Civilization Was Supposed to Make Our Lives Better, Right?

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I’m writing this from the nineteenth floor of a hotel in downtown Chicago where I can’t get a solid wi-fi connection, let alone make the refrigerator cool my beer. For all our technological advances, sometimes it seems like I spend as much time cursing my laptop as I do using it. I love  modern technology and am grateful to live in the time and country that I do, but I also love camping in the woods, out of cell range, and cooking simple food on a fire.

All this techno crap was supposed my make our lives better, or whatever, yet it took me hours to drive into the city, because there was a shooting on the freeway, and then the car rental place was packed and under-staffed, the airport shuttle was a slow-moving cattle car, and of course I hop right on to the packed L trains at rush hour. At one point, I fantasized about walking all the way from the suburbs to downtown, navigating by the stars over the course of a night just to find some peace. Now that I’m in this hotel room with the artificially cooled air and shoddy connection, I wish I was camping on the shore of Lake Michigan, reading a book and roasting hot dogs on a stick for dinner.

In The New Yorker, John Lanchester ponders a more sophisticated, nuanced version of these issues. Fire, he argues, was the most important technological innovation in human history because it allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to manage wild landscapes, heat settlements, and cook food in a way that increased our brain power. Those enlarged brains led to the development of everything we homo sapiens have today in our domesticated societies.

But what if we were better off as hunter-gatherers? Cultivating crops led to permanent settlements, greed, and exploitation. Lanchester questions the long-term effects of a settled, stratified social system dependent on grains, and he looks at new interpretations of the development of modern agricultural civilization. He argues that the linear progression from hunting to farming, and its supposed benefits, are not as simple as they seem.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial.

The other conclusion we can draw from the evidence, Scott says, is that there is a crucial, direct link between the cultivation of cereal crops and the birth of the first states. It’s not that cereal grains were humankind’s only staples; it’s just that they were the only ones that encouraged the formation of states. “History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states,” he writes. What was so special about grains? The answer will make sense to anyone who has ever filled out a Form 1040: grain, unlike other crops, is easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) are buried and so can be hidden from the tax collector, and, even if discovered, they must be dug up individually and laboriously. Other crops (notably, legumes) ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season rather than along a fixed trajectory of unripe to ripe—in other words, the taxman can’t come once and get his proper due. Only grains are, in Scott’s words, “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’ ” Other crops have some of these advantages, but only cereal grains have them all, and so grain became “the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for a hegemonic agrarian calendar.” The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.

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