Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Farming: "A Life of Drudgery And Toil"?

From "An Edible History of Humanity," by Tom Standage:
"The simple truth is that farming is profoundly unnatural. It has done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than any other human activity. It has led to widespread deforestation, environmental destruction, the displacement of "natural" wildlife, and the transplanting of plants and animals thousands of miles from their original habitats. It involves the genetic modification of plants and animals to create monstrous mutants that do not exist in nature and often cannot survive without human intervention. It overturned the hunter-gatherer way of life that had defined human existence for tens of thousands of years, prompting humans to exchange a varied, leisurely existence of hunting and gathering for lives of drudgery and toil. Agriculture would surely not be allowed if it were invented today. And yet, for all its faults, it is the basis of civilization as we know it. Domesticated plants and animals form the very foundations of the modern world."
Why would humans opt for a life of drudgery and toil? If they didn't have to? Standage offers some guesses, but doesn't weigh in with anything definitive. He says that the switch from hunting and gathering to farming "is one of the oldest, most complex, and most important questions in human history," yet the exact cause remains a mystery.

What do you think?
Illustration from "Kidipede, History And Science For Middle School Kids." Caption: "Women and men farming in south-eastern North America (1500's AD)."


Bix said...

One more quote:

In effect, hunter-gatherers work two days a week and have five-day weekends."

I'm not sure having and rearing children are two-day-a-week efforts. I don't know. Who did the cooking?

virginia said...

He's romanticizing the lifestyle.

I think women rebelled - they were tired of packing up belongings - carrying one baby on their back, one in their belly, and not having time to grieve the lost ones.

Steve Parker, M.D. said...

I bet farming provided a more reliable food source. It may be just that simple.

Hunting and gathering may have worked fine in the Garden of Eden, but not after the Fall.


vivian said...

Spencer Wells sets out a pretty good explanation of why humans switched to agriculture nearly universally, in Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

caulfieldkid said...

I'm guessing agriculture brought a more consistent food source. Plus, as mentioned above, it allowed a people group to remain in one area, which has many benefits (permanent structures, better defenses, greater knowledge of surroundings etc).

Regardless, there had to be a pragmatic reason for it. It's just a matter of figuring out which one(s) pushed us over the edge.

As a side, if it weren't for family the hunter/gatherer lifestyle appeals to me greatly.


pstrand said...

Lierre Keith, in The Vegetarian Myth, treats this subject in a way that intrigues me. After drawing attention to the forensic evidence that after the agricultural revolution, markers of health deteriorated dramatically, she asks why then would people make the switch. Then she brings attention to pharmacological substances called exorphins residing in the annual domesticates, exorphins that are opioids. In other words, she suggests that we made the dramatic switch because we became addicted.

Dr. Mel said...

I have a few comments which I'll try to put together tomorrow--too hot and tired now!

Anonymous said...

you talk as if 'the switch' was adropted universally. That didn't happen... hunter-gatherer societies co existed with farming societies and simply the farmers won (that should prove the superiorty of their method)

I highly doubt that for each calorie invested in effort hunting pays more than farming.

"Hunting and gathering may have worked fine in the Garden of Eden, but not after the Fall."

There was no death in Eden so there would have been no animals eating animals

Bix said...

"The switch" was Standage's term, although he did discuss how they coexisted.

Here's another quote:

"Farming is more productive in the sense that it produces more food per unit of land; a group of 25 people can subsist by farming on a mere 25 acres, a much smaller area than the tens of thousands of acres they would need to subsist by hunting and gathering. But farming is less productive when measured by the amount of food produced per hour of labor. It is, in other words, much harder work."

He doesn't reference that. I suppose the success of hunting and gathering depends on how abundant an area is.

Bix said...

pstrand, That's interesting about addictive qualities. Did she refer to one food more than another?

I've read about opiate-like peptides in milk: casomorphins:


pstrand said...

Keith seems to be dealing generally with grain. She refers to words from G. Wadley and A. Martin, researchers who developed this theory:

“The ingestion of cereals and milk, in normal modern dietary amounts by normal humans, activates reward centres in the brain. Foods that were common in the diet before agriculture…do not have this pharmacological property. The effects of exorphins are qualitatively the same as those produced by other opioid…drugs, that is, reward, motivation, reduction of anxiety, a sense of well-being, and perhaps even addiction. Although the effects of the typical meal are quantitatively less than those of doses of those drugs, most modern humans experience them several times a day every day of their adult lives.”

Thus humans binge not on pork chops, not on products made from cereal grains.

Dr. Mel said...

I don't believe there's any way to interpret, from archaeological evidence, how much leisure time Paleos had. 5 days a week strikes me both as random and probably an overestimate. We know they built dwellings, we know they had musical instruments (oldest known flute ~32,000 BCE), we know they made thread/string and used it for weaving/sewing, we know they made jewelry (e.g., ivory beads), we know they gathered & ate seeds & grains along w/ greens & other fruits/veggies, they hunted or caught primarily small mammals & fish (though occasionally a larger animal), we know they buried their dead with rituals suggesting both love and spiritual belief, and we know they painted cave interiors despite not actually living in those caves (we do not know *why* they painted)--those can be deduced from the physical evidence.
All of this was hard work and time-consuming. I doubt they lolled about very much, if at all. We also know they were larger & stronger than their later Neolithic farmer counterparts.
Re Garden of Eden, it's interesting that before the Fall, scriptures describe Adam & Eve and all animals as being plant eaters (I: 29-30).

Dr. Mel said...

I think it's quite possible that, for calories expended, hunting/gathering was as "lucrative," and maybe more so, than the effort of farming, at least for the laborers. By the time you had cities and large-scale farming in the Neolithic, there was a highly developed class/caste system in which the majority of people labored and the minority reaped the benefits (e.g., in Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt). How many calories you expended was a factor of what class you were born into.

Class distinctions weren't nearly so pronounced in the Paleolithic, the clans being more cooperative, at least as far as we can gather from archaeological evidence.

Re cooking, while it's still somewhat controversial, it seems the use of fire dates back at least half a million years.

Bix said...

Melinda, great commentary, as usual.

Standage right now is discussing the loss of egalitarian communities after farming took off, and the negative impact this had on food distribution, and so, on health.

(So you didn't lose your power? Ours was off for 24 hours, which was far better than their estimate of Monday! There went everything in the refrigerator. I can see that diets would be quite different without that appliance.)

Dr. Mel said...

No, we were fortunate not to lose power!
The issue of the loss of egalitarian communities is a really interesting one, something Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed in his 18th-century essay, _Discourse on Inequality_, though his thoughts are purely speculative. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_on_Inequality)

Btw, in mentioning the scriptural discussion of Eden, I wasn't saying "this is true," but that it's fascinating (to me at least) that the Jewish writer(s) of Genesis saw eating *only* plants (veganism) as a symbol of innocence/purity (given that blood [animal] sacrifice was part of early Judaism). And in that description of Eden before the fall, animals too were said to eat only plants.

Bix said...

Interesting, this Rousseau piece.

I don't go along entirely with his concept of "natural man," where "self-preservation [is] his chief and almost sole concern." This seems to break down in the presence of offspring. How does mankind's innate sense of nurturing, generosity, and protection for their newborn fit into that? Wouldn't mothering be a case where a human would "naturally" subordinate their own needs in favor of another's?

Speaking of protective parents, this came to mind. It's a little disturbing about a minute in, when the dog enters the picture:


Dr. Mel said...

Well, a lot of modern science, including paleontology, has shown that a "naive" human is just a theoretical construct. So the notion of the "natural man" whose only concern is self-preservation is also just a theoretical construct, something Rousseau needs in order to establish his arguments. And, the idea is inconsistent with his notion that there was a time that we were unaware of death (b/c if you aren't aware of death, why would you think about self-preservation?!).

Further, there's a huge amount of animal research demonstrating that many animals are far more aware of death/impending death than we have ever thought.

I didn't say Rousseau was *right*--I just said I find his idea of an origin of inequality *interesting*! One of the primary concerns of the Enlightenment was discovering the origin of things, the "Ur" exemplum, and Rousseau is a perfect example of that! (In the essay, one example he uses is inequality based on artistic or craftsmanly excellence, or lack thereof--as an art historian, I encountered this essay first in that context.) That's why I find it interesting, I suppose. ;-))

Bix said...

pstrand, I can see this somewhat. There had to be reasons we were drawn to eating these foods.

In that grains are seeds, would this apply to all seeds? Things like corn, beans, almonds, walnuts, and coconuts?

Dr. Mel said...

Or the grass grains that Paleos ate?