Humanity’s First Colossal Blunder
When it happened, it must have been a sunny day as it almost always was in that part of the world. That part of the world the famous University of Chicago archeologist James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) labeled the “Fertile Crescent.” A geographical crescent that arcs up from the Nile, through Israel, into Turkey, and down the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. It was there, somewhere around 10,000 years ago, that a single person recognized something remarkable: seeds that grew near the plants they fell from could grow anywhere.
Hired by Breasted to be the Oriental Institute’s field director, Henri Frankfort (1897–1954) concluded that before civilization, the world was seen by “man as neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life; life as individuality, in man, beast, plant, and in every phenomenon [from] the thunderclap, to the shadow, to the stone which suddenly hurt him when he stumbles.” The rock chose to hurt him on that fall. Just as often, the rock chose not to. Whatever individual will that made those seeds grow, it could will them to grow near the campsite for easy harvest. Tending the soil and waiting for spring forced an end to the wandering life as the campsite became a settlement. As population geneticist Spencer Wells tells it in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, ten millennia ago, “we made a conscious decision to change our relationship with nature.” We went from finding our food to creating it. “The first person to plant a seed in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago,” says Wells, “set in motion events that were beyond his or her wildest imagination.” What had been a medley of people and the natural world took its first step to becoming the factory floor of an agri-planet. If not the first, that act was one of the first disenchantments of the world.
But wasn’t farming an improvement in hunter-gather lives? On the BBC, anthropologist James Suseman said, “The Juhoansi bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are famous as having been the people who torpedoed the idea that hunter-gathers lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. [They] sustained themselves well on the basis of about 15 hour’s effort in the food quest per week. Once those immediate needs for that day were met, people would take it easy and would hang out, tell jokes, tell stories, eat and relax… [With] farming, on the other hand, all work becomes future-focused. That means you have to focus on accumulating surpluses. So, you had these early agricultural religions where hard work becomes a virtue, idleness, and sloth a sin. Our obsession with wanting to do more comes from the risks of farming, and they’ve been baked into us ever since 10,000 years ago when people started experimenting with agriculture.”
With farming, humans did little but work: clearing fields, breaking ground, weeding other species, carrying water and lugging animal feces around with its stink to make wheat happy. “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “These plants domesticated Homo sapiens…” With the increase in food supply, the population grew. Mothers could have a baby each year (ouch). “Babies were weaned at an earlier age — they could be fed on porridge and gruel. Extra hands were sorely needed in the fields. But the extra mouths quickly wiped-out food surpluses, so even more fields had to be planted. [How could they know] that feeding children more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases? [Dependent] on a single source of food, they exposed themselves even more to the depredations of drought.” Child mortality soared; settlements grew with possessions to be possessed by, inviting warfare; and all the while, evolving pathogens that could find a way to leap from newly domesticated four-legged creatures to those on two did just that.
And yet, hunter-gathers had been hunter-gathering for 60,000 years in our latest hominid version. Such a deep history of success made their descendants, the ancients, paranoid of change. Wasn’t this also true of hunter-gathers, and if life got harder, why do it? Because the Agricultural “Revolution” played out in very slow motion, says Harari. It took generations to transform close-knit communities of onetime wanderers into progressively overpopulated, disconnected, materialists. And while farming is hell for individuals, it’s great for the species. In a brilliant statement of what should be obvious, Harari writes, “The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but copies of DNA. Just as the economic success of a company is measured by dollars in a bank, not how happy its employees are. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” Humans put themselves on a path to massification; massified by mass production, mass traffic, mass communication, mass waistlines, mass murders, and who wouldn’t want to be massified by asocial media turning their democracies upside down?
But those democracies would come later as one of many attempts to manage all those unstable humans that agriculture produced. And at the level of the individual, not very healthy humans at that. With agriculture, female life span dropped, not to be recovered for 9000 years. Male height struggled to recuperate for 7000 years. Skeletons spanning centuries show “People were not only dying younger,” writes Wells, “they were dying sicker.” As Harari puts it, “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud.”
According to philosopher-historian Marcel Gauchet and his spellbinding Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, a dramatic psychological change also occurred somewhere between the Agricultural Revolution and invention of the State. This new lifeway which would lead to cities, which led to states, which led to empires, “transformed everything that humans had held against themselves to maintain permanent identity with the past into a reversal of unrestrained action against everything around them,” writes Gauchet. “The old way submerged human order in nature’s order, feeling at one with nature, a co-belonging so strong any damage done required ritual compensation restoring the balance. Nature became opposed and possessed in a renunciation of this world in the name of the other.” With divinity exiled from nature, nature became de-sanctified, external to man.
See Genesis 9; written ca. 500 B.C during the Iron Age, well into empires, long past the ag-revolution but still a dominant lifeway, when Yahweh tells Noah: “Breed, multiply and fill the earth. Be the terror and the dread of all the animals on land and all the birds of heaven, of everything that moves on land and all the fish of the sea; they are placed in your hands. Every living thing will be yours to eat, no less than the foliage of the plants… Be fruitful then and multiply, teem over the earth and subdue it!” Compare this with the hunter-gatherer perspective expressed by Chief Seattle: “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle. Every sandy shore. Every mist in the woods. Every meadow. Every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people… Perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers… The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.”
Not anymore. Agriculture — the creation of biodiversity deserts — has denuded more land space than the continents of Europe, South America, and North America, including Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Greenland combined. According to a 2018 National Academy of Sciences report, humans have terminated 83 percent of all wild mammals, just 17 percent remains, largely due to agriculture. Add birds, amphibians, and reptiles, and over two-thirds have disappeared in just the 50-years since 1970. Export our harvesting practice to the oceans and we see marine populations in a cascade collapse worldwide. Anthropogenic mass has even surpassed the mass of all life on the planet, including that gargantuan sum marshaled by plant life (500 billion tons) with a staggering 1.2 trillion tons of manmade stuff. And all this before we tally the damage of manmade global warming where even earth’s poles are under assault. On that score, were it not for 93 percent of excess heat absorbed by the world’s oceans our average atmospheric temperature would be 122°F (50°C). Nature is now confused with too much alteration, too fast to evolve compensation. No wonder we live in the sixth great extinction. The last one happened 66 million years ago, thanks to mass volcanic eruptions preparing the way for an asteroid to finish off 76% of all life on earth.
But of course, neither agriculture, nor carbon dioxide jacked into the atmosphere for energy production would be globally ruinous if humans had not so overpopulated the planet. As so often, the problem is not one of kind, but of degree. We’re the asteroid, our numbers. And that problem started on a sunny day in the Fertile Crescent by just one person.
Who says one individual can’t change the world?
References not linked above:
Paragraph 1: Agriculture was independently invented multiple times at between 7 and 10 different locations on earth. The Fertile Crescent was fertile for more than crops and animal husbandry; it’s also the region where writing, the wheel, the city, the temple, beer, and the sexagesimal number system with sixty seconds to each minute of a sixty-minute hour would later be invented. A land of fertile ideas, including state sponsored slaughter in coordinated warfare to steal those agricultural gains.
Paragraph 2: Henri Frankfort, H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Man, Pelican Books, 1971, pg. 14. Originally published as The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man, 1946.
Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Random House, 2010, pg. 16.
Ibid. pg. 24.
Paragraph 3: Daniel Susskind, The Compass, BBC podcast, June 2021.
Paragraph 4: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage, 2011, pg. 90, and pg. 97.
Paragraph 5: Ibid. pg. pg. 94.
Paragraph 6: Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Random House, 2010, pg. 23–24. Lifespans did not reach modern levels until public health of the late 19th century and early 20th.
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage, 2011, pg. 90–91.
Paragraph 7: Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, Princeton University Press, 1999. Gauchet’s focus is the advent of the state as a primary mover of social change. With the state built on and after the agricultural revolution, unraveling the unique contributions of each to our change in perspective is not addressed here.
Paragraph 8: Genesis 9:1–4, 9:7, The New Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday, 1985, pg. 26–27.
Chief Seattle quote, in Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Trough Time, Harper Perennial, 1999, pg. 28–29. To be sure, the two selections selected emphasize the point at the exclusion of tribal warfare between Native tribes, and “the Promised Land” perspective of the Israelites. Though it was a land “promised,” not so much “promising,” as were the abundant lands inhabited by Native Americans. Stern environments yield stern religions.