Agricultural Revolution: The Great Misstep of Humanity

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #5: History’s Biggest Fraud

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

In this lecture Dr Harari makes the contentious claim that agricultural revolution is 'the biggest fraud in history'.

Contrary to several myths about agricultural revolution,
* Agricultural revolution was not due to increase in human intelligence
* It did not raise standards of living for humans. Agricultural revolution increased the sum total of food, but it did not lead to a better diet or better life. What it did result in was a demographic explosion and the rise of nobility, kings and elites who took major share of the food.
* It did not make work easier. Average peasant worked harder than the average hunter-forager, and consumed a worse diet.

We usually say that humans domesticated wheat (and other plants like rice, potatoes, corn, etc), but in a sense one can say that it is wheat that domesticated humans. What did humans gain out of this relationship with wheat? Wheat did not offer a better diet, it did not offer economic security (more risk of draught if harvest fails), it did not offer better security against violence (permanent settlements increased the risk of clashes and violence). Wheat offered nothing to individual humans, but it offered something for humans collectively: it allowed many more humans to live in the same area. 

Evolutionary success is measured not by happiness but by the number of copies of DNA. Agricultural revolution allowed many more people to exist, but under worse conditions. Our affluent society today developed out of the foundation of agriculture, so we tend to think of it as a great progress, but it is wrong to judge consequences of agricultural revolution from perspective of today. 

It should be noted, however, that the switch to agriculture was not a conscious decision. It was a gradual accumulation of many steps. People simply did not foresee the negative consequences of permanent settlements, such as over-population, droughts, infectious diseases, poor hygienic conditions, worse diets and child mortality. It took generations to realize that things were not working out well, and by that time, no one had the living memory of the fact that once humans had lived differently. Another reason is that population had kept growing and growing, making it impossible to switch back to hunter-gather way of life.

The desire to have a better life trapped humans in harder conditions. 'It is one of the iron laws of history: luxuries tend to become necessities.' (Dr Harari) Once people get used to a certain habit, with time it becomes essential. Herein lies a very important lesson for humanity: 'Humanity's search for an easier life releases immense forces of change which transform the world in ways that nobody envisioned or wanted' (Dr Harari), and this actually ends up making life harder.

Some mysterious religious or cultural purpose may also have played a part in the switch to agriculture, at least in some areas. The archaeological remains at Göbekli Tepe mark the site of the oldest known religious temple, dated to around 9500 BC. The construction of this temple would have necessitated the development of a village around it. DNA analysis of domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat reveals that the DNA is closest to wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dağ, a site at a distance from 32 km from Göbekli Tepe, suggesting that possibly this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. It cannot just be a coincidence that the oldest religious site that we know of, and the place where wheat was first domesticated are in such proximity. 

Another aspect of agricultural revolution is the domestication of animals. It may have started from selective hunting of animals with containment of herds within selected areas, or from adoption of animals, to be eaten later on. With time, strategies such as selective slaughtering or castration of the aggressive animals, and mating the docile ones would have led to domestication. The domesticated animals are evolutionary success stories in terms of the number of DNA copies, but they are actually among the most miserable creatures on earth. In this way, agriculture not only increased the misery of humans, but also the misery of animals.


Foodie said…
Excellent article. I agree entirely.