The Bear’s Lair: In defense of agriculture

Mary Kenworthy

Mary Kenworthy


Modern commentators, including Yuval Noah Harari in his interesting book “Sapiens – a brief history of humankind” (Harper, 2015) believe that the coming of agriculture around 10,000 years ago was a disaster for humanity, forcing people to work much harder than the previous hunter-gatherers for a less stable and reliable subsistence. Yet when you look at the transition in depth, it was rational for those who undertook it, as well as being to the immeasurable benefit of their descendants. The hunter-gatherer existence was not some Arcadian paradise, and without leaving it, civilization’s advance would have been impossible.

Harari, whose writing is elegant and witty yet whose attitudes are a dreadful intolerant blend of the Millennial (for which chronologically he does not quite qualify), the leftist, the militantly secular and the urban, describes the transition to agriculture as “History’s Biggest Fraud.” He points out that, although agriculture enabled the planet to support many more people, the living standards of the early farming peasants appear to have been far inferior to those of the hunter-gatherers who preceded them. He rhapsodizes about the good fortune of the first hunter-gatherers who crossed the Bering Strait about 12,000 BC, and had the entire continent of North and South America to forage from, filled with beasts that had never seen humans, and therefore became easy prey to their Stone Age weaponry and cunning.

That’s all very well, but the transition to agriculture did not first occur on the American continent; indeed it had still not fully occurred there when Columbus arrived 10,000 years later. According to Harari, it first occurred near the village of Gőbekli Tepe, today in southern Turkey. By 8,000 BC, that wasn’t virgin land, full of juicy prey, it was among the planet’s most heavily populated areas.

A little application of Thomas Malthus will tell you that the hunter-gatherers around Gőbekli Tepe were not enjoying an idyllic existence of plentiful prey and easy living. Population expands until it comes up against the constraints of the food supply, at which point starvation prevents it from expanding further. By 8,000 BC humans had been living around Gőbekli Tepe for tens of thousands of years and the population had therefore reached its theoretical maximum, so the locals were living on the edge of starvation. Theoretically, they could migrate to a more fertile, less populated region, but with Gőbekli Tepe at the center of humanity’s overcrowding problem, the nearest area that was not overpopulated was several thousand miles away – too far for the locals even to know about, let along migrate to in a single lifetime.

There is another problem with the Malthusian force in a hunter-gatherer society, as distinct from an agricultural society – it acts both ways. In an agricultural society once the land is fully cultivated according to the technology of the time, there is no more food and so the population begins to starve if it keeps growing. But a growing population doesn’t actually diminish the amount of food available (or not significantly – new laborers’ huts take up little land area) – it may even increase it somewhat, through switching to more labor-intensive crops.

However in a hunter-gatherer society, not only does population growth increase demand for food, it also decreases supply, as herds of prey become first depleted, then extinguished. Harari points out how many species were wiped out by our hunter-gather ancestors, even without population pressure; one can imagine that in the area around Gőbekli Tepe, where population had been close to capacity for millennia, the Malthusian population pressure must have been exceptionally severe, on both sides of the equation.

Switching to agriculture was not therefore an irrational decision in the short-term, destroying the lives of those who undertook it, but a decision rational in both the short-term and the long-term, that was essential to keep alive the people around Gőbekli Tepe as their traditional hunting grounds depleted even the smallest, least edible game. Harari describes with a sneer how Gőbekli Tepe is also the site of the first temple complex, built even before the inhabitants settled down to agriculture. Maybe this too was a rational response; these desperately hungry people, for whom further hunting was futile because of the lack of prey, asked the gods for help and the gods responded, providing them with the means and the know-how to feed themselves, free at last from the worsening Malthusian pressure that had blighted the lives of previous generations.

The long-term benefits of agriculture were immense; apart from enabling a gigantic population increase, from 5-10 million in 10,000 BC to 500 million by 1500 it allowed that larger population to develop civilization. As hunter-gatherers, they had no possessions; hence could develop little art, no writing (where would they keep the heavy scrolls or books?) and no significant music. Also, as Harari points out, without temples they could enjoy only the simplest of religions.

To see the long-term benefits of agriculture, I take you forward almost 10,000 years, to an ancestral portrait I have just inherited, which is of my great-great-great grandmother Mary Kenworthy, the wife of a modestly prosperous Yorkshire farmer, dated 1833. They were not by any means rich, but they were literate; Mary’s husband used to read the newspaper to the villagers in the kitchen every Sunday evening.

They had art – the portrait, painted by Mary’s cousin, is no masterpiece but it is very competent and clearly influenced stylistically by contemporary high culture, a long way after the fashionable painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). They had a fair range of reading matter; I have Mary’s daughter’s childhood copy of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” which I can recommend to those who haven’t read it. Musically they were luckier than us, being influenced by high rather than low culture, although apart from church hymns and anthems Mary’s exposure to professionally produced music was probably confined to the occasional touring performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” Religiously they were especially fortunate, attending their local parish church of St. Chad’s Uppermill, Saddleworth, a fine structure with a graveyard full of family headstones and a gallery erected by an especially prosperous Kenworthy ancestor in 1711.

In short, my Kenworthy ancestors, neither rich nor prominent, had a lifestyle that hunter-gatherers could not have enjoyed in their wildest dreams, at a far higher civilizational and cultural level, none of which would have been possible but for the move to agriculture (and which was only modestly touched by the more recent Industrial and Scientific Revolutions—the railways had not yet reached Saddleworth by 1833.)

They were of course on the cusp of another change. Twenty years later, with the family fortunes badly damaged by Sir Robert Peel’s economically suicidal 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws, Esther’s daughter was compelled to join the Industrial Revolution, marrying a moulder, son of a spindle forger, unquestionably proletarian (albeit skilled proletarian) toilers in the textile mills of nearby Oldham. For fifty years the family was thereby proletarianized, before a subsequent generation managed to scramble its way back into the middle class around 1900.

Like the Agricultural Revolution of 8,000 BC the Industrial Revolution of 1800-1900 imposed unpleasant short-term costs. But I am today materially considerably richer than was Mary Kenworthy, and have already lived much longer than she did. Moreover, with TV, the Internet, cheap books, CDs and DVDs, my cultural and intellectual life is much richer than hers, provided I have the sense to avoid the culture imposed on me from below, whereas she could rejoice in the culture imposed on her from above. Still, as with the Agricultural Revolution, one could wish that population had remained restrained at around the 1 billion of Mary Kenworthy’s time, and dread the re-imposition of Malthusian limits that is inevitable if we do not restrain it now.

I try to keep this column reasonably attuned to current events and issues, so apologize that this week’s advice may appear to be 10,000 years too late for those who might have benefited from it. Nevertheless the central conclusion is clear: the traditional 19th Century view is correct that hailed the advent of agriculture as a major advance in civilization, without which nothing else would have been possible. Whatever the short-term costs (which lessened only as agricultural technology began to improve) the switch was necessary for survival to the unfortunates attempting to be hunter-gatherers while their prey was becoming extinct.

More important, without the advent of agriculture we would by now have lost the orally transmitted Homer and there would have been no Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton or Einstein. Far from being defrauded, the early farmers toiling all week and worshiping in their new temple at weekends could rejoice in their survival and in their contribution to the future of humanity.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)