Roots of Evil ?

June 24, 2009

There’s an interesting article in the science section of the (UK) Daily Telegraph, “Is Farming the Root of All Evil?”, which explores the idea that the development of agriculture, although it undoubtedly was what allowed the population of our species to expand dramatically, may have not have been all that good for us.  As the article points out, one of the early exponents of this view was Prof. Jared Diamond of UCLA.  In his book, Guns, Germs and Steel (which, by the way, I highly recommend), Diamond argues, essentially, that the side effects made agriculture a cure worse than the disease:

According to Prof Diamond, agriculture evolved about 12,000 years ago, and since then humans have been malnourished and disease-ridden compared with their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Worse, because agriculture allows food to be stockpiled and enables some people to do things other than look for food, it led to the invention of more and better weapons, soldiers, warfare, class divisions between those who had access to food and those who did not, and inequality between the sexes.

There is some evidence of negative physical consequences of the switch to a diet based on agriculture, with its emphasis on a few staple foods.   A study of 9,000 prehistoric skeletons from the Nile Valley, ranging in age from the Neolithic period to about 1500 BC, at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, England, demonstrated that initially, people were less well nourished, and actually became smaller, on average, when agriculture was introduced:

The researchers were looking for signs of malnutrition, which are reflected in a person’s teeth. Just as tree-rings can indicate the health and age of a tree, so a defect in the layers of enamel called linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) can indicate whether a person has been ill, or deprived of food for several months.

What Dr Stock and Ms Starling discovered was that 40 per cent of hunter-gatherers who lived 13,000 years ago had LEH. Fast-forward 1,000 years, to when the Egyptians had become farmers, and the figure rose dramatically, to 70 per cent.

They also found that the average height of the hunter-gatherers was 5 feet 8 inches; after a few centuries of farming, the average height had decreased by four inches, and the typical skeleton’s bones were thinner.

Part of this can be attributed to the sharp decrease in the variety of foods in the diet:  Grains, such as wheat, barley, rice, and corn became staple crops in different areas, and even today supply the majority of calories for most of the world’s population.  Crop failures became a danger, since an outbreak of a plant disease, or a drought, could be devastating.  Living in close proximity to larger numbers of other people meant disease could spread more easily, and living with domestic animals also had its downside:

The problem is that most of these staple foods do not have the nutrients essential for a healthy life and are vulnerable to disease and drought. Moreover, having a population based in one place led to poor hygiene, just as living in proximity with domesticated animals inevitably resulted in diseases being transferred between species, as today’s outbreak of swine flu reminds us.

It took a very long time for people to begin to learn some of the pieces of the dietary / nutritional puzzle, although in some cultures good solutions were somehow discovered and passed down through tradition.  (The Native American custom of growing corn, beans, and squash together, and of adding ash or another source of lime to cooked meals,  is an example of this.)  It’s noteworthy, though, that even if traditional wisdom existed, it was often for a time ignored, as in the American South, where pellagra (which is caused by a niacin deficiency) was endemic for years, due to the prominence of corn and pork in the diet.  Given the current epidemic of obesity, Type II diabetes, and other diet-related disorders, it is not clear that we have learned our lesson yet.

Although the development of agriculture did have its negative effects, it is a mistake to romanticize the hunter-gatherer society that preceded it.  Contrary to the picture painted by some early anthropologists, life in a primitive human society was not an idyll of harmony with nature:

In fact, for many, life was probably “nasty, brutish and short”, no matter how interesting the range of fruit and vegetables on offer. Dr Migliano has shown that the average life expectancy for a pygmy in the Philippines was 19.

In any case, as the article points out, there is no turning back.  Hunting and gathering could not come close to sustaining anything like the current population of the world; even if somehow it could, the probable ecological devastation would be mind-boggling.  Still, we can hope that studying our history and where we came from may help us avoid a few potential blunders, and live a bit more gently with our surroundings.

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