May 21, 2007
Chicken Little at the Plow

Witness Marxist deterministic theory at its finest, at work in paleoanthropology. The idea that agriculture was a devastating discovery for humanity's overall well-being was most definitely the popular line of thinking twenty years ago. It was constantly harped on when I was getting my degree in college (at exactly the same time the article was written.)

Being a dumb, idealistic teenager, I simply accepted this as fact. We were happy hunter-gatherers in the past, and through some unclear chain of events all got trapped into this nasty, brutish, and short lifestyle known as agriculture. Yet even then I had the inklings of doubt... if agriculture was such an obviously awful way of life, why did people choose to live that way instead of the, according to my professors at any rate, obviously better hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

In truth, I still don't know the answer, but the searching for it is most likely one of the earliest events that lead me away from the milquetoast progressive beliefs I once held to the somewhat crunchier small-L libertarian ones I hold today. Agriculture may have caused very visible health problems for its adherents, but it most definitely provided some advantages, and very real ones at that. If it didn't, do you really think the hunter-gatherer lifestyle would've been shoved to the margins more than ten thousand years ago?

Nowadays, being better versed in Marxism than I once was, it's pretty obvious to me why the thought that agriculture was worse than hunting and gathering was so popular at that place and that time. Marxist theories of anthropology were still dominant theoretical forces, given less-red names like "cultural materialism." With the Berlin Wall still sturdy and strong, it was much easier to practice the time-honored academic tradition of holding a belief contradicted by everything around you.

Twenty years later, with Communism completely discredited, markets and freedom ascending, and the West's (in particular the United States's) utterly unreasonable inability to collapse and die on schedule still an embarrassing problem, I wonder if anything's changed over in theory-land? Certainly in Diamond's own later works one must scratch much deeper to get at the Red underneath.

Then again, considering how popular Communism's masonic children Environmentalism and Anti-globalization are, I can't help but think that the bloody, murderous bitch is still with us. There are no fools quite like old fools, and as long as they have people very young, stupid, or ignorant to talk to they will still get a hearing.

It's times like these I think, should immortality ever become reality, the one non-negotiable disqualification for treatment should be whether or not the candidate holds tenure.

Posted by scott at May 21, 2007 01:28 PM

eMail this entry!

I especially like "Itís almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s."

It is indeed inconceivable, as there weren't ever hundreds of thousands of Bushmen. Agriculture enabled the Irish to die like flies and still outnumber them.

Diamond also gets the classist argument wrong. Mass agriculture didn't produce societal divisions, societal divisions produced mass agriculture, in much the same way as it produced irrigation and pyramids. Without an elite to order and proles to labor, a culture does not produce mass anything.

Prior to that most groups probably practiced swidden agriculture, which is extremely difficult to detect in the archaeological record regardless of the proxy one uses. Cave poop certainly won't give one evidence either way.

Nice to know that, 20 years before Collapse, Diamond was already drawing conclusions to fit a particular mindset regardless of whether or not the available evidence supported them.

Sadly, I bet he sleeps really well at night.

Posted by: Bigwig on May 22, 2007 09:26 AM

While I rather enjoyed his book Guns, Germs, and Steel or whatever the title was. However, this is pure, unmitigated crap. We've got correlation equals causation, false dilemma, and inadequate sample sizes going on here.

The nonsense about heights showing that hunter-gatherers were better off is just silly. How about other influencers? That height might've given a competitive advantage to the HG's? Or that lack of height gave a competitive advantage to the farmers?

The elitist argument is so laughable that I'm just surprised that he even bothered to put it in the article. To think that no one could dominate a group of people just due to their HG status plainly ignores what appears to be human nature for the entire recorded history of humankind.

He also ignores the possibility that the surviving HG's did so only due to a unique combination of circumstances. Or that they were the most fit of the HG's, so they survived.

Pure, unmitigated crap. And I am almost a dumber person for reading it.

Posted by: ron on May 27, 2007 09:40 PM
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