It's mostly pretty bad
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think a better remedy for “woke” excesses of anti-American history isn’t lying, it’s more world and ancient history, which puts our faults in context (conquest, genocide, and slavery are not unique, though American slavery was particularly awful and the genocide incredibly widespread) and our virtues in light of what came before.
I read Scott’s “Against the Grain” recently and he casually mentions that hunter gatherers would kill off a lot of their children because it was inconvenient to hunt and gather while carrying around more than one at a time. For me then, the supposed higher quality of life of hunter gatherers suffers from survivorship bias - we are only counting the lives of those who survived to tell the tale of the higher standard of living. Obviously lots of peasant infants died as well or never lived at all, but if more of them survived then that’s a very salient fact that I’m not sure is discussed! To say nothing of the moral trade off of killing your own helpless kin to increase your living standards.
Thanks, I really loved this.
Another aspect of the land vs. capital dichotomy that might help explain the grim color of a lot of the past is that land is pretty much indestructible, while capital is delicate. This means that murdering or displacing your neighbors and stealing their land is at least plausibly a viable strategy, while conquering someone to take their factories is self-defeating, because the first thing you need to do to win the war is bomb all their factories. The genocides of the 20th century are more complicated and ideological, of course, but there's a solid core of the brute logic that if you kill a bunch of people and take their land, then you have more land and you're better off. By contrast, modern Germany would not be better off they somehow conquered a bombed-out and depopulated Alsace, even discounting the costs of mounting the invasion. In a way, it takes your example of turnips to an extreme. Sure, I *could* invade and take your factories, but to make that work I'm going to have to rebuild the buildings and fix all the broken equipment and train new employees and find raw materials suppliers and, hey, this starts to sound like a riskier, slower, bloodier version of just building my own factories and skipping all the killing.
Fucking fantastic essay. Not typical for this blog but I enjoyed quite a bit. Please do more!
I find myself, perhaps unreasonably, resistant to the current Rousseau-ian pro-hunter gatherers anthropology tilt these days. Obviously the "data" is incredibly bad, whether we're talking about levels of violence and repression, material possessions or work effort. There is slightly better data on diet, but in both cases population levels were generally at their Malthusian limit.
The revealed preference generally wasn't for serfs to try to run off and join the nomads at any available turn. I am sure in the most repressive agricultural societies you can find a few examples, but generally once societies adopted agriculture, they didn't turn back.
The whole academic turn seems a bit faddish and say more about the current libertarian and anti-hierarchy politics than ancient anthropology.
To your point on technological progress possibly making us worse off, I would argue this is the case with cars in North America.
Most are aware of the health impacts so I won’t repeat those. But most people don’t realize the incredible cost of car infrastructure. Think how insanely inefficient it is that a person in (nearly all of) the US needs a huge industrial machine to get a hamburger. The car payment, energy cost, and infrastructure cost is huge, just for ordinary activities that are actually nicer when you don’t have to drive. Then think of the amount of land waste necessary to make room for everyone to drive instead of walk. We wonder why Europeans can have higher quality of life with lower GDP per capita, but fail to notice the massively lower transaction cost of their daily living.
Car Dependency inflicts an astonishing transaction cost and dead weight loss people who live in towns and cities, and are largely responsible for the housing crisis we have across the US today (the suburban model scales very poorly so people oppose more of it happening near them so housing and especially density is restricted and not enough housing is built). The most infuriating thing is that this is a straightforward land use and urban design problem that is technically solvable but politically and culturally intractable.
We could get away with such flagrant waste during the post war boom when the US was vastly wealthier than everyone else, and early in that period when most of our cities had not yet converted to car-only. But going forward I expect the US to fall further and further behind the rest of the world, because our car dependency is an incredible drag on our economy and our health.
“the industrial revolution in the North Atlantic world and then the spread of prosperity due to decolonization and globalization after 1960 or so are basically the best things that ever happened.”
Yes, do more of these! This was awesome! My feelings about climate change are related. It only seems that living in a time, where three quarters of your children did not die, has only come about due to the things that have caused the climate disaster. We probably could have been smarter about it.
Enjoyed this piece. Wanted to add some material:
1) In thinking about "quality of life," a thing that is important but hard to account for and somewhat counterintuitive is that agricultural life is way more swingy than gatherer-hunter life. So if you look at broad measures, like measurable health outcomes (adult height is a classic), it can't really tell you that there were five good years of harvest followed by a brutal, two-year famine. Agriculturalists can "plan" more than GHs, but the reality is that their plans are founded on systems with a much higher level of fragility. Gatherer-hunters only rarely starve to death, because they can always move on and they rely on a much broader net of food sources. BUT, and this is important, humans tend to like stability, which is one reason why the agricultural lifestyle basically appears and predominates in most places (with a couple of interesting exceptions). People remember the five good years and don't plan their lifestyle around averages.
2) You can't separate this discussion, or #1, from the influence of disease. GHs basically only have to worry about parasitism; neither epidemic nor endemic disease is much of a thing in those communities. Once you go agriculturalist, disease becomes a huge influence on society. And it's not just a case of higher population density and overall population. Most novel pathogens are species jumpers, so living with animals--and forcing them to live in ways that also promote pathogen development--as opposed to hunting random stuff in the wild radically increases your communal disease burden.
3) Interestingly, as we are all once again experiencing, humans are much less responsive to #2 than you might think. Cities have historically been death-traps in large part because of the disease problem. But as soon as people take up agriculture, they start building (and dying in) cities. And even the most horrifying disease events--looking at you, plague--put only a minor dent in humans' choice to urbanize.
I love teaching the undergrad world history survey because this stuff is all so interesting. I'm about to take a few years' detour into nursing (this is the midlife crisis you have when you are an expert on pandemics who can't do much during a pandemic), and I am excited about it, but teaching this kind of stuff, in particular is the thing that I am most sad to be giving up.
A great essay. But olive trees are generally more productive than wheat fields. In the modern world they produce about 1700 calories per square meter compared to 1000 for wheat. Before the Green Revolution that would have been even more lopsided. Why didn't everybody just plant trees. Partially I'm sure there are agronomy factors I don't have any clue about. But also, partially, when a marauding army comes through and burns your olive trees you're SOL for quite a while while the new trees grow but you can re-start wheat production right away.
I actually do find the charts with # humans lived on the x-axis helpful, because we forget how small the population was in those long periods where nothing was really happening. What's the line about more population? "More BRAINS, not just more stomachs to feed"?
I thought we ended up with agriculture because, as I remember watching in "The History of Beer", someone left some grain in a bowl a rainstorm happened, and they discovered that you could get drunk if you drink that thing that only happens if you stay long enough in a place to distill spirits?
Maybe I needed better history teachers.
Really enjoyed reading this. I was just thinking the other day about making a request in the comments for some bigger picture, framework pieces. Democratic political discussion seems to gravitate towards the specific and concrete, whether as a matter of temperament or political interest-group coalition necessity. But whatever the reason, it often seems like there is an insufficient theoretical or coherent underpinning that ties everything together and makes it easy to understand what the point is, just a grab bag of disconnected policy ideas and goodies that don't even pretend to coherently hold together. BBB is a caricature of that - everything from SALT tax cuts for the wealthy to aid for the poor. GWB and Karl Rove had their "ownership society" tag that tied their domestic agenda together; I didn't trust them to implement it well but it at least made sense as a whole and, I believe, was well intentioned. The Niskanen people of course are trying to do some interesting things in terms of stitching together a framework, and that was about at the level I was thinking. This is much bigger picture!
Lovely essay, packed with facts, factoids, educated guesses, and interesting references. I want to make a couple of points:
First, I'd argue that the most important "technological advance" in the genus Homo was the development of language. This process, which might not have matured until ~40,000 years ago, led to a fundamental change in how culture works and indeed in how mind works.
Second, while there's certainly a dark side of agriculture, focusing on that aspect disregards that agriculture leads to a much higher population density. And that, in turn, implies that at least for quite a while there was lower mortality. Pre-agricultural famine and murder carry few lasting traces, but both were likely important factors.
this is why we pay the big bucks! thank you!
I’ve spent my career working in agriculture, including a lot of work in developing countries, and I have a question more than a comment.
Are there any examples of societies adopting agriculture, and then turning their backs on it to return to the hunter gatherer way of life? I’m not talking about “forced conversion” as in the case of native Americans, but a people making the conversion voluntarily and then going back.
Now my comment. Our Homo sapiens ancestors were just as smart as we are. It seems to me that if agriculture was really a step back in the standard of living for the mass of humanity, those masses would have turned their backs on it.