Agriculture: Evolution or Devolution?

Nicolas Blanco

Considering that the alarming excess and continuing growth of the current world population (of humans) is directly tied to food production and availability, the question of how and why we even developed the technology of agriculture in the first place is becoming more and more relevant to human survival as we collectively continue to destroy the environment in which we live due in part to these very agricultural techniques and strategies that we are continuing to employ today. Current estimations show that at around the same time that agriculture was beginning to develop and thrive, the population of our ancestors started to double at a rate that was far higher than what it had been previously for the more than 2 million years of prior human existence. What does this then mean, and what does it say about humans and their attitude towards the environment? This hinges largely on the viewpoints to which we allow ourselves to be open.

The most common view taken is that most (if not all) technologies we create mark an "advance" for humankind. Perhaps because they are prized so much either for their practical or symbolic value, it has become difficult to regard the technologies without a bias towards their immediate effects on human society as opposed to the overall compatibility with the rest of the natural world. Within this mindset, it is very hard to put aside the very "advanced" tools that seem to form the foundation of what a complicated, sophisticated, intelligent human is supposed to be. In this light, a complex process like agriculture cannot be anything but an advance, and any lifestyle that dates prior to the agricultural advent must, by subtle implication, be inferior. This inference is so heavily interwoven into modern human culture that even the critics of our environmentally incompatible ways have trouble filtering away the prejudices that are so prevalent in human cultures as we know them.

Paul R. Ehrlich finds much fault with the way humans are in his eyes well on the path to self-destruction through population explosions and irresponsible use of technologies. But when he goes on to examine the non-technological aspects of the human self-destructive patterns, he explores possibilities of humans having a natural tendency towards violence (Ehrlich, 210). Even though he does not agree with the view that humans are genetically prone to do acts of violence, and acknowledges that there are different kinds of and reasons for violence, his assertion that the roots of this destructiveness lie in culture present another problem (Ehrlcih, 226). The problem is that this puts all the human beings who are born to and participate in this culture, whether willingly or not, into one category of humans who are essentially deficient, if not because of their genes, then because of their culture, and this leaves no room for the collection of individuals who feel uncomfortable within such a culture. For example, though I do not want to endorse a society that puts money and egocentric ideology above and beyond all else, in a way I am doing just that by typing these words on my power-consuming computer (which is already an outdated one even though purchased only a year and a half ago), or by buying my food, which is frequently packaged in plastics or metals that, unless recycled, seriously and adversely affect the biotic world community. Does this then mean that I am deficient because I have not found any other way to live, that things cannot be differently?

This idea of innate human deficiency is dangerous not only in the obstruction of future change, but also in the blinding of our historical eye, disabling many to see any possibility that humans could have acted differently in the ages that predate our "civilized" culture. Ehrlich attributes the development of religion to the evolution of an increased human brain capacity and some scant archaeological findings of humans buried with other animals of materials (Ehrlich, 213-215). He looks to studies of some of the 'hunter-gatherer' peoples that exist today, like the Inuit, to speak for the peoples who existed outside of our culture's historical timeline (i.e., a timeline of events that are documented or are supported by firm evidence), but does not really take into account the effects that the more dominant and aggressive agriculturally-based societies have had on the other types of societies. Some forms of conflict (such as some forms of violence, drugs, poverty and generally harsh living conditions) within a society that is labeled 'hunter-gatherer' are direct side effects of the aggressive expansionist tendencies within modern societies that automatically tend to forcibly shrink the territory and resources of a people who once had more than they do now.

Perhaps due in part to the poor image that marginalized societies present to those who stick their noses up in the name of 'civilization', the association of unpleasantness to ancient peoples' lifestyles has indeed become widespread. When Carlo M. Cipolla writes about energy use and distribution by plants and animals, and how humans manipulate the environment in order to get control of even more energy, he begins by trying to describe what the human condition must have been like before agriculture. In his view, humans of that time were essentially hunters and killers, predators, and sometimes even cannibals, painting a very gruesome, dangerous, and uncomfortable way of life (Cipolla, 18). When he then discusses agriculture, he talks of it as if it were truly a great human accomplishment, one that is practically holy in that it cannot be questioned. This prejudice even causes him to say that man spent all his time searching for food (Cipolla, 42), a statement which conflicts with information presented by others such as Clive Ponting, who suggests rather the opposite: that people used to have a lot more free time on their hands before agriculture, being required to take up only 3-4 hours of their day to gather the necessary food (Ponting, 20).

So if not an evolution, is agriculture by default a devolution? It may not be helpful to look at it in such black or white terms. It is equivalent to asking whether a hammer is an evil tool. When used properly, no, but otherwise, it can be. It is essentially up to us humans to use a tool responsibly, and ideally, if the tool introduces more problems than it solves, to simply stop using said tool. What is worrisome is that modern humans (meaning people who continue to use and/or promote technologies even when they cause much damage, whether to humans themselves or to the rest of the world's life) do not seem to do this. Such people seem too stimulated by the technologies we created, from market economy and weapons of mass destruction to the simpler-scale household appliances. This suggests that many do not really see the frictions such technologies impose on our surroundings as problems, but rather according to their perception of the way things are, the tools they use are only doing exactly what they were supposed to and it cannot be helped. And moreover, this is so ingrained in most modern human cultures that the constituents of said cultures do not even see a problem with that.

Ehrlich, Paul R. "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect". Island Press, 2000.
Cipolla, Carlo M. "The Economic History of World Population". The Harvester Press, 1978
Ponting, Clive. "A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations". St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.

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last updated 1/29/03