Jared Diamond’s article shows why I hate headlines

agricultureby Frankie Roberto

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.
[Via Dave Winer’s linkblog feed]

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.


The headline imparts a value judgement to different phases of development, without recognizing the inherent survival advantages of the new phase. And it makes it seem like we are on the wrong path whereas I suggest we are on the cusp of returning to the original path.

Think of it as two modes – one with a top population of a few thousand stuck in a few regions of the planet or one with a top population in the billions on its way to the solar system.

Diamond is absolutely correct in my view – agriculture has been successful because it allows a larger population to be supported which can then dominate other groups by sheer size. And yes, lots of the increased population did not do as well as if they had been alive before agriculture. But the point is that they would not have been alive at all without it.

Agriculture became  more the main driver of our evolution, taking it out of the realm of genetics and Mendel and into the realm of social networks and Lamarck. We changed mainly because of what our social networks learned, not what our genes did.

But the article leaves out an important consequence of having a larger population, one that is independent of the dominating effects of agriculture. The tremendous power of large, complex social networks.

Agriculture, while great for the few at the top, has been hard on the rest. But the drive of human social networks, and the success that accrued to societies that took advantage of them, has been pushing back against this. Art comes about because of the diversity of human social networks and serves as a good marker of a society that uses them to advantages. This is the real selective advantage that agriculture gave us – we leveraged our intrinsic social networks into very powerful tools that permitted agricultural societies to accomplish things simply impossible without agricultural communities.

So there is a selective advantage for those societies that can provide for more of their people, rather than just exploiting them, as the power of there social networks enhances the community. Agriculture disturbed the equilibrium tremendously, creating a large group of people with diminished quality of life. But the network effects that arose simply because they existed actually provided a huge selective advantage.

Most of the last 10,000 years have been trying to re-equilibrate things, to funnel the benefits found at the top all the way down, so that we sustainably support the entire population. We now have a period, thanks to the last jump due to the Industrial Revolution, where we can bring much of human society much more into the same balance it had before agriculture.

We are now entering the final stage, where the masculine attributes best suited for agricultural societies is being matched by the feminine traits best suited for networked societies. I think we will very shortly be living in a social sphere every bit as stable and sustainable as our previous one.

It is only a wrong step if we do not reach a needed balance, a new stability. I think that the last 10,000 years have been a transition from one point — hunter -gather— to another one. From one that supports a few tens of thousands to one that supports billions. 

Then the last 10,000 will seem as just a small blip.