.5 billion people, but neither can agriculture (being unsustainable, it can't support anything indefinitely, can it?). Nothing can. I'm never going to convince 6.5 billion people, but every individual I do convince is one more less likely to die, so how can I not try?

As for my motivations, I'm sure you're right about most primitivists. As for myself, I wish I could just close my eyes and wish away all the terrible things I know and go back to a nice, simple, everyday life like everyone else. Unfortunately, I can't. The things I know, I know, and I can't unknow them. I have to follow where the facts lead, whether they're provacative or hum-drum. So I guess I'll be off to pick some berries....
posted by jefgodesky at 2:45 PM on June 27, 2005


It seems Diamond is kind of attacking a straw man here. He makes a point that pre-argicultural people may have had it better than early-agricultural people. But I live in what I'd call a post-agricultural society, where 90+ percent of the people aren't involved in food production at all. And my life expectancy is three or four times as long as either of those groups', even after accounting for war and tyranny and whatnot. I suspect my chances of being shot for political crimes today are less than a hunter-gatherer's chance of dying due to infection. And if I wanted to, I bet I could work only 15-20 hours a week and still live as well as a bushman.

Possibly the problem he sees is with large-scale organized activity, of which agriculture was only the first kind. But those gorillas couldn't build the Parthenon without having stonecutters, sculptors, and builders, which might well lead to many of the same inequalities as agriculture. Essentially, he's saying that having society has led to societal problems. I don't think it follows that society was a big mistake, though, at least not in the long run. As long as we don't succumb to global warming or nuclear winter, that is. And I must say, I'm a fan of education. The person I am certainly couldn't exist without it.

But Diamond is always fascinating, even when he stretches too far. I don't know how to solve all of society's problems, but thinking about their causes is surely worthwhile.

On preview: jefgodesky, I'd take a modern hospital over a shaman any day.
posted by sidb at 2:47 PM on June 27, 2005


Clearly, the biggest mistake was to leave the trees.
posted by sour cream at 3:00 PM on June 27, 2005


Sidb ... most estimates of forager life expectancies are artificially inflated by the acceptance of infanticide and abortion. If 50% of all babies born are strangled at birth by their mother, or simply left to die, and everyone lives to be 70 or so, is that a valid thing to count in estimating life expectancy? You can argue it both ways, can't you? It seems to have everything to do with a cultural question even we can't answer amongst ourselves: when does life begin? When you take that into account, the modern industrialist has finally, finally brought his life expectancy up to the forager par. Not surpassing it, mind you. Our stature is finally catching up with where we were in the Mesolithic. Overall, though, we're still significantly less healthy. We're overweight, and we suffer from epidemic diseases unknown to our ancestors.

Your conflation of "society" as a synonym for "agricultural civilization," though, seems to almost willfully disregard all the flourishing, happy societies around the world which are neither. Normally I overlook such glosses, as they're so common in our culture, but given that they are precisely the subject of discussion, it seems a little harder to understand. They had art, and music, and philosophy, and yes, even education, all of a very sophisticated variety, in my own opinion. These are not things we gained by adopting agriculture; they're among the things that agriculture didn't take away from us, like our health, liesure time, security, and freedom.

On the medicine front, of course you would prefer a hospital. That's our acculturaton. Our cultural constructions of health, disease, and treatment. Ethnomedicine and all that. Biomedicine is just one more kind of ethnomedicine--it just happens to be ours. We expect ours to be the only effective one--so does everyone else. But when you look at it empirically, there's not that much difference in how effective they are.

I tried to study shamanism for a long time and understand it scientifically. Finally, I gave up. Placebos explain a lot of it, but not all of it. Ethnobotany explains a lot of it, but not all of it. All the explanations offered up explain a lot of it, but not all of it. There remains stuff in there that I just can't explain, and I've stopped trying. All I know is it works; I don't know how or why, I just know that it works. It's a black box to me, and I'm satisfied with that. After all, they're two different mindsets, aren't they? Why must shamanism justify itself scientifically all the time? Why can't science justify itself shamanically?
posted by jefgodesky at 3:03 PM on June 27, 2005


Somebody get this man some tissues, stat! There's no way he could have enough to compensate for that much intellectual masturbation!
posted by schroedinger at 3:13 PM on June 27, 2005


Unfortunately, the good effects are few, and relatively minor

Now, that's just ridiculous, and it's the kind of thing that makes it hard for people to take your line of thought seriously. It's like a religious fanatic hollering that all unbelievers are leading wretched lives and heading for the pit of degradation. We know it's not true, so we stop listening; similarly, we know it's not true that the good effects of the agricultural revolution are "few and relatively minor." You can only convince yourself of that if you brainwash yourself into looking at everything around you as bad and muttering "evil, evil" as people go about their happy everyday activities. I like books and movies and modern medicine and the ability to learn about the universe in ways not available to primitive hunter-gatherers, and the overwhelming majority of people do too. If you want to be taken seriously, start by admitting that there's a lot on both sides of the ledger and arguing that the benefits, while great and appealing, aren't ultimately worth it; people may not agree with you, but they'll listen. If, on the other hand, you just want to get out there and gather your berries, carry on, and I hope you enjoy that life. (Not snarking -- I really do; I want everyone to enjoy their lives as much as possible, even if they're not for me.)
posted by languagehat at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2005


jefgodesky:
I recognize that foragers are human, and they have society and education. To be clearer: when I said society, I meant the large-scale, organized social constructs in my life and most of recent history.

As for education, I'm sure they would say the things they learn are important. But I don't need to know all the kinds of berries. I like the kinds of thought that come from a much wider exposure to the world and to others' thoughts about it (including Jared Diamond's).

Of course I like being what I am, and I usually wouldn't want to trade places with a forager. He may not want to trade with me, either. That's just saying there's more than one way to be happy.

I don't understand your explanation about life expectancies, though. Are you saying that forager life expectancies are deflated by averaging in some zeroes, and that the ones that survive infancy live to be 70, not 26 like the article said?
posted by sidb at 3:24 PM on June 27, 2005


And if I wanted to, I bet I could work only 15-20 hours a week and still live as well as a bushman

I personally wouldn't want to trade my comfortable existence for the life of a bushman. I don't know if I could say the same thing if I was working in a sweatshop in China, or if I was a street person in Calcutta.

A large part of the 6.5 billion people in the world see the downside of agriculture and industry, while we get to enjoy the fruits of civilization, stuff like cheap food, penicillin and The Daily Show.

I think if you look at it from that angle Diamond makes a lot more sense.
posted by BuzzKill at 3:32 PM on June 27, 2005


A large part of the 6.5 billion people in the world see the downside...

Yeah, it's true. I didn't address that, even though it is pretty much what Diamond was talking about, because it's not easy to articulate anything simple about that. I don't think it has to be that way, except that people often value their own convenience over someone else's real problem. But I'm sure that's true among foragers as well. The number affected would be a lot smaller than 6.5 billion, and the cruelty wouldn't be institutionalized. Maybe having a bully in the family is better than having an overlord. I doubt foragers' lives are completely idyllic, though.

But I was only talking about organization, not the dark side of human nature. Maybe organization amplifies that, but then, it amplifies a lot of our potential as well. I don't know which it amplifies more.
posted by sidb at 3:48 PM on June 27, 2005


the only thing that bugged me about the article was when he gets into farming making women into "beasts of burden." AFAIK (and one source was a hunter-gatherer) this cultural practice is present in both hunter-gatherer and agricultural situations.

women carry the bigger load because the men are expected to be able to fend off predators and enemies when walking a trail. it's also supposed to be why the lead walker is a man.

how could an anthropologist not know that?
posted by RedEmma at 3:49 PM on June 27, 2005


jefgodesky, you lost me at "It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where civilization could realistically continue for the next century." That statement defies credibility and logic, especially within the context of this thread. All eloquence aside (because I don't have much to begin with), we are endowed with the capacity to think beyond our problems. It is what makes us unique, complicated and yes, ultimately doomed I suspect. But given the technological capabilities of man, it is highly unlikely agriculture will be the cause. Will it be a part of the cause? It's entirely possible but humanity is a bit too complex to blame it on that alone.

Your points regarding Shamanism are well taken and quite on the mark. Something about it works. Clearly it can't be explained but the point is we are capable of it nonetheless; which gives me hope and scares the shit out of me at the same time. Your belief in such unknowns seems to run contrary to your suggestion we won't be around in 2105.

Diamond could just have easily made the argument that sperm was the great downfall of mankind.
posted by j.p. Hung at 4:07 PM on June 27, 2005


jefgodesky describes himself as an 'armchair anarchist'. He uses the infrastructure of the internet, which presumably would not exist without the agricultural bogeyman, to produce a nauseatingly pretentious blog. I'm not sure if he's a troll, but I think languagehat nailed it earlier in the thread - intellectual decadence.
posted by smiffy at 4:31 PM on June 27, 2005


sidb, uh, that was the kind of the point. It's rather silly of you to sit there going about how much you like your life when the benefits enjoyed by you aren't shared by an overwhelming majority of the people on the planet. (It hearkens back to many bad, bad things, in fact). I'm sure agriculture and capitalism and entertainers and scientist appeal to all the posters on Mefi (though it's fun to watch such bold declarations--go civilization!). But does it appeal to everybody on the planet? That'd be a pretty hard argument to swallow. From that perspective it's quite difficult to make any sort of real argument for "progress". The benefits of agriculture might be enormous, but do they constitute progress?

Diamond's argument falls apart for precisely the same reasons. Even if the 'past' was better, that doesn't mean we should try to emulate the past. Things change. The thing about agriculture is that, at the end of the day, it worked. You might make the case that it won't continue to work, but one can't let idyllic assumptions about the past inform future speculation. At best, by his own admission, it's just too early to know if agriculture, and the result population explosion, will work out for us and the planet.
posted by nixerman at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2005


smiffy, well I guess that's one way to refute his arguments. Don't address any of his points or his well thought-out comments, just attack him personally and make fun of his blog. Though, hmm, maybe you're the troll.
posted by nixerman at 4:35 PM on June 27, 2005


The anthropologists who hate on Diamond are often the ones whose own work is parochial and irrelevant.

Also, there is, IMO, no reason to ever use the word 'meme' - it is meaningless. "I personally feel that memes are the real culprit." What the hell does that mean?

Otherwise a very interesting and provocative post.
posted by alexwoods at 4:36 PM on June 27, 2005



Languagehat ... that's exactly what I've been doing.


I predict that eventually jefgodesky will be captured by an enemy tribe, who will shrink his head and hang it their mantle. And when that happens, I will laugh. Then turn on my AC, crack my refrigerated beer and listen to my digital music on my PC. And then I will laugh some more.

I think perhaps I will point and laugh, now.

*points*
*laughs*

Seriously, people who romanticze "primitivism," usually neglect to remember that life in the natural daze meant sleeping in your own shit, dying of easily curable diseases, and dying in your sleep when the neighboring tribe decided to capture you and sacrifice you to the God Of Corn.

I'm not saying the modern age dosen't have a shitload of unintended consequences to progress. But don't be a dumbass.
posted by jonmc at 4:47 PM on June 27, 2005


A lot of anthropologists do really like Diamond -- ones who don't tend to be those in whose turf he strayed and revealed unsubtle aspects of his thinking. I've been in that boat when he has strayed into "my turf" -- archaeology, genesis of complex social organization, peopling of the world, etc - he is prone to errors of fact. However, his grand narratives are inspiring and defensible. The other group of anthropologists who hate him are ones with a predisposition away from anything that resembles materialism or cultural ecology. Unfortunately, thats a hell of a lot of anthropologists these days.

Both hunters and gatherers and most agriculturalists suffer high infant mortality, making life expectancy at birth a poor proxy for average of adult death -- you can have a life expectancy at birth of 35 years in a society in which the average adult dies at 50. Agriculturalists are well recognized to have much higher incidences of infectious disease because of their higher populations, closer living quarters and, above all, proximity to domesticated animals. They also have high levels of repetitive stress injuries.

on preview: jonmc, you are a lovable curmudgeon on matters of music and pubic hair, but that characterization of "primitive" life is laughably incorrect.
posted by Rumple at 4:49 PM on June 27, 2005


jonmc, you are a lovable curmudgeon on matters of music and pubic hair

I'm nobody's lovable anything and I resent being condescended to as such, but that's beside the point. I've known people who've foraged for food in an urban enviornment. None of them found it so mond jovial. I doubt that it's much different out in the woods. It's bourgeois adventurism.
posted by jonmc at 4:53 PM on June 27, 2005


I thought wars and conflict predated the agricultural era, and were about claiming terrritory for hunting and gathering. I haven't thought about it enough to know how this fits into the overall context of this discussion, but I don't think pre-agricultural man was idyllic by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by forforf at 4:59 PM on June 27, 2005


OK, you're right, your friends' dumspter diving gives you the basis for making sweeping statements about entire ways of life and millions of people past and present? And you resent being condescended to? (which was not my intention, hence I withdraw the term lovable)
posted by Rumple at 4:59 PM on June 27, 2005


OK, you're right, your friends' dumspter diving

These were not Punks dumpster diving on a lark, these were actual homeless people, who I imagine resented dumpster divers as competition for sustenance. And most people from primitive cultures would be happy to accept, say, vaccines, refrigeration rapid transit, telecommunications and other gifts of evil technology.

This whole conversation makes me thing of that old Onion point/counterpoint where the sociology student says "Nigeria: Land Of Conflict and Hope," and the Nigerian says "Get Me Out Of This Godforsaken Hellhole!"
posted by jonmc at 5:06 PM on June 27, 2005


What [people with no agriculture] don't have is the infrastructure to turn loafing-time into scientific research, or engineering projects, or making penicillin, or the luxury of having (many) people devoted full-time to those tasks.

That hypothesis seems flawed. After all, they did manage to invent agriculture. I suppose it's one of the easier technologies to invent, so it's not surprising that people who haven't invented it yet aren't very technologically advanced. There has never been any effective way for large human populations to collectively and consciously decide whether to adopt some technology based on its long-term consequences.
posted by sfenders at 5:09 PM on June 27, 2005


It's rather silly of you to sit there going about how much you like your life when the benefits enjoyed by you aren't shared by an overwhelming majority of the people on the planet... I'm sure agriculture and capitalism and entertainers and scientist appeal to all the posters on Mefi (though it's fun to watch such bold declarations--go civilization!). But does it appeal to everybody on the planet? That'd be a pretty hard argument to swallow.

No, actually it's extremely easy to swallow, because everybody and his brother is trying their very best to get into places where they can lead exactly that sort of life. Chinese want just the same benefits we in the West enjoy; that's why they're tearing up their environment and ripping off intellectual property and generally upsetting people who did their tearing up and ripping off already. Or are you living in some bizarro universe where Americans and Frenchmen are fighting to get admitted to rain forests and deserts where they can live the simple life? Arguing for primitivism on the basis that the world can't sustain the growth of industrial economies indefinitely makes sense; it's probably wrong, but it's an argument. Saying that most people don't want modernity is just being a dumbass.

Hey jonmc, pass me a beer, wouldya? I'm developing a powerful thirst in this thread for some reason.

On preview: Heh, jonmc nailed it.
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on June 27, 2005


The more I read about primitivism, and those who spouse it, the more I'm confirmed that primitivists are Romantics who have an over-inflated ego (or Decadents, as languagehat says,) with a fixation that we are rapidly approaching apocalyptic eschaton. (Whee!)

There is a very wide streak of technology-fear in Western European/North American culture. This fear is charecterised by feelings that technology is an alien, destructive presence, and that it ultimately is a impediment, at best, of "true" evolution and "true" nature, that humans and their evolutionary advantage of creating tools to aid them in survival and propagation are somehow "outside" of the natural world. Primitivism is just an extreme version of that. I think it is often based on either self-loathing, and often manifests as an apparent hatred of humans and their works. Anyone who can say with a straight face that human society and technology is antithetical to "nature" is someone who fundamentally does Not Get It.

On preview: Yeah, that blog pretty much confirms it.
posted by Snyder at 5:14 PM on June 27, 2005


Hey jonmc, pass me a beer, wouldya? I'm developing a powerful thirst in this thread for some reason.

Sure, man, here ya go, nice and pasturized and refrigerated. Mmmm, good.

what was it Jim Goad said? Oh yeah "You worship primitive cultures, but you'd kill yourself if your CD player broke."
posted by jonmc at 5:15 PM on June 27, 2005


languagehat, who said people don't want modernity? But, in fact, your argument just reveals your overwhelming prejudice. It's easy for you, someone who is already overwhelmingly privileged, to say everybody wants modernity because--well, what's the alternative? To be one of the underclasses and oppressed created by the free market? So, yeah, you've discovered an incredible truth, the people starving in the third world don't like starving. But this says nothing about the viability and appeal of modernity as a system to everybody. If people could choose between this world, with its overwhelming differences between rich and poor, and a less advanced world with fewer people and everybody enjoys relatively good health and food... hmm, I have a feeling those in the third world would have to take a moment.

I guess the powerful will always insist the status quo is the best of all possible worlds. Go right on claiming the supremacy of the West. After all, you've earned it.
posted by nixerman at 5:16 PM on June 27, 2005


Oh, please ignore the part where I say "either."
posted by Snyder at 5:20 PM on June 27, 2005


I guess the powerful will always insist the status quo is the best of all possible worlds.

As always, you resort to gigantic leaps of faith as to our (mine and languagehat's) motivations for our points of veiw. Quite frankly, we'd like everyone in the world to enjoy the benefits of technological advancement. With as little damage as possible to the world. But, you know what, some half-assed intellectual deciding to run naked through the woods foraging berries and squirrel pate isn't going to affect the status quo one fucking iota. It falls under the heading of Pointless Self-Serving Gesture, quite frankly.
posted by jonmc at 5:24 PM on June 27, 2005


Nixerman, that makes no sense. Langauagehat isn't saying people in the 1rst world aren't resisiting becoming the underclass (although this is true,) he sems to say (please excuse me for putting words in your mouth, languagehat, I don't mean to presume,) they're not running to become hunter/gatherers, and that the bulk of the world is moving towards modernity away from that life.

Agriculuture, and society beyond those you could see, and science and so forth didn't just appear out of thin air, they were adopted for specific reasons, unless you think that hunter/gatherers just went crazy all of a sudden and decided to destroy their idyllic way of life.
posted by Snyder at 5:29 PM on June 27, 2005


But, you know what, some half-assed intellectual deciding to run naked through the woods foraging berries and squirrel pate isn't going to affect the status quo one fucking iota. It falls under the heading of Pointless Self-Serving Gesture, quite frankly.

But primitivists like jefgodesky don't even do that. One could at least say that those who dodrop out are standing by their principles, even if it pointless and self-serving. But going to cons and posting to your blog don't even fall into that category.
posted by Snyder at 5:33 PM on June 27, 2005


> Clearly, the biggest mistake was to leave the trees.

...the water
posted by jfuller at 5:48 PM on June 27, 2005


That's a meme; the idea survives because it aids survival. The Badger Song is not a meme.

That's wrong. I seem to recall that in the original text that described the idea of the "meme", one prominent example given was a catchy tune. Anyway, the idea is that memes evolve independently of their hosts, not caring whatsoever about whether their hosts survive except to the extent that it affects their own survival. (The same was said to be true of genes, except that their survival is usually much more closely linked to that of the individual organisms that carry them, for obvious reasons.) Giving some meaningful benefit to people is surely one way that memes spread, but it's far from the only way.

Anyway, the definition of "meme" is slippery and vague, and it's probably best left that way. The invention, adoption, perpetuation, and evolution of agriculture seems like a really good place to try and apply it, if you're going to try and understand its history. It wouldn't do to call agriculture "a meme" though. It would be more useful to think of a typical agricultural meme being like "take the seeds from this root vegetable here, and plant them over there each year." "Agriculture" is a huge collection of memes, just like I am a huge collection of genes. And it operates in a complex web of symbiotic relationships with the rest of the memes that make up human society, much like a single species interacts with its ecosystem. I call it a species, though so far as I know there isn't really any such classification for memes. But I think there could be, since after all there are many different systems of agriculture, many of which would have so much in common that they could be considered something like different instances of a single species. And they're made up of many memes, spread across many human hosts.

So anyway, I guess what some people have been saying here, cast in the language of memes, is that agriculture was where the first complex memetic creations made their giant leap from single-celled organisms to a new level of sophistication that depends on a more complex relationship with its hosts. From that humble start, these meme-things have evolved into the industrial revolution, the digital watch, the Walt Disney Corporation, etc.
posted by sfenders at 5:49 PM on June 27, 2005


languagehat, who said people don't want modernity?

You did. See that part in italics I was quoting before I said my piece? That was you. Here, I'll repeat it for you:

But does it appeal to everybody on the planet? That'd be a pretty hard argument to swallow.

And this "less advanced world with fewer people and everybody enjoys relatively good health and food" is a complete fantasy, but if it makes you happy to contemplate it as you sit there typing at your capitalist industrialist computer keyboard, who am I to stop you? Enjoy, enjoy! Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this nice pasturized refrigerated beer jonmc handed me. Mmmm, good.

The more I read about primitivism, and those who spouse it

OK, who spoused the primitive, and do you have a license?

posted by languagehat at 5:55 PM on June 27, 2005


While it may be true that many primitivists seem to be motivated by a fear of technology and the strange belief that "human" and "natural" are opposites, I don't think you can use that to dismiss anyone attempting to discuss the merits of agriculture and modern civilization. Jonmc and Languagehat, I respect you both, but you've both offered very flawed examples. A homeless person in a city suffers many of the disadvantages of an agricultural society, as well as a lack of access to the resources that made hunter/gatherers successful. And the Chinese are an agricultural society already. There is only one direction for them to go if they want better quality of life for a population supported by agriculture. No agricultural society can go back to hunting and gathering without a massive die-off.

And Snyder, that is addressed in the article. Increasing populations necessitated a choice: agriculture, or limiting growth. Those that chose agriculture soon outnumbered and then destroyed those that chose to limit growth.

Everyone I love is alive because of agriculture. I am alive because of agriculture. Almost everything I'm interested in exists because of agriculture. Almost everything I enjoy is made possible by agriculture. It's clear that I would not be better off without it. But the question is, what about humanity as a whole? If the goal of humanity is population, then clearly agriculture is a good thing. If the goal is the highest average quality of life for all living humans, then it's not so clear. If the goal is science, then again we have to side with the farmers. If the goal is living in harmony with nature (whatever that means) then the answer is less obvious.

I think the obvious truth is that there is no goal aside from the basic biological goal of survival, and as such agriculture is pretty neutral. Without it, these questions would be meaningless. No one would ever ask them. If humans lived as just another animal, would that be a negative or a positive thing? Who can say?
posted by Nothing at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2005


Just missed your new post, Languagehat. Yes, it is a complete fantasy. We can never go back, barring catastrophe. However, does that mean there is nothing to learn from it?
posted by Nothing at 5:58 PM on June 27, 2005


OK, who spoused the primitive,

Didn't Eddie Murphy say he wanted to marry "some bitch riding butt naked on a zebra," so he could avoid a pre-nup? I'd say that's your man, but he's moved on to drag queens. C'est la vie.
posted by jonmc at 6:19 PM on June 27, 2005


It's a great book. It was published in 1997 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
posted by stevefromsparks at 6:29 PM on June 27, 2005


Quite simply, the problem with this whole concept is that it really boils down, very easily, to an argument against civilization altogether. It presupposes that agriculture is somehow "alien" to the "true" way civilization is supposed to work.

When I read jefgodesky's words, I see hopeless selfishness. When I read "but every individual I do convince is one more less likely to die," I see a dilusion. A dilusion into actually believing that Your path is the True Path, the One Path... sound familiar? The end is near, and all that, right?

When I read "There remains stuff in there that I just can't explain, and I've stopped trying. All I know is it works; I don't know how or why, I just know that it works. ... Why can't science justify itself shamanically?" I see a painfully-obvious critical misunderstanding of the entire concept of science. This is not trivial.

Not to come across as someone trying to pull a shell-game on the discussion at hand, but arguing against agriculture is pointless. It's literally pointless. Society is unsustainable without it. We have progressed beyond a hunter-gatherer system, irrevocably. That much should be undeniable. The questions, if serious, need to be "what now? what's the best way to move forward?" not "let's ignore the sheer size of our world population – how can we be hunter-gatherers again? that was neat. No, I wasn't there, but it sure was neat."

It's back to the fundamental problem with utilitarianism; how we define "good for society," or "the goal of society."

Pretending to know what the ultimate goal of society is (which, as I see it, is necessary in order to argue against agriculture) is quite, quite presumptuous.
posted by odinsdream at 6:34 PM on June 27, 2005


So, yeah, you've discovered an incredible truth, the people starving in the third world don't like starving.

You're right, they don't, nixerman. That's why they voluntarily move to the big cities in large droves, where the standard of living is higher and medical care is more readily accessible. Is it a high standard of living? Not by Western standards, no. But high is relative--it's certainly better than what's available living either an agricultural or foraging lifestyle out in the country. Indeed, life expectancy in most of the developing world has risen dramatically in the last few decades, as has GNP per capita. And a large body of existing psychological literature demonstrates very nicely that subjective well-being across nations increases in direct proportion to wealth. So you can complain all you want about the poor underclass 'created' by Western civilization, but people all over the world are doing their best to adopt the same lifestyle. And they're succeeding at it, living longer and better as a result.
posted by heavy water at 6:36 PM on June 27, 2005


"Increasing populations necessitated a choice: agriculture, or limiting growth."

A reasonable assertion, but the increase also necessitated a hierarchy, and some societal structure. Where there are masses, there must be law, there must be leaders and followers (or hunter/gatherers if you will, things haven't changed that much). Social class isn't a result of agriculture, it's a result of necessity. It's one of the places where Diamond falls apart in his opinion.

As for the goal of humanity, I think it is simply to thrive; be it agriculture, science, the arts, relationships, etc. The primitivist view cannot be sustained when faced with this, nor can those in this thread that seem to have problems with the "have's and have-not's". It also strikes me that the concept of being a primitivist is anathema to their very existence, but I suppose that's a discussion for Meta Talk.
posted by j.p. Hung at 6:45 PM on June 27, 2005


building spaceships to escape the solar system before the Sun explodes

Sci-Fi can be fun sometimes, but let's get serious: if homo sapiens sapiens is still around when that happens we should perish with our world, as most probably we will whether we want to or not. We shouldn't even consider moving someplace else to fuck up that planet too.
posted by davy at 7:02 PM on June 27, 2005


heavy water, did, you, uh, read the article? Again, you're repeating the same nonsense argument. People in the third world don't like living in the third world (again, that whole starving thing) ergo they want to move to the first world (not starving, yay!) thus the first world is a Good Thing (tm). This is just nonsense. I don't side with Diamond on this, but you'll really have to do better. You can't justify Western civilization based on its lack of misery compared to the third world. Not only is this probably not true, historically convienient (remember the whole colonialism thing?), but, really, it says absolutely nothing about whether a world with agriculture would be in any sense happier than a world without agriculture.

As for all this primitivist nonsense, it's a strawman. Nobody in this thread, is actually advocating we leave the cities and head back to nature. But, I suppose, it is a convienient target. Diamond's article and his thesis is useful, though, if only if it serves to sniff out the boogeyman of 'progress'.
posted by nixerman at 7:04 PM on June 27, 2005


I think Nothing nailed it:

"But the question is, what about humanity as a whole? If the goal of humanity is population, then clearly agriculture is a good thing. If the goal is the highest average quality of life for all living humans, then it's not so clear. If the goal is science, then again we have to side with the farmers. If the goal is living in harmony with nature (whatever that means) then the answer is less obvious."

I personally totally side for science (or knowledge, more broadly), but if you are optimizing for the average quality of life, the answer is really unclear. The arguments saying "I wouldn't give up my cd player" are imho totally bogus, as the resources (and human vices) can never sustain that standard of living for everyone in the world.
posted by anonetal at 7:04 PM on June 27, 2005


Nobody in this thread, is actually advocating we leave the cities and head back to nature.

*cough*
posted by jonmc at 7:06 PM on June 27, 2005


It presupposes that agriculture is somehow "alien" to the "true" way civilization is supposed to work.

While I agree that the only way to go is to do whatever works, which certainly does not include trying to give up agriculture, the idea that the kind of society that is built on it is in some way "alien" to our nature is at least plausible. While human nature is pretty flexible, much of it is still set by behavioural habits that evolved in a very different world. Even if our lives are far removed from pre-agricultural people, our genes are not. It can make good sense to look in the distant past for clues that might lead to a better future.
posted by sfenders at 7:09 PM on June 27, 2005


Social class isn't a result of agriculture, it's a result of necessity.

It's a result of blind, stupid, relentlessly inventive evolution. And everything you do here is part of that process.
posted by sfenders at 7:13 PM on June 27, 2005


The benefit of agriculture isn't what it gives, but what it doesn't require: time and resources. The advent of agriculture allowed society to expend time and manpower in the pursuit of things like developing writing, medication, and so on.

Provided you have sufficient power (in your case probably indirectly) to make other people grow food for you so you get to be a puling pseudointellectual in the virtual blogosphere. I'm all for writing, medication, and cheap DSL connections, but don't sit there and pretend your food requires no time and resources at all.

You mean to say it's great that others "beneath" you get exploited so you can be all "cultured" and "civilized". You just don't have the guts to put it that way.
posted by davy at 7:15 PM on June 27, 2005


You mean to say it's great that others "beneath" you get exploited so you can be all "cultured" and "civilized". You just don't have the guts to put it that way.

Actually, davy, I think both myself and languagehat would like all the citizens of earth to enjoy the benefits of civization (and to be fair, to make up their own minds about all the by-products). I won't speak for anyone else but i felt compelled to speak my peice on that charge.
posted by jonmc at 7:27 PM on June 27, 2005


if homo sapiens sapiens is still around when that happens we should perish with our world.

Bah. I'm sure we'll have encounter suits figured out by then.
posted by Cyrano at 7:33 PM on June 27, 2005


Sci-Fi can be fun sometimes, but let's get serious: if homo sapiens sapiens is still around when that happens we should perish with our world, as most probably we will whether we want to or not. We shouldn't even consider moving someplace else to fuck up that planet too.

Why? What is the virtue? If we are able to propogate our species (and other terrestial species, most likely,) and protect it from a mass enviornment destroying catastrophe, what is the bad about that? Or does the universe have some virtue in being a state untouched by humans from Earth, a virute that outwighs the survival of the species?
posted by Snyder at 7:36 PM on June 27, 2005


People in the third world don't like living in the third world (again, that whole starving thing) ergo they want to move to the first world (not starving, yay!) thus the first world is a Good Thing (tm). This is just nonsense. I don't side with Diamond on this, but you'll really have to do better. You can't justify Western civilization based on its lack of misery compared to the third world.

Better than what? On the one hand, you have Diamond's argument, which is almost entirely qualitative, and relies heavily on on colorful but ultimately meaningful statements like this:

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?"

On the other hand, you have incontrovertible evidence that people in Western society live longer and are subjectively better off than any other group of people on the planet. Now certainly, that's based on current data. But notice that if you want to argue that non-agricultural societies are better off than present-day Westerners (which I take to be the claim you lay on the table) you can't just dismiss the data as indicating only that current Western lifestyles are better than current developing world lifestyles. There surely is no reason to suppose that agricultural societies with a life expectancy of (Diamond's own figure) 26 were somehow magically happier (and certainly not better off physically!) than present-day people in either the Western world or the developing world. The best quantitative models we have based on the subjective well-being, wealth, and life expectancy of nations would predict very low levels of well-being for cultures with a life expectancy of 26 and no material wealth to speak of.

Put simply, I'm not sure why you'd want to privilege a qualitative anthropological story over a quantitative model with excellent predictive power to try and settle the issue. I don't think I have to 'do better'; I think the onus is on anyone trying to argue that agriculture is a bad thing to provide some quantitative evidence for that position given that even in most parts of the developing world today, life expectancy exceeds virtually all estimates of what foraging societies would have allowed for. Variables such as material wealth and life expectancy account for the vast majority of variance in subjective well-being across cultures (in fact, material wealth by itself is an excellent predictor). If you want to posit some mysterious non-linearity in the system below a certain range, you'd better have a good reason for it. I haven't seen one in either Diamond's article or your points above.
posted by heavy water at 7:37 PM on June 27, 2005


craptacular. outwighs=outweighs

Oh, and I suppose I should also say, spouses=espouses.
posted by Snyder at 7:38 PM on June 27, 2005


Nothing said:
Increasing populations necessitated a choice: agriculture, or limiting growth. Those that chose agriculture soon outnumbered and then destroyed those that chose to limit growth.

sfenders said:
There has never been any effective way for large human populations to collectively and consciously decide whether to adopt some technology based on its long-term consequences.

These are the main points that should be taken from this thread, IMO. Ironically, I think Diamond is a bit of a cynic like all liberal leftist geeks that post to sites like this. So as a cynic he says something like "Agriculture: worst idea ever," and oh man, everyone gets all frothy without getting to his main points.

To sum up the two points above, the human race still fights amongst itself for individual superiority without conscious thought beyond individual priorities. Thus prisoner's dilemmas like agriculture or energy are not dealt with beyond idle talk. That isn't going to change before one of these issues sends us off a cliff, so we are screwed. The best we can do is find ways to limit the damage and find ways to live after it crashes.
posted by MillMan at 7:40 PM on June 27, 2005


"We shouldn't even consider moving someplace else to fuck up that planet too."

Why not? If there is no god (and there isn't) to tell us what our "place" is, and we are not displacing an indigenous intelligent / sentient life form with a society (thats my own ethics) then why the hell NOT take what we need from the universe?

What is the ethical underpinnings of some wierd martyr like desire to go gently into "that good night"?

Screw that, there is a whole universe of resources out there owned by no one, we have every right to take it.

In other news, I am all for establishing a nice island someplace remote for those who want to live without all that darn technology and science getting in the way. Let us know how that works out for you in the long run ok?
posted by soulhuntre at 7:53 PM on June 27, 2005


Actually, davy, I think both myself and languagehat would like all the citizens of earth to enjoy the benefits of civization (and to be fair, to make up their own minds about all the by-products). I won't speak for anyone else but i felt compelled to speak my piece on that charge.

This is a good sentiment, but what if the system that gives an excellent lifestyle is inherently based on someone else having a bad one? That's what happened with the invention of agriculture - nobles could be nobles, monks write great books, artists make sculpture - because some bloody tired peasant was out growing their corn for them.

If the system cannot make that peasant's (or now cash crop grower in the third world) life better, is a good system? Our Western civilisation does not exist alone, self-sufficient - it is only the most adavantaged part of a world system.

As for making fun of the "primitivists" - well, I feel that people who judge the modern world by living standards in North America are like people who think the Elizabethan age was all wearing silk dresses and courtly dancing. Several comments here have pointed that out - hunting and gathering was a better lifestyle, siginificantly, than peasant farmers (and workers) face in much of the world. We're just the nobles.

------------------------------------------------------------------

As for the labour/land relationship.

Agriculture means far more labour, not less.

The relationship goes like this - you have a spectrum between land and labour.

land extensive - hunting and gathering - then swidden farming

Labour intensive - more "progressive" forms of farming.

The thing that broke this cycle was the introduction of chemical fertilisers and machinery in the west - we have less human labour, but we have other forms of energy going in (see the article linked above - The Oil We Eat - not that well written and a kooky ending, but some good individual points). This may not be sustainable.
posted by jb at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2005


And for god's sake, most of us are not talking about "throwing out technology". I feel like this thread has gone the way of "you either love Regan, or you must love Stalin".

How about some serious critical thinking about where our world, the world that began with agriculture, is going, and maybe how we can control that technology instead of letting it control us?

And also thinking about the way that our system creates inequality, and what we're going to do about it.
posted by jb at 8:27 PM on June 27, 2005


it's silly to pretend such speculation has any answers for the problems of today

I can think of nutrition off the top of my head, I'll bet there are others.
posted by lbergstr at 8:53 PM on June 27, 2005


To generalize ... if it's true that we were indeed happier and healthier as hunter-gatherers, don't you think there might be a few useful lessons we could take from that? And no, these lessons would not involve abandoning the cities and learning to whittle sharp sticks.
posted by lbergstr at 8:56 PM on June 27, 2005


To derail for a second, I'd like to address the "meme" issue.
It seems that the strictest definition of meme is of an "idea" that basically takes a life of its own, surviving and propagating itself in the world as other competing ideas die off. But, the most prevalent idea of meme is just, in line with all your base, badger badger badger, icy hot stuntaz, etc etc, is just any idea or image or phrase or whatever that becomes widespread. So, by the first definition of meme, wouldn't that mean that the new definition has, in effect, beaten out the stricter definition, thus redefining the word meme and thereby imploding in a poof of circular logic?
Ok, sorry it's late and I don't know what I'm talking about.
posted by papakwanz at 9:19 PM on June 27, 2005


Now, that's just ridiculous, and it's the kind of thing that makes it hard for people to take your line of thought seriously. It's like a religious fanatic hollering that all unbelievers are leading wretched lives and heading for the pit of degradation. We know it's not true, so we stop listening; similarly, we know it's not true that the good effects of the agricultural revolution are "few and relatively minor." You can only convince yourself of that if you brainwash yourself into looking at everything around you as bad and muttering "evil, evil" as people go about their happy everyday activities. I like books and movies and modern medicine and the ability to learn about the universe in ways not available to primitive hunter-gatherers, and the overwhelming majority of people do too.

Not at all. We don't like books and movies for their medium, we like the stories, and the stories are ancient. We don't like modern medicine, we like what it does for us--which is the same thing any ethnomedicine does. We learn about the universe in ways unavailable to foragers; but then, foragers learn about the universe in ways unavailable to us. None of this has the least bit to do with agriculture or civilization, though. The only benefits of agriculture are its ability to provide large populations, and sedentary populations--neither of which are good in and of themselves, unless you're looking to build a kingdom....

As for education, I'm sure they would say the things they learn are important. But I don't need to know all the kinds of berries. I like the kinds of thought that come from a much wider exposure to the world and to others' thoughts about it (including Jared Diamond's).

That's not nearly the extent of it. Check out Robert Wolff's Original Wisdom, or the more ethnographic Primitive Man as Philosopher by Paul Radin.

I don't understand your explanation about life expectancies, though. Are you saying that forager life expectancies are deflated by averaging in some zeroes, and that the ones that survive infancy live to be 70, not 26 like the article said?

Yes, I mistyped. Once you get past the age of two (where many tribes believe life begins--that's when you get a name, and are acknowledged to be a person), you life expectancy generally goes up to 60-70--about the same range we Americans get to enjoy. Not that children die of hideous diseases or malnutrition--by far, the leading cause of death is abandonment when the parents change their mind about wanting the child.

Maybe having a bully in the family is better than having an overlord. I doubt foragers' lives are completely idyllic, though.

Most definitely not. And who would want an idyllic life? Wouldn't it be oppressively boring? But the biggest strife the average tribe faces is the odd case of adultery. Compare that to, well ... any of the other current FPP's....

I'll put it this way: Bushmen don't die of stress-related illnesses.

jefgodesky, you lost me at "It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where civilization could realistically continue for the next century." That statement defies credibility and logic, especially within the context of this thread.

Sorry, this is a very complicated case ... I converse regularly online with people familiar with it, and often forget that it needs elucidation. I'm working on a series of articles on my blog going into this which will take several months to fully research, annotate and so forth, but suffice it to say, it comes down to a simple question of space--geographical space, technological space, and complexity itself. We're running out of it. It comes down to some very simple mathematical truths, ultimately. It would take me several days to elucidate fully, so I guess I'll have to ask you to wait a few months for me to write it out fully and check back then to see what you think of the whole case.

But given the technological capabilities of man, it is highly unlikely agriculture will be the cause. Will it be a part of the cause? It's entirely possible but humanity is a bit too complex to blame it on that alone.

Complex, yes. And yet complexity is very often a form of simplicity when viewed from a different angle. For example, things in nature tend to work ... there's no reason to assume that a sore throat, fever, and stuffy nose are necessarily related, except that we've all suffered these ailments in conjunction with one another before, and we know they're all caused by a single infection. Why would we assume that only humanity, out of all the things in the world, is immune to this effect? We face a host of problems, yet we see the same kind of complexes all the time and recognize them as myriad symptoms of a single cause. Given that all of these problems can be traced back to a single source, why do we still seek to complicate something so simple, and hold ourselves as unique?

As for technology, as marvelous as it can be, it's of little real use in any systemic problem, as it is merely another part of the same cultural systems. Jevons Paradox assures us that the problems we face have no technical solution. These are systemic problems, which require systemic solutions.

Your points regarding Shamanism are well taken and quite on the mark. Something about it works. Clearly it can't be explained but the point is we are capable of it nonetheless; which gives me hope and scares the shit out of me at the same time. Your belief in such unknowns seems to run contrary to your suggestion we won't be around in 2105.

Shamanism, like technology, is simply another part of a system. Except, it's part of a sound, sustainable system, as opposed to the civilized system which is remarkable not only for the totality of its failure, but for how quickly it was able to destroy itself. Truly unique in evolution's experiments for just how bad a choice it was.

nixerman -- thanks.

Seriously, people who romanticze "primitivism," usually neglect to remember that life in the natural daze meant sleeping in your own shit, dying of easily curable diseases, and dying in your sleep when the neighboring tribe decided to capture you and sacrifice you to the God Of Corn.

Hobbes does say that ... but Hobbes had no evidence, only his thought experiments. We've collected evidence since then, and it turns out that view is actually the opposite of truth. Lawrence Keel tried to prove that primitive peoples have warfare, too--and even more of it--in his War Before Civilization, but I suppose it all counts in what you call "primitive." All of his examples were either Inuit or food producers of some kind or another--i.e., all were facing unbelievably difficult situations either because they were agriculturalists, or lived in the Arctic. As far as resource availability goes, they're about the same. To starve out a forager basically takes the end of all life on earth; to starve an agriculturalist just takes a minor weather fluctuation that kills off a bunch of the fragile, finicky wheat that makes up 90+% of the diet. It's the epitome of the "all your eggs in one basket" approach. That's why farmers starve to death and foragers, as a rule ... don't.

I've known people who've foraged for food in an urban enviornment. None of them found it so mond jovial.

My G-d, I have no doubt! Anti-camping laws, locked trash bins, why, we go out of our way to make it as difficult and painful as possible. I'd say the only thing even harder than being an agriculturalist, is trying to scavenge off of agriculturalists! In the city, everything's locked down as tight as a fort. In the forest, food's for the taking, all around you. Urban foraging is a hellish nightmare; foraging in the wild is something a lot of people (especially here in western PA) do for fun or vacation. I'm glad you made that distinction, now I understand where you're coming from. You're absolutely right, but we're talking about apples and oranges.

I thought wars and conflict predated the agricultural era, and were about claiming terrritory for hunting and gathering. I haven't thought about it enough to know how this fits into the overall context of this discussion, but I don't think pre-agricultural man was idyllic by any stretch of the imagination.

I wrote a term paper on this back in my undergrad days, which still pretty neatly says what I think of this matter: War & Society. In short, foragers occasionally send raids to terrify one another in order to maintain the peace. Sometimes, but rarely, resources are gained incidentally. There's the odd injury, but it's mostly about terror. Civilizations wage pitched campaigns to capture resources, and downplay psychological impact, resulting in much greater suffering.

These were not Punks dumpster diving on a lark, these were actual homeless people, who I imagine resented dumpster divers as competition for sustenance. And most people from primitive cultures would be happy to accept, say, vaccines, refrigeration rapid transit, telecommunications and other gifts of evil technology.

Your friend has my utmost respect, and sympathy. But a Bushman he is not.

And you're right; unlike our doctors who see "alternative treatments" as something controversial, even in accordance with their own methods, shamans are eminently practical. If a magic root and a vaccine together are more likely to help you, they'll give you the root and drive you to the hospital. Whatever works. I respect that.

The more I read about primitivism, and those who spouse it, the more I'm confirmed that primitivists are Romantics who have an over-inflated ego (or Decadents, as languagehat says,) with a fixation that we are rapidly approaching apocalyptic eschaton. (Whee!)

There's definitely more than a dash of apocalyptic thought, absolutely. It's one of the easiest tracks in our culture to reach for, an archetype to fit our understandings into. Or did you mean by this to say it was wrong? After all, the alternative--that technology will solve all our ills and usher us into a golden age of reason and enlightenment--is just as much an archetype.

I fully admit the model I'm using, but I don't think that has anything to do with whether or not it's true.

There is a very wide streak of technology-fear in Western European/North American culture. This fear is charecterised by feelings that technology is an alien, destructive presence, and that it ultimately is a impediment, at best, of "true" evolution and "true" nature, that humans and their evolutionary advantage of creating tools to aid them in survival and propagation are somehow "outside" of the natural world. Primitivism is just an extreme version of that. I think it is often based on either self-loathing, and often manifests as an apparent hatred of humans and their works. Anyone who can say with a straight face that human society and technology is antithetical to "nature" is someone who fundamentally does Not Get It.

I agree. Yes, absolutely, humans have been making technology from the very start. Primitive peoples used significant technology, much of it very sophisticated. If, in 1400, we'd made a bet on who would develop computers first, I would have put my money on Amazonian tribes and their quipu lines. I probably would have won, too, with a computer by 1800 if the Spanish hadn't come along and killed them all.

Technology in itself is not the problem; it defines our genus. It's given us segmented cranial hemispheres, handedness, and all that goes along with that. Many primitivists hold this view, but I find it naive.

Technology itself is not the problem; agriculture is. It's unsustainable, and won't last much longer.

Quite frankly, we'd like everyone in the world to enjoy the benefits of technological advancement. With as little damage as possible to the world. But, you know what, some half-assed intellectual deciding to run naked through the woods foraging berries and squirrel pate isn't going to affect the status quo one fucking iota. It falls under the heading of Pointless Self-Serving Gesture, quite frankly.

Or, if we're right, preservation of the species. Everyone in the world living the way we do, and no damage to the earth? Even we can't live the way we do without damaging the earth. 200 species go extinct every day, and we're seeing higher extinction rates right now than when a giant asteroid carved out a huge chunk of the Yucatan and blacked out the sun for a few weeks. Only so much sun falls on the earth every given year, that's the photosynthetic capacity of the planet. Between us and our crops, 40% of that is tied up in just one species. The proximate causes differ, but the ultimate cause is the same: we're starving the world to death by taking everything for ourselves.

Even doing this, with all the devastation involved, it would take a dozen or so earths for everyone to live the way we do.

And finally, there's the inescapable relationship of wealth and poverty. We are so affluent because we "externalize our costs": i.e., there's a Third World to foot our bill, so to speak. Without it, we cannot be as affluent as we are. Even if that can be solved, rich and poor are relative terms. If everyone's rich, then everyone's poor, too. If you have a million dollars, you might still be poor if everyone else has a billion. These aren't absolute concepts. In order for there to be a First World, there must always be a Third.

Agriculuture, and society beyond those you could see, and science and so forth didn't just appear out of thin air, they were adopted for specific reasons, unless you think that hunter/gatherers just went crazy all of a sudden and decided to destroy their idyllic way of life.

I puzzled over how the Neolithic happened for a long time. Seems pretty clear to me that it was driven by a small number of power-hungry would-be kings who were able to convince a small number of communities to go along with it. Agriculture gives you larger populations, with larger armies, and requires constant expansion, usually in the form of conquest. Very few foragers gave up their ways of life willingly. The vast, vast majority did so only at the business end of a sword or gun, depending on the century. Seeing as how it took so many centuries, since almost every primitive people on earth fought so long and so desperately to avoid agriculture....

But primitivists like jefgodesky don't even do that. One could at least say that those who dodrop out are standing by their principles, even if it pointless and self-serving. But going to cons and posting to your blog don't even fall into that category.

Like I said before, I'm learning. These things take time. And while I'm waiting for the weekend and this week's camping trip, what's the better way to spend my time? Seeing if I can alert just one more person that might be able to make it out, or twaddling my thumbs so that someone might not think me a hypocrite because i use the tools I have at my disposal, regardless of how they came about?

And this "less advanced world with fewer people and everybody enjoys relatively good health and food" is a complete fantasy, but if it makes you happy to contemplate it as you sit there typing at your capitalist industrialist computer keyboard, who am I to stop you? Enjoy, enjoy! Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this nice pasturized refrigerated beer jonmc handed me. Mmmm, good

It's really not. A lot of people keep clinging to the Hobbesian nightmare to justify our current way of life, but all they have been able to do in the past fifty years is come up with increasingly shallow arguments that such a life is not completely utopian, but instead merely wonderful. Which, I'll take.

Not to come across as someone trying to pull a shell-game on the discussion at hand, but arguing against agriculture is pointless. It's literally pointless. Society is unsustainable without it. We have progressed beyond a hunter-gatherer system, irrevocably. That much should be undeniable. The questions, if serious, need to be "what now? what's the best way to move forward?" not "let's ignore the sheer size of our world population – how can we be hunter-gatherers again? that was neat. No, I wasn't there, but it sure was neat."

Except, by understanding where it comes from, we understand the problems we face now--and why those problems cannot be solved inside of our current system. We can't abandon the system, and the system can't go on. The catastrophe you bar is the only possible outcome, isn't it? If you're driving at a brick wall at 500 MPH, and you can't stop it, and you can't turn in either direction, there's no choice but to crash.

And by understanding that problem, we can understand how to save ourselves--and in so doing, our species. If you try to learn to swim as the boat's sinking, you just drown. You need to learn before it's a matter of survival.

What point could possibly ever be more important than that? In the entire history of our species' existence, what has ever been more important than that?

The primitivist view cannot be sustained when faced with this, nor can those in this thread that seem to have problems with the "have's and have-not's". It also strikes me that the concept of being a primitivist is anathema to their very existence, but I suppose that's a discussion for Meta Talk.

Sure it can. Civilizations produces billions of miserable people who kill themselves or work themselves to death. Foragers produce a few million people, all of whom have a place in their society where they are needed and appreciated, where life is (relatively) easy and work is inseperable from play. I would say in the face of this, it is civilization that cannot be sustained.

I'm not sure what you mean about me being anathema to my very existence, though. I was born into a situation I never wanted or asked for, and I'm working to find a better way of life for myself. If I can help some people along the way to do the same, so much the better. Where is this hypocrisy you speak of?

As for all this primitivist nonsense, it's a strawman. Nobody in this thread, is actually advocating we leave the cities and head back to nature. But, I suppose, it is a convienient target. Diamond's article and his thesis is useful, though, if only if it serves to sniff out the boogeyman of 'progress'.

Yes I am. I totally am. It can't work for 6.5 billion people, but nothing can ever work for 6.5 billion people. Nor are 6.5 billion people ever going to agree with me. I'll be tickled pink if five people read this thread and agree with me. So that whole argument is pretty much void, isn't it?

On the other hand, you have incontrovertible evidence that people in Western society live longer and are subjectively better off than any other group of people on the planet.

No, you have incontrovertible evidence that we've finally climbed our way back up to the Mesolithic ... except we're still not as healthy, given our poor diet, diseases, pollution, etc. And we work so hard that often the stress alone does us in. Stress is meant to motivate in extreme situations. It should never be a state of being. When you have someone dying of it, you know you're doing something wrong. When it's a leading cause of death, that's something cataclysmically, off-the-charts, unprecedented stupid that you've been up to for a very, very long time.

But notice that if you want to argue that non-agricultural societies are better off than present-day Westerners (which I take to be the claim you lay on the table) you can't just dismiss the data as indicating only that current Western lifestyles are better than current developing world lifestyles.

What do starving hundredth generation farmers in Ethiopia have to do with foragers in the Kalahari? Given that we're arguing the relative merits of agriculture and foraging, how does the plight of farmers prove that foraging is inferior?

In other news, I am all for establishing a nice island someplace remote for those who want to live without all that darn technology and science getting in the way. Let us know how that works out for you in the long run ok?

SWEET!!! That's actually one of the biggest problems I'm facing right now. All the land is claimed by some government or another, everyone tells me to go run off into the woods if I like it so much. What woods? What wilderness? Where can I go, without threat of force for poaching and trespassing and fishing without a license and what have you? I'm working my ass off saving up to buy land and some lessons at tracking school, so if you guys could help me out with a whole fruggin' island, that'd be AWESOME!! Hell, I was just hoping for a cabin next to a national forest, and enough ad revenue off my site to pay for hunting and fishing licenses....

In conclusion (and this is likely the last I'll ever even look at this thread), we got ourselves into quite a pickle about 10,000 years ago, one with no possible end but catastrophe. That catastrophe will likely be sooner, rather than later. By the catastrophe's very nature, most people will not survive it. But each of us will have a choice to be among the majority, or the minority. Like every other famine in history, most people will starve to death--like the Vikings in Greenland Diamond discussed in Collapse. They ate all their cow herds, even the young, down to their hooves. They ate their dogs. They ate each other. But to the very end, they never ate the teeming fish just outside their doors, not even with the Inuits' example next door. It just wasn't food to them. So everyone has a choice, of whether or not they'll learn to swim before the ship starts sinking; whether or not they'll look at a bush and call it food; whether or not they'll look at a wilderness and call it home. I've made my choice, and hopefully I've persuaded someone out there, though I have no doubt most of you think me, at the very least, a bit misguided. If it's something that intrigues you, or if you find my presentation rushed, spotty, and incomplete, that's because it is. It's taken me years just to organize my thoughts, and I'm still writing them down. All I ask is one of two things: either that you follow me in this presentation to its end, or, if you're not sufficiently intrigued to hear it all in full, at least pay me the respect that I just might have a valid opinion. Not necessarily that I'm correct, mind you, just that it's at least something worth considering for a moment.
posted by jefgodesky at 9:47 PM on June 27, 2005


Ok, so when men wearing leather take over the post-gasoline world, people like me who can make antibiotics with only primitive instruments will get laid?

Score!
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:51 PM on June 27, 2005


Two points that might help clarify the issues in this thread:

1. When looking at the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it is essential to realize that almost all of our direct knowledge of this adaptation comes from hunters and gatherers who are in environments marginal or unsuitable for agriculture. Agriculturalists, or agriculture, pretty comprehensively took over most of the most productive parts of the earth. Consider what an h-g adaptation might look like in the Mississippi Valley, or Northern Florida, the Nile or Indus or Yellow River Valleys. Archaeologically, we can see numerous extinct cultures who lived via hunting and gathering and had remarkably complex societies with many of the trappings of "civilization". The equation of agriculture with civilization is partially a product of the current historical moment - so called 'complex hunter gatherers abound in the archaeological record from at least 13,000 years ago. At the time of European re-discovery of the world such societies were largely limited to the NW Coast of North America, a few cultures of E Siberia, coastal Brazil, and one or two others.

2. To make a comparison between agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers is to subscribe to a false dichotomy and hence to waste time arguing towards categories. All known hunter-gatherers manipulate nature to enhance its productivity, by such means as deliberate fire-setting, stream enhancement, shellfish enhancement, "weeding", and so forth. Further, most agricultural societies practice some hunting/gathering - including our own (e.g., wild fish). The two ends of the continuum tend to be falsely characterized as typical, but between them lies a huge diversity of mixed economies. Much of the argument in this thread could benefit from an understanding of this simple fact.

jefgodesky - good post -- I disagree with some of what you say but admire that you make it with civility and passion in the face of ignorant baiting.
posted by Rumple at 10:14 PM on June 27, 2005


Tee hee. Haven't yet read the comments, or most of the article, but just liked it where he said "hunger-gatherers".
posted by bigbigdog at 11:05 PM on June 27, 2005


Q : Are we not men?
posted by afroblanca at 11:27 PM on June 27, 2005


Foragers produce a few million people, all of whom have a place in their society where they are needed and appreciated,

Romantic indeed.
posted by MillMan at 11:38 PM on June 27, 2005


jefgodesky: There were a giant bag of response in this head of mine to that novella of yours a few posts up, and then I came to this:

and this is likely the last I'll ever even look at this thread

What a pompous ass you must be.
posted by hototogisu at 12:01 AM on June 28, 2005


jefgodesky:

It's linherently unsustainable.


The thesis seems to argue that Earth is a closed system, so according to thermodynamics human growth is unstainable. But if this is true, then surely anything but human decline is also unstainable. Therefore, a hunter gather society has no advantage over an agricultural one.
posted by drscroogemcduck at 12:06 AM on June 28, 2005


A: We are Devo!
posted by Snyder at 12:23 AM on June 28, 2005


I agree with Rumple's second point. Further, having watched Dances with Wolves not so long ago, it made me think that perhaps agriculture is not to blame, but rather the mindset that everything on Earth is for man's/human's taking. And about 10,000 years ago, why not? Land was plentiful, and overpopulation was not yet a problem. Agriculture was just another way of life. Anyway, the Native Americans managed to live using the two methods as a spectrum. They respected the land, taking what they needed. I think that's a healthier relationship with Earth.

Agriculture should not be blamed as the sole cause of our present global plight. The analogy to the symptoms to a disease is not quite apt. Many times, these symptoms are indicative of "simply" something wrong with the body, not necessarily a cold infection. If all diseases were as formulaic as that, a computer program can give us a diagnosis after we input all of our symptoms.

I am as concerned about us destroying our planet as the next person. However, I can't say that I agree with the idea of returning to hunter-gatherer society. If that's what we'll have to resort to after a global catastrophe that drastically reduced population, sure. Whatever works. As of now, even though I know that we are the elites of agriculturism, according to the article, I enjoy my life: knowing what I know and doing what I do. I don't think living in a hunter-gatherer society would fulfill me. There are other ways of solving today's problems. Helping the poor in the Third World and population control. And these things simply take time. Eventually, the solutions will be multi-faceted. Perhaps part of it will be a portion of the human population returning to hunting and gathering.
posted by state fxn at 12:32 AM on June 28, 2005


hototogisu: Out of curiousity, would you mind posting the gist of of your response? Primivitists, like all romantics, scare me bad, so I'm always curious to see how others respond to them.
posted by Snyder at 12:46 AM on June 28, 2005


Archaeologically, we can see numerous extinct cultures who lived via hunting and gathering and had remarkably complex societies with many of the trappings of "civilization".

Well, that's the problem: extinct. They may have been happy little hunting-gathering Fonzies but they didn't last.
posted by elgilito at 1:44 AM on June 28, 2005


OK, jefgodesky, you've outlined your analysis of mass agriculture and the impending apocalypse. After wading through that mammoth post, it appears that you have overlooked one slight problem, namely what you would consider the few billion excess population. In all seriousness, have you really thought through the consequences? How can agriculture be 'phased out' without causing a self-imposed mass starvation, in what you would presumably call a 'transitional' period? Until you can address this point, I will not be convinced that you are really serious.
posted by smiffy at 3:30 AM on June 28, 2005


I agree with you jefgodesky. I also applaud your cool-headed responses to the usual misunderstandings, I would not have had the time or inclination to try to address them.

• Mortality - AFAIK you are correct about mortality rates. If you factor out infant mortality our average lifespan is very similar to any human living at any time on the planet. Just think about historical figures that we know of, other than those who died violent deaths most people lived into their 60s and beyond.

• Technology - there is very little technology that we have developed which is beneficial to the human race, sustainable and easily reproducable. I think this is in part because the human race effectively spends all of it's efforts in researching military technology. Sustainable technology is pretty far from being a priority. I think that it may become a priority within the next 100 years, but that this effort will likely be too little too late. I think that Greg Egan's view of a future where either genetic engineering becomes common property or scientists engineer their own areas seperate from corporate influence is attractive, I just don't think that it will happen. I hope that we can genetically engineer humans to directly photosynthesise to some extent, engineering out the whole chain required to bring solar energy into our bodies.

• Life expectancy of human race - I agree that given the global population growth, the consumerist revolution in China and resource wars everywhere, the human race is charging up shit creek on a one-shot battery with no reverse gear. Water is already a serious issue in much of the world and climate change will not reverse this. The cosseted lives enjoyed by those in the dominant position are quite simply unsustainable.
The aboriginies of Australia have been living without agriculture to a large extent for the past 40-120 thousand years. That is a successful way of living. Our agriculture dependent society has a long way to go to prove itself as successful.

• Consumerism - this is clearly unsustainable and will either propel us faster into the brick wall/up shit creak or be left behind as we progress beyond the next bottle-neck. After all, the steady state end result of capitalism will not allow consumerism to exist on the massive scale it does now. If the human race is to survive in the numbers that we have grown to, as we all know, people in the dominant position will have to adjust their consumption. It is more than likely that consumption will have to be severely limited independent of the number of surviving humans. OTOH it could all go 'Cloud Atlas'* and corporations could ensure the continuation of consumerism via genetic engineering to it's ignoble end.

Conclusion: Consumerism bad, freedom of knowledge good and the only way we will survive. Knowledge/research/technology has the potential to help us, but the current model of research and ownership needs changing completely.

*SPOILER/REVIEW - 'Cloud Atlas asks the simple questions of our own time, which has a Darwinian vision. A missionary explains to Adam Ewing, son of the American revolution, his idea of a "ladder of civilisation" that will extinguish those races unable to join progress. Zachry's tribesmen believe Sonmi was "birthed by a god o' Smart named Darwin". Humans, someone says, have the intelligence of gods and the souls of jackals. Greed will destroy the world. Ewing, at the end of the book which is close to its beginning, as it has come full circle, sees the "natural" ideas of dominance and fitness as "the entropy written within our nature". He has saved the life of the last Moriori tribesman, whose peaceable family were destroyed by Maori warriors. The Moriori saves him, and individual acts of heroism and rescue stand against tooth and claw across the narrative web. Ewing goes back to become an abolitionist'.
posted by asok at 3:36 AM on June 28, 2005


The aboriginies of Australia have been living without agriculture to a large extent for the past 40-120 thousand years. That is a successful way of living.

The Australian aborigines are the survivors of a largely self-created ancient ecological holocaust that destroyed much of the biological diversity within their continent and constrained their activities within much of it to only the most basic foraging. They found a land already unusually subject to dessication and desertification and massively accelerated this process through uncontrolled burns and ill-advised slash'n'burn pseudo-agriculture.

They did nothing different from what other roving bands of paleolithic humans did when first establishing settlements and the beginnings of agriculture - but most of their ecosystem was simply unable to regenerate sufficiently folllowing their initial onslaught to enable their agriculture to develop in tandem with other human cultures. Thus, they remained constrained within an inefficient foraging system.
posted by meehawl at 5:48 AM on June 28, 2005


Wow, some people really get turned on by apocalyptic scenarios. "One day... one day soon... billions of people are going to die... and then me and my primitivist buddies are going to rule the earth! Hahahaha!!... Er, 'rule the earth' in a totally eco-friendly, non-hierarchical way, I mean..."

jefgodesky, I've pretty much decided you're a garden-variety crank able to ramble on indefinitely about his own unbelievably brilliant ideas (TimeCube, here we come!), but just to address a couple of points you made before I gave up on your immense post:

We don't like books and movies for their medium, we like the stories

Bullshit. I and most of the people I know like books and movies for themselves as well as for whatever "stories" they may contain (what's the "story" of Ulysses? of The Rules of the Game? of an abstract painting?) I get tremendous pleasure from my books as physical objects: their smell and heft, the feel of turning the pages, the fact that I can write things in the margins. Furthermore, without a fixed medium, there is no such thing as literature, there's only an endless flux of songs/stories/recitations. Which is fine in its own right, but has little to do with the pleasures of art as we know it. If you don't like art, that's fine, but knock off the "we."

We don't like modern medicine, we like what it does for us--which is the same thing any ethnomedicine does.


More bullshit. I can't believe you seriously think that if you came down with a case of pneumonia or syphilis or AIDS a practitioner of "ethnomedicine" would be able to do a thing for you except perhaps ease your transition to the afterlife he or she would doubtless promise you. If you wake up with blood oozing out of your pores, you're going to a doctor, not a shaman, and don't try to tell me different.

We learn about the universe in ways unavailable to foragers; but then, foragers learn about the universe in ways unavailable to us.

Oh, how lovely and balanced! Except the "universe" foragers learn about is limited to the area immediately around them. I'm not disparaging their knowledge of roots and herbs and animal behavior and I think we can learn from it, but it's a pretty limited slice of the universe, and they know nothing about the rest. If you seriously think some tale about the earth being flat and resting on the back of an elephant has the same validity as a physicist's hard-won understanding of how the universe works, you're lost to rational discourse and there's no point talking to you.

Romantics always want to return to an imaginary past, whether it's pre-agricultural utopia or 7th-century Life With Muhammad or the magical world before World War One. If you want to spend your life mooning over Never-Never Land, be my guest, but don't expect the rest of us to join you.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on June 28, 2005


We don't like modern medicine, we like what it does for us--which is the same thing any ethnomedicine does.

I'm sorry, but like languagehat said, that (and most of the rest of what you said) is utter and complete crap. If you need open heart surgery, taking herbs will not save your life. If you get cancer, ethnomedicine will not remove a tumor. If you get tuberculosis, taking tribal herbs will not cure you. When you get a cavity, ethnomedicine will not keep your teeth from rotting on the gum, as they do in the primitive tribes which you admire. Ethnomedicine has its merits, but it cannot cure most of the things that real modern medicine can.
posted by unreason at 7:37 AM on June 28, 2005


what's the "story" of Ulysses?

Guy wakes up, makes breakfast, walks around, his wife cheats on him, he tries to help a drunk young poet, he comes home and goes to bed. I'm not nitpicking, either: Joyce's dazzling inventions all ultimately serve his telling of that story.

Even Finnegans Wake is built around a story ... well, stories.

without a fixed medium, there is no such thing as literature, there's only an endless flux of songs/stories/recitations

Oh, I dunno, oral transmission of the Illiad was pretty faithful.

Isn't there a middle ground between "this speculation is pointless" and "learn to make fire now"?
posted by lbergstr at 10:02 AM on June 28, 2005


Oh, I dunno, oral transmission of the Illiad was pretty faithful.

How on earth could you possibly know that?
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on June 28, 2005


elgilito - they're extinct because they turned on to, or got turned on, the farming end of the spectrum. To return to the theme of the thread, some people construe that as "a mistake." My point was, in any case, if you want to understand what hunting and gathering adaptations are like, you have to consider what they were like in the most productive parts of the earth, not just the marginal and residual areas they were left with after the global agricultural revolutions.

Just to be clear -- I am not buying into the romanticist neo-noble-savagery espoused by some in this thread. I've dug up too many pathological hunter-gatherer skeletons to think that life was a picnic. On the Northwest coast, people at the foraging end of the spectrum had ascribed social status, private property, constant feuding and widespread slavery -- up to 30% of some aboriginal groups were slaves. I recently documented a burial in which (interpretation) a rich man had been buried sitting up, ornate spoon in his mouth, with his feet resting on a decapitated slave. It doesn't take agriculture to unleash these less savoury social phenomena. Nor does it take agriculture to unleash the incredible technological and artistic material cultures of the Northwest coast. However, I do completely reject the Hobbesian view of foragers that many in this thread espouse, and use as a straw man in counterpoint to their life as the most privileged group of agriculturalists. The archaeological record is clear - early agricultural societies are characterized by greater skeletal stress, greater nutritional stress, higher infant mortality, and other negative indices. It is a valid question, and one that I thought was the thread here,why people repeatedly made that choice to move more and more into food production. The bogus neo-primitivism is not a helpful model for understanding this, but neither are the shallow claims that somehow western society is a typical agricultural society - it is not, it is the most successful one ever, it is the most exploitative one over, it ultimately exploits a huge population of poor agriculturalists who do indeed go to the shaman because they have no choice, and, finally, its - our - success will be judged in archaeological terms, at future archaeological scales, by whether it persists sustainably for any length of time into the future. Right now it is a blip. Lets not forget that many "failed civilizations" appear strongest immediately before they collapse. Civilization does not follow a normal curve.
posted by Rumple at 10:40 AM on June 28, 2005


languagehat/unreason: not to side with Jef, as I'm not a primitivist myself, but I think his counterargument to If you need open heart surgery, taking herbs will not save your life. If you get cancer, ethnomedicine will not remove a tumor. would be that such diseases as cancer, AIDS, syphillis, etc, would not exist, or at least not exist in such great numbers, were it not for the pollution, consumption, close-quarters, etc caused by agricultural development.
posted by papakwanz at 10:47 AM on June 28, 2005


Tuberculosis and cavities are both predominantly diseases of agriculturalists. Heart disease - in the most common sense of congestive heart failure - is also diet-related. Cancer is ... well there are a lot of cancers and many of them are environmentally associated, and the environment they are associated with is ... yes ... agriculturalist. So if agriculturalists' diseases are cured by agriculturalists' medecines, what does that have to do with foragers?
on preview: what papakawanz said
posted by Rumple at 10:52 AM on June 28, 2005


So if agriculturalists' diseases are cured by agriculturalists' medecines, what does that have to do with foragers?

I hate to break it to you, but foragers had diseases of their own. Which they were utterly unable to cure through the use of herbs and berries. And they certainly still experienced dental problems, which are no laughing matter in a society without any dentistry other than "tie the tooth to a string and pull". And although much in our society increases cancer risk, the foragers did have cancer, and in fact had cancer risks of their own. Eating meat cooked in an open fire, for example, often chars the food, increasing the risk of cancer. Heart problems, also, are not solely the result of fatty foods, they occur naturally as a result of age. This is just another case of people idealizing a primitive lifestyle because they haven't enough knowledge about it. If you want to see the health of primitivism, try staring at the mouth of someone in a gatherer society. You'll see that they have half of their teeth missing, and the others rotting and decaying on the gum. Does that sound healthy to you?
posted by unreason at 11:29 AM on June 28, 2005


unreason, if you stare at the teeth of a present-day forager, you're probably looking at a set of gnashers that have been subjected to all the sugary evils of civilization. I was under the impression that earlier foragers did have better teeth. Mark Nathan Cohen claims that 'High rates of dental caries ... are almost invariably associated with soft, sticky diets associated with agricultural diets. Rates of caries go up so uniformly with the adoption of agriculture that several scholars have inferred agricultural diets from high caries rates in the absence of confirming food refuse' (Health and the Rise of Civilization, YUP, 1989).
posted by TimothyMason at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2005


if you stare at the teeth of a present-day forager, you're probably looking at a set of gnashers that have been subjected to all the sugary evils of civilization.

Sigh. No, you're really not. Even the more remote modern day primitive tribes have bad dentistry. Sugar is a cause of cavities, but not the only one. And remember, even minor problems become major when your society has no means of fixing them. Believe it or not, primitive societies do not live a wonderful, disease free life, no matter how much you want to believe that they do.
posted by unreason at 12:39 PM on June 28, 2005


Much further up this page, claims are made about the efficacity of shamanism, and about how difficult it is to understand what is happening. I advise some skepticism; first of all, it would be interesting to know what is meant by 'shamanism'. Roberte Hamayon, who had certainly spent as much time thinking about shamans as anyone on this list, argues that global claims about shamanism are misplaced, that practices differ considerably from one area to another, and that Castenada, Harner and co. are egregiously misusing the concept.

Moreover, it is reasonable to ask what you mean by 'works' in this context; while one may accept that people feel better after being the subject of a 'shamanistic' seance, this need not be attributed to anything above and beyond the perfectly comprehensible effects of group dynamics and individual psychology. If things do go further than this - and so far I have seen no evidence that they do - then this may be an interesting question for scientific endeavour, but one should not throw one's hands up in mock despair and announce that we are confronted with phenomena that go beyond the ken of the rationalist.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:53 PM on June 28, 2005


unreason: I have looked into the mouths of at least 1,000 (skeletal) foragers, so I think I have a little first hand knowledge in this area. Typically, their major problem is excessive abrasion, especially in coastal areas. Otherwise, their teeth are certainly better than the average pre-modern agriculturalist. Not perfect, but pretty damn good.

I am not saying they lived a wonderful, disease free life. It is incontrovertible overall that population grew, but health (both disease and nutrition) declined, and infant mortality increased, with the onset of agriculture. In a select few agricultural societies, ours included, health care has improved overall, but consider that even 300 years ago in Europe medecine was still basically herbalist and shamanistic. Don't generalize from the present, historically situated moment to the much broader issues.
posted by Rumple at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2005


Sigh. No, you're really not.

Please don't make easy assumptions about where I'm coming from. I quoted a work written by a physical anthropologist, who probably has as good reason to know what he's talking about as you do. He may well be wrong - after all, scientists do get things wrong, human scientists fairly frequently, and anthropologists very frequently indeed. But I don't think you can make your case by simply sighing at me.

Ii is one thing to claim that foraging societies represent some kind of Garden of Eden; it is another to paint their teeth blackened and stumped if this was not the case. You call 'remote' foragers to aid in you in your argument; I will call you on that. There is no such thing as a remote foraging society. This is an ethnographer's fantasy.

On preview, I see that Rumple has covered it.
posted by TimothyMason at 1:17 PM on June 28, 2005


How can agriculture be 'phased out' without causing a self-imposed mass starvation, in what you would presumably call a 'transitional' period? Until you can address this point, I will not be convinced that you are really serious.
Hey, you've got to break a few billion eggs to make an omelet. Didn't you learn anything from twentieth-century social engineering attempts?
posted by darukaru at 1:36 PM on June 28, 2005


How can agriculture be 'phased out' without causing a self-imposed mass starvation

It can't. BUT, let's play sci-fi here, you could genetically engineer a non-fatal disease - like mumps - to be more virulent and more likely to promote orchitis and sustained fever leading to massive sterilization of males.

After that you could, over 150 years or so, reduce the world population by a large enough percentage it may be possible for real practical primitivist movement to catch on as cities would be known to spread contagion. If you could say get 10-20% of the world population to go primitive you may then have a buffer for future catastrophes.

And a reduced population could cause labor shortages - thus human labor has value again in the Agricultural portion of the world. And that could be intelligently leveraged by the sophisticated elements of an enlightened culture to limit many of the problems Diamonds seems to be on about.

Now excuse me. I'm needed back on the Enterprise.
posted by tkchrist at 2:03 PM on June 28, 2005


Not one of these forager advocates have given any details on how we will reach this 'utopian' state - I wonder why this is? Maybe it's because it can not and will not happen, without unnacceptable levels of coersion or starvation!
posted by smiffy at 2:09 PM on June 28, 2005


Not one of these forager advocates have given any details on how we will reach this 'utopian' state - I wonder why this is? Maybe it's because it can not and will not happen, without unnacceptable levels of coersion or starvation!

If you noticed, that's why they so easily accept the idea of a mass starvation catastrophe as inevitable, because without this apocalyptic vision, their utopian state requires an inordinate amount of suffering to bring about. If the responsibility for that suffering can be ascribed to "evil agriculture," it makes the path to the utopian state morally palatable.

Just like how jefgodesky is comfortable with ignoring mortality rates of young children in order to make it seem like life expectancy is equivalent between our society and ancient ones, pretending that an apocalypse is okay since it was going to happen anyway is intellectually lazy.
posted by odinsdream at 6:58 PM on June 28, 2005


Rumple - thanks so much for your insights. It's always good to hear from someone with first hand experience.

I had heard that, prior to the advent of agriculture in the Americas, the Northwest was just about the richest region, especially due to the fishing. Is this true?
posted by jb at 7:44 PM on June 28, 2005


jb - the NW Coast was one of the "richest" regions even after the development of agriculture, at least north of Mexico. With the pre-contact decline in SW and Mississippian cultures, at European contact it was pretty well as "complex" a society as any in North America, even without agriculture. Most people have ascribed this to the abundant fishing, especially salmon, but certainly technology played a role, and the crucial raw material of red cedar was also important. And, while salmon were very very important in most places, some groups had essentially no access to salmon (e.g., Pacheedaht of W Vancouver island; Kunghit Haida) and others had virtually no red cedar (eg Yakutat Tlingit), and hence neither of these resources can be seen as indispensable. Anyway, it is an interesting place to explore many of the issues surrounding cultural complexity and the means of production, so to speak.
posted by Rumple at 11:52 PM on June 28, 2005


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