Jarred Diamond on the "Worst Mistake" of the Human Race
Jared Diamond has written critically of the choices made by a few humans who survived the last ice-age, 10,000 years ago, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," (Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66), “in which he asserts discovering agriculture” supposedly was “our most decisive step toward a better life, [but] was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.” (A text is available HERE).
But, be that as it may, with a world population of 6 billion, going towards 7 billion and beyond, reversing such consequences is most unlikely to happen, and no matter how early in history an attempt is made, Luddite” like, once the change was tried, to stem or reverse changes brought about by any section of the dispersed human population. Once any organic entity makes a change or is changed for it, for whatever reason, it becomes irreversible except when it actually kills the organism. If the change works in the new circumstances, natural selection may help it spread.
Farming was an eventual outcome, somewhere across the habited globe, among surviving human groups gathering food in sparse environments close to the furthest reaches of the last great ice-age. Those furthest away and unaffected by the ice –most probably unaware of it through the many millennia that it lasted – continued to live broadly as always, moving to new areas relatively close by when necessary, and having no environmental pressure imposing desperate reasons to alter their hunting and gathering life styles.
But for some groups they had both severe environmental and social pressure to make what appeared to be fortuitous experiments from observation of growing plants and casual discoveries of plant cycles. And as the observational and experimental pressures seemed to have some positive affects, not when set against dim memories of former relative food splendours, but against current near starvation, what worked relatively would spread to nearby groups, and metaphorically we could say, took root in some settled populations. The rest continued as normal for them.
Jared Diamond applies the wrong test; he looks back to the beginning with knowledge of the unintended outcome 11,000 years later, much like observers could make about wanderers crossing the Sahara from the south who died of exhaustion and thirst, or flimsy boat voyagers leaving tiny Pacific Islanders, or Aborigines leaving Australia, South Africa or South American sailing south in search of new lands, or were just blown off intended off courses. They perished within their life times and could no nothing about their fates.
Whereas, Diamond has concluded 11,000 years later, that farming was disastrous and it is now most unlikely anything can be done about it, much the same as individuals changing their minds about continuing to go north or in trying to swim back from where they thought that had come from wherever they thought the had sailed were also embarking on an hopeless quest.
Similarly, those who design grand utopian schemes to change the world’s economies are doomed to failure too. The world is the way it is, including how it got here. Reports this week that in two billion years, no biological life forms will be able to exist on Earth anyway. So the choice was not just some avoidable termination of human life in social groups because of choosing farming, and, all that followed there from, versus no change at all to the gathering life of tens of millennia before hand.
Human, and all other, life on Earth is going to end, albeit in 2 billion years anyway.
I prefer to think that the billions of humans who, without the discovery of farming, in places like southern Syria and Northern Israel/Palestine, and also several other places along that latitude, would never have experienced any lives at all, miserable as many may have been or still are. Therefore I salute those discoverers and honour them, whatever Jared Diamond thinks to the contrary.
They did what they did and we, and our descendants, have to live with the unintended consequences.