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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Was the Agricultural Revolution History's Greatest Fraud?

I mentioned a few days ago that I had read (and enjoyed) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Enjoying it does not mean, however, that I agreed with everything. In particular, I strongly disagree with his “signature” revelation in the book—his belief that the agricultural revolution was the biggest fraud in history. Here’s his synopsis of that idea, from page 79 of his book:
Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.2
The reference (2) at the end of that paragraph refers to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. I like that book and reference it in mine, and was sure that Diamond had never made such an assertion about the Agricultural Revolution. I grabbed my copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel and found that I was right—he had not. Harari just made this stuff up. Diamond is quoted on the cover of Harari’s book, but he never actually says that he agrees with Harari.

When I finished the book, I went online looking for reviews to see if people had the same reaction I did (a reaction predicted by my older son, John, who had recommended that I read the book). Behold, there was review by none other than Bill Gates who, as I recently noted, is clearly becoming a demographer. Here is what he says, and I don’t think I could have said it better:
As much as I enjoyed Sapiens, there was plenty to disagree with in the book. For example, Harari sets out to prove that the agricultural revolution was one of the biggest mistakes in human history. Yes, it allowed civilizations to thrive, but on an individual level, he writes, we were much better off as hunter-gatherers. As farmers, people had to work a lot harder and in exchange they had a worse diet than they had as foragers. Agricultural societies also created social hierarchies in which the majority toiled as peasants and a minority of elites ruled over them.
That’s certainly a provocative argument, but I wasn’t convinced. First, arguing that we were happier as hunter-gatherers than as farmers creates a choice when there isn’t one. It’s not as if we can turn back the clock and restart as hunter-gatherers or we can run an experiment to prove one way of life is better than the other. Second, I think Harari underestimates the hardships of being a hunter-gatherer. He suggests that death and violence rates were much lower in hunter-gatherer societies than after the agricultural revolution. But it’s more likely the violence was higher because of competition over resources. A farming society can support many more people per square mile than a hunter-gathering society. In order to keep population densities low, conflict was inevitable among groups of hunter- gatherers. Finally, calling the shift to agriculture a “mistake” overlooks the fact that farming societies were able to specialize, leading to written languages, new technologies, and art—all things we value today.


  1. I wonder if it was misplaced reference to this?

    1. Good call!! Yes, it would make sense that Harari had read it there. I went back into Gums, Germs, and Steel and I still don't see it in the book. Maybe I'm missing something, or maybe Jared Diamond changed his mind between 1987 and 1997. Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks :)

    Strands of "Worst Mistake" run through GG&S (e.g. class structure, epidemics, variety in diet). Additionally, the issue of 'passive entertainment' and its putative detrimental effects on cognitive ability is raised in GG&S. Nonetheless, conflating "WM" with GG&S seems to be an error.

    I think that there are ideological points to be scored by making the "WM" argument. Or by attempting to refute it as Bill Gates does with his tautological "things we value today" argument. I also imagine that an 'academic' author would be wary of citing that polemic directly, given it contains no references...

    I think that both Diamond and Gates would agree that history demonstrates that human activity systems involve certain feedback loops that if left unchecked lead to increased human suffering. Effective action in the face of contingent knowledge seems to be the greatest challenge facing the social sciences...