Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

Our Worst Mistake, Part 2



Last week, we looked at anthropologist Jared Diamond's claim that the Neolithic Revolution, when most hunter-gatherers settled down to become farmers, was "the worst mistake in the history of the human race."

Since Diamond popularized this "revisionist" thesis, sociologists and anthropologists have seized on it to explain everything from the subjugation of women (not generally seen in present-day hunter-gatherer groups), warfare and — according to psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá in their 2010 book Sex at Dawn — monogamy. They argue that most hunter-gatherer societies were and are polygamous, living without nuclear families and unconcerned about paternity, thus fostering intertribal cooperation and peaceful relations: You don't kill the folks who may be your immediate kin. In an interview, Ryan put it this way: "The advent of agriculture ... introduced the notion of property into sexuality. Property wasn't a very important consideration when people were living in small foraging groups in which most things were shared, including food, childcare, shelter and defense. It makes perfect sense that sexuality would also be shared — why wouldn't it be when paternity wasn't an issue?" (Bonobo apes, our closest relatives, go at it — faithlessly — night and day, while living in egalitarian, peaceful groups. Just saying.)

So Diamond's theory is that the Neolithic Revolution initiated the notion of property rights, along with concern for paternal certainty, and hence monogamy — especially for women. Overall, females probably came out worse than males as a result of the revolution, a point made as long ago as 1884 by Karl Marx' collaborator Fredrich Engels, who claimed that agriculture was the source of sexual inequality. (Engels was harkening back to a mythical time when our ancestors lived in a communist utopia.) And since lactation inhibits conception, women got pregnant more frequently — with the associated health hazards of childbirth — once goat's milk and puréed cereal were available as replacements for breast milk.

With the high academic stakes involved, it's no wonder that Diamond's "revisionist" case has been challenged by "progressives," who point to all the benefits brought to us by agriculture: Civilization! Population growth! Science! Culture! (Culture, agriculture and cultivation are all cognates, mind you.) Cities, government, metallurgy, books, the Eiffel Tower and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony didn't just happen by chance. You don't go to the moon if you're living in a small, tight-knit group, spending your days chasing animals, living in caves and worrying about the local waterhole drying up. 

And what about those peaceful relations supposedly enjoyed by hunter-gatherers? Linguist Steven Pinker, author of Better Angels of our Nature, argues — controversially — that we're now living in the most peaceable period in human history. Those guys back then were constantly battling, he claims, citing as evidence the frequency of weapon marks on ancient human bones.

After all that, you may ask, "What has the Neolithic Revolution ever done for us?" Sure, it's given us long lives, Humboldt Mud and Viagra. But it's also given us nuclear bombs, organized religion and the Kardashians. Was Jared Diamond that far out of line in calling it "a catastrophe from which we have never recovered?"

Barry Evans ([email protected]) isn't quite ready to head to the hills with his bow and arrows.

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