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The domestication of people and animals
There are deep tradeoffs between efficiency and well-being
In my post on human history in the very long run, I mentioned that most scholars believe the switch to agriculture lowered average human living standards, even while greatly increasing the number of human beings. A common response was, “why would people adopt an agricultural lifestyle if that’s the case?” It’s a natural question to ask, but I think it invokes the wrong model of change over time and how ecosystems work.
After all, consider the chicken.
Domestic chickens are primarily a sub-subspecies of the wild red junglefowl with some genetic contribution from a few other closely related species like the grey junglefowl and the Sri Lankan junglefowl. As far as birds go, the wild junglefowl are doing pretty well — they’re not endangered and have a fairly large range across Southeast Asia. But the chicken is doing way better. On any given day, there are upwards of 30 billion domestic chickens running around — they are far more numerous than wild junglefowl or domestic cattle, or indeed, human beings. In Darwinian terms, the chicken is kicking ass. But the chickens themselves tend to be living in overcrowded, brutal conditions. Even without being overly romantic about the welfare of wild animals, it’s clear that chickens in battery cages have lower living standards than wild junglefowl.
So how did this lifestyle — one in which chickens are so cramped together that they turn to cannibalism, and farmers cut off part of their beaks without anesthetic so they don’t bite each other — prove to be so popular? The chickens obviously don’t choose this lifestyle. It predominates numerically because it’s the most resource-efficient way to support a large population of chickens. The chickens themselves would prefer a more comfortable existence, but absent some external check, the logic of efficiency maximization prevails.
The domestication of Homo sapiens
Stephen Shennan’s 2018 book “The First Farmers of Europe: An Evolutionary Perspective,” details the human version of this process.
The key is that a sedentary lifestyle leads to a higher birth rate. Some of this is logistical; nomad parents can only carry around so many children. And some of it has to do with energy balance. Shennan’s book includes the results of anthropological studies on the subject:
The earliest such study was published by Binford and Chasko (1976). They collected data on the birth and death rates of an Inuit group, the Nunamiut, in Alaska, from the 1930s to the 1960s and found that the crude birth rate doubled during the 1950s, when they were changing from a mobile to a sedentary way of life, leveling out when they became fully sedentary and then decreasing after contraceptives were introduced.
The archeological evidence shows the same thing. As ancient human communities shifted to a sedentary lifestyle, they saw higher birth rates as measured by the share of kids’ bones found in graves.
But prehistoric farmers didn’t have a “then we get contraceptives” moment that caused the birth rate to level out. Instead, some members of these agricultural communities with relatively fast-growing populations went out in search of new land, spawning new colonies. Archeologists have known for a long time that domesticated crops and animals spread from Anatolia into Europe through two different routes, one coastal and one inland. But there was a longstanding debate as to whether this was primarily a case of people moving, or of ideas being copied.
Modern evidence from ancient DNA clearly resolves the argument in favor of moving. Europe was originally populated by a group called the Western Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), and a genetically distinct group of Early European Farmers (EEF) moved in separately. Since not all the land was equally suited to their agricultural practices, the newcomers settled in a kind of hopscotch pattern and coexisted with the WHG for a while but over time outbred and displaced them. Eventually, we see a comeback of WHG genetic material due to interbreeding, with some indication that WHG-descended people were some kind of subordinate caste. But the farming communities outcompeted the nomadic ones for the exact same reason that high-density chicken operations outcompete free range — it’s a more efficient use of the available land.
As Brad DeLong explains in his overview of human economic history in the 10,000 years before the Industrial Revolution:
Some human populations did not pursue the agricultural road. Some settled into a halfway role as nomadic or transhumant herders following their flocks on land that was, for the time and given the available biotechnology, marginal for settled agriculture. Some remained hunter-gatherers for a while. But, eventually, somebody nearby had become farmers. And the population density of the farmers grew. Hunter-gatherers rarely exceed population densities of one per square mile. Farmers on land that is good for their particular version of agricultural technology can easily support many more than a thousand in the same space. The old “forty acres and a mule” for a family of six translates into a population density of roughly 100 per square mile. When those nearby who had become farmers decided that they wanted the hunter-gatherers’ or the herdsmen’s land, they took it: numbers of 100-to-1 or 1000-to-1 are not easy to argue with.
The upshot is that—unless you were part of the rich, literate upper classes—per capita standards of living were not that much higher in 1870 as they had been back in -8000. Population, however, was much greater: 1.3 billion in people in 1870, compared to 2 million or so back in 8000 BC.
The bit about the rich, literate upper classes is important though.
It’s good to be the king
The subjects of Louis XIV and Sargon of Akkad enjoyed, as best we can tell, similar standards of living even though Bourbon France possessed dramatically superior technology. But King Louis himself had higher living standards than the ancient Mesopotamian king.
By the same token, keeping pigs in “gestation crates” so narrow they can’t turn around is obviously not great for the pigs. But it does dramatically increase the number of pigs and also benefits privileged elites — which in this case is not the assembled nobility at Versailles, but all the human beings who eat meat or dairy products.
Between 8000 BCE and 1870 CE, the human population rose from 2 million to 1.3 billion, eating up all the gains of 10,000 years of technological progress along the way. Since 1870, the population has grown much faster — there are nearly 8 billion of us — but average living standards have also gone up because technological progress has accelerated even faster than population growth. The pace of technological advancement since the 19th century has been dramatically more rapid than during any prior time. But it’s also because there have been political changes, and in most places elites no longer confiscate all the surplus. Are there corrupt and extractive elites? Sure. And there are even some places (North Korea, Haiti) where extractive elites do more or less get all the goodies. But we also have lots of more-or-less well-governed democracies, and beyond that, we have a range of “bad guy” governments in places like China and Saudi Arabia and Russia where elites hold power in part based on delivering rising living standards to people.
For non-human animals, the news is less good. Their populations (especially chickens and pigs) are rising sharply, but the quality of life is bleak.
Because chickens are small, generating all this poultry involves a staggeringly large number of chickens. While the human population has soared as a result of the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, the increase in the chicken population over just the past 60 years is staggering.
Most pigs raised in the United States never see sunlight, and the chickens — being birds rather than mammals — are generally exempted from animal cruelty laws governing things like humane slaughter practices. So the chickens are crushing it in evolutionary terms, vastly outnumbering the relatively small population of Homo sapiens. But we are now the extractive elites, living high on the hog (or chicken) while the livestock suffer.
And the chickens seemingly do not have the means to stage a revolution and shake things up.
Cutting out the animals
Over the past 10-15 years, vegans and vegetarians have gained a higher cultural profile, which I think sometimes leads people to believe that meat consumption must have fallen during that time. But at least as of 2018, this was not the case, and meat consumption was in fact slowly rising here while rising very quickly in poorer but faster-growing countries.
Broadly speaking, people really like to eat meat when they can, and I think this is pretty deeply ingrained in human history. You had hunter-gatherers because hunting was too unreliable for them to be hunter-hunters, but ideally you’d have a successful hunt and eat the meat. A big part of the farming-induced decline in human welfare was the shift to very heavy reliance on cheap staple grains. And the upward march in welfare since the Industrial Revolution involves, among other things, leveraging improved crop yields to feed grain to animals and eat them. Partly because we are richer, but also because we’ve become more skilled at horrific acts of exploitation.
Despair at moral suasion’s power to overcome the deep logic of animal consumption has led a lot of people to pin their hopes on the power of disruption via a new generation of plant-based meat substitutes. And as Kelsey Piper writes, surveys indicate that interest in these products is somewhat broad-based and thus promising.
At Slow Boring World HQ, we now eat Beyond Burgers on burger night rather than ground beef. Their breakfast sausage is also a big hit, and the Impossible Chicken Nuggets are poised to take over around here. And I think these legislative efforts to ban companies from calling their plant-based products “meat” or “beef” or whatever are dumb on the merits, but also drive further publicity. If anything, the meat industry is promoting the idea that customers won’t be able to tell the difference. The real story here is that the pace of progress has been pretty fast in terms of improving both the underlying products and also the public’s understanding of how to cook them.
But I do think it’s worth asking the question of what problem we’re trying to solve with meat substitutes.
We need to treat animals better
For all the shortcomings of the Neolithic Revolution, I think most people see the huge increase in human population facilitated by the rise of agriculture to be a genuine win.
Jacy Reese’s book, “The End of Animal Farming,” argues that we should be working to make alt-meats so cheap that we no longer raise any animals for food. But while the living conditions of most of our livestock animals are horrifying, I don’t see the total elimination of domestic animals as the solution — it would be better to see happy, free range chickens and cows roaming pastures. We’re a long way from that being the norm. But we have seen real wins in terms of countries banning the worst cages and banning routine debeaking.
It’s hard to get this right, in part because industry resists and people like cheap meat, but also for more fundamental reasons. You can’t write a law that says “treat the animals well.” You can ban a specific widely used cruel practice, but the basic logic of efficiency-maximization remains in place, and so you’re playing whack-a-mole.
It’s genuinely important to try, though, and there are groups doing good work on this. Part of humanity being richer is that we can afford to indulge our moral sense. If a large improvement in the lives of billions of chickens resulted in the price of eggs doubling, humanity would not starve. Right now alt-meats are more expensive than meat from animals — they are essentially a luxury good for people with an ideological commitment to advancing the alt-meat industry. But with stricter animal welfare regulation, that could flip so that a burger made of pea proteins is the cheap option, and then there’s also relatively expensive humanely raised beef. For the medium-term, the goal of promoting better conditions for farm animals and the goal of promoting better alternatives to meat are completely compatible.
But I do think there’s a difference between the long-term goal of farm animal eliminationism and wanting to see a large population of well-treated animals. The latter goal makes more sense to me and does seem to require more direct engagement with the animal welfare rules relative to technological solutions to the very existence of animals.