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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.
ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images
Fog spreads across an agriculture field in the early morning on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Lahore on December 4, 2014.
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 inequalitySLEONE-WOMEN-DAY-PACKAGEKadiatu 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)
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.
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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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.