Unintended Journeys: Lessons from Agricultural Revolution

Why the agricultural revolution was bad for us and how we can learn from it. From the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Unintended Journeys: Lessons from Agricultural Revolution
Photo by Nikola Tasic on Unsplash

For the last few weeks, I am re-reading the book ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari. I first read it around 2016. Last week, I finished the chapter on the agricultural revolution, and it made me think about how it relates to recent technological developments. What can we learn from the mistakes we made in the past? Let’s see.

How did it happen?

About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age got over. The global warming and more rain made it possible to have this agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. Before that, humans were hunter-gatherers for about 2.5 million years. We did eat plants and animals but had no control over how they grow. We had a varied diet and had to work very little. Life was good.

But then, some humans in a tribe saw the wheat plants along the trails. They grew because some seeds were dropped along the trail while the humans brought them to the base camp for grinding. Well, more food for us. They realized that if they did a ‘little extra work’ by burning those seeds into the ground, they can get significantly better results. Slowly, a series of small improvements started taking place. Eventually, we started creating farms and long-term or permanent settlements near those farms. These settlements provided better protection against wild animals and weather.

Farming provided us with more food, resulting in human population growth. So, good as far as evolutionary success is concerned: more copies of DNA for us as well as wheat and other animals we domesticated.

Was it good for us?

Yuval called the agricultural revolution one of the biggest blunders in human history. Why? Because it made our lives worse. To start with the food itself, our diet became worse than the hunter-gatherers. Not all plants and animals can be domesticated. Hunter-gatherers had a much higher variety in their diet, which is good for our immune systems. Today, wheat makes up over 90% of our diet. A diet based on grains lacks essential nutrients, bad for teeth and gums, and is harder to digest.

When hunter-gatherers had a shortage of a particular food, they switched to a different source. They can also move to a new place where food is abundant. Farmers could not do that. If, for some reason, crops failed, they just died.

Hunter-gatherers did almost no hard work. They spent a lot more time with their families. Compared to that, farmers had to do a lot of work. This involves clearing fields, planting seeds, gathering water for the plants, protecting them from insects, etc. Our human bodies were not evolved for these tasks. They evolved to climb trees, run, etc. Doing these tasks puts extra burden on our bodies, resulting in many bone-related problems for humans. This extra work tilted the work-life balance for humans forever.

Because of the agricultural revolution, we started settling down. We started having more possessions. As the possessions grew, so did the need to protect them. The wars were more frequent, larger, and deadlier now.

Overall, it wasn’t good for us. Yuval goes as far as saying that we did not domesticate wheat, but rather wheat domesticated us. Before agricultural evolution, wheat grew only in a small part of the world and in a small quantity. It attracted humans and made them work so hard that now wheat is found all over the world.

Locked in Time: Undoing the Agricultural Revolution?

The advantages of the agricultural revolution are very little compared to the degradation it caused in the human lifestyle. But we can’t go back now. There are many reasons. The agricultural revolution was not a one big invention. It was a series of small improvements. It took many years to happen. By that time, people forgot that they ever lived a significantly better lifestyle.

There was more food initially, but it soon became a necessity. Because of more food, the human population exploded. We had almost no choice but to continue farming wheat and other plants to support our population. Apparently, eliminating humans is not so ethical nowadays. Even in fiction, when Thanos tried to do it, we killed Thanos.

So, why did we do it?

The short-term benefits were easy to observe. We get more food. But our ancestors failed to anticipate that there would be more mouths to consume that food. We also did not realize the importance of diversity in our diet or nomadic lifestyle for our bodies.

Perhaps some humans did anticipate all that. It is quite reasonable to assume that hunter-gatherers knew a lot more about nature, since their survival depended on such knowledge. They did not start farming by choice. But it only took one tribe to start farming. Soon the population of farmers grew, and they outnumbered the hunter-gatherers. Other tribes had to start farming to compete for survival.

Reflections on the present and the future

As the pages of history unfold, we stumble upon a revelation: the agricultural revolution, while a monumental blunder, stands as just one chapter in our book of errors. We have made many such mistakes by considering only the short-term benefits. Our inability to anticipate long-term effects still causes us a lot of harm. For example, consider the invention of social media or recent advancements in AI. Matches all the patterns. A series of small improvements. It takes only one person to start, and others have to do it to stay in the competition. It is so hard even to quit social media for an individual now, let alone undo the invention of social media. We clearly can’t ignore the advancements in AI because if we do, we will fall behind (competition) and perhaps starve. Only recently, we have discovered the harmful effects of social media on our society and, in particular, children. The long-term effects of recent advancements in AI are not clearly known.

All these make me wonder if we are innovating in the right direction. How critical are the problems we are trying to solve? Hunter-gatherers lived for about 2.5 million years without the agricultural revolution, so clearly, most of our inventions are not so critical for survival. They are just short-term luxuries with unknown long-term effects. Are we just innovating new things and only then justifying the need for those innovations?

My Favorites

Video: Why do we have crooked teeth when our ancestors didn’t (TedED)

Quote: “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”—Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.