How the Agricultural Revolution made us inequal

The history of trading equality for food.

  • Modern society is possible because of the Agricultural Revolution.
  • But it did require us to give up something that we have yet to recover, even today: egalitarianism.
  • Today, food surpluses are actually a sign of big inequality. And the reason is more

Despite the racks of meat at my deli, the aisles of canned goods at my grocery store, and the dewy lettuce at my farmer's market, some researchers contend that deciding to farm was one of the worst decisions humanity ever made. For the vast majority of human existence, we hunted and gathered. In doing so, we enjoyed a varied diet that took shockingly little work to obtain compared to farming.

When the Agricultural Revolution occurred, the combination of overcrowding of both humans and domesticated animals and switching to an unvaried cereal- and grain-based diet caused an assortment of health issues. By examining the skeletons of early farmers and late hunter-gatherers, we can see that we lost about five inches of height, which we only recovered in the 20th century. These bones also showed greater signs of diseases and illness, and early farmers lived shorter lives than hunter-gatherers.

On its face, the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was a bad thing is patently ridiculous. Modern society is possible because of the Agricultural Revolution, and other researchers are quick to point out that the hunter-gatherer way of life was very violent. Compared to modern life, the difference between how miserable people were as early farmers and how miserable people were as hunter-gatherers is very slight.

While researchers still debate how costly the transition to agriculture was, it did require us to give up something that we have yet to recover, even today: egalitarianism.

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism 

Fog spreads across an agriculture field in the early morning on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Lahore on December 4, 2014.

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately, we don't have time machines to travel back 12,000 years to the point in time before the Agricultural Revolution, but that doesn't mean we can't get an accurate picture of the difference between the hunter-gatherer and agricultural life.

One method is to look at existing hunter-gatherer societies. The !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert (the exclamation point stands for a clicking sound) demonstrate a sexual egalitarianism that one wouldn't necessarily expect from a nomadic tribe. While men tend to hunt and women tend to gather, these roles often overlap. Women retain control over the food they gather. Both men and women raise children equally. Studies on other contemporary hunter-gatherer societies show a similar degree of sexual equality.

Among the Hadza of Tanzania, the !Kung, and other nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, resources are shared equally. The concept of ownership, when it exists, generally takes the form of being associated with a place or thing rather than possessing it. Hunted or gathered food is shared equally among all members of the tribe. Sometimes, a chief or elder individual will be responsible for divvying out the food, but this authority figure receives as much as the other tribe members. Generally, individuals who attempt to assert dominance or establish a leadership position are ridiculed and ostracized. From what we can tell, these practices hold true for ancient hunter-gatherers as well.

The rise of agriculture and inequality

Kadiatu Kalloko, 60, poses in her farm on March 4, 2018 in the village of Pakari, near Makeni in Sierre Leone. / AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)SLEONE-WOMEN-DAY-PACKAGE

These egalitarian qualities were not present in early agricultural societies. The big advantage of agriculture over hunting and gathering is that it enables the production of food surpluses. But agriculture is fickle. When the weather is unfavorable, or plants become diseased, hunter-gatherers shift to another food source. This can't be done in agricultural societies, which rely on a small selection of crops produced on large scales. For a relatively recent example, consider the Irish Potato Famine.

Not only are food surpluses necessary for agricultural societies to survive, they also become highly desirable to control. In fact, recent research shows that ancient societies that had greater food surpluses tended to have higher levels of inequality.

Labor roles became more gendered as well. Generally, men did the majority of the fieldwork while women were relegated to child-rearing and household work. Without contributing food (and by association, without control over it), women became second-class citizens. Women also had babies more frequently, on average once every two years rather than once every four in hunter-gatherer societies.

Because somebody had to have control over surplus food, it became necessary to divide society into roles that supported this hierarchy. The roles of an administrator, a servant, a priest, and a soldier were invented. The soldier was especially important because agriculture was so unsustainable compared to hunting and gathering. The fickleness of agriculture ironically encouraged more migration into neighboring lands in search of more resources and warfare with neighboring groups. Capturing slaves was also important since farming was hard work, and more people were working in these new roles.

This division of labor and social inequality had very real consequences. For instance, while the majority of people had disastrous health compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, the skeletons of Mycenean royalty had better teeth and were three inches taller than their subjects. Chilean mummies from A.D. 1000 had a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease than commoners.

SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - NOVEMBER 24: Shoppers enter Target in South Portland shortly after the store opened its doors on Friday morning. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff photographer)Black Friday shopping

Although our quality of life has improved remarkably, the degree of inequality in our society has not. It's easy to contradict the argument that hunter-gatherer societies were better by strolling into your local supermarket, but then again, you're probably reading this in one of the wealthier places in the world. Plenty of people on Earth still live under unbelievably harsh conditions despite the unprecedented level of wealth we have. Consider the disparity between Japan's expected lifespan and Sierra Leone's: 83.7 years versus 50.1. That's a 40% gap.

Does this mean we should do what we've done for the vast majority of human history and retreat to the bush, forsake material possessions, and live off the land? Of course not. But it does highlight that inequality is not humanity's natural state, even though its one we've lived in since the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago.

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  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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