Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

My last couple of posts have been about the Agricultural Revolution and how it didn’t provide the benefits to early human farmers that we would imagine or expect it to have provided. The Agricultural Revolution helped propel humans toward our modern world, but it wasn’t an immediate upgrade in the lives and diets of most humans. It is perplexing how humans managed to settle into farming communities and agricultural villages given that the first humans to begin cultivating crops likely had a worse time (or very minimally marginally better time) than ancient foragers.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about these challenges and why the reality of the Agricultural Revolution doesn’t match what we imagine the Agricultural Revolution to have been like. He writes:
“Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain, and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.”
We look at how we got to where we are and in some ways assume that the path that humans took was obvious and clear. We were once cavemen, then became farmers, then scientists, and now we can watch college football all day on Saturday on our flat screen TVs while eating pizza. The reality, however, is that early farmers and early foragers didn’t have any idea what the future would hold. It wasn’t clear exactly what would be a better step in the right direction. Advances came painfully slowly, and the Agricultural Revolution only looks like a revolution if you back out and look at the slow path of human evolution over tens of thousands of years. On the scale of a single human life, it was hardly a revolution and hardly clear that things were going in the right direction.
I think that part of what happens when we look back in time at the Agricultural Revolution and consider how it improved (or failed to improve) the lives of ancient humans, is that we substitute a hard question for an easy question. Instead of investigating what life was like for foragers relative to the first agricultural humans, we ask, “have I (and has humanity) benefitted from the Agricultural Revolution?” The answer is clearly yes, it was a good thing in the long run for us all individually. Retroactively we apply this good framing to the Agricultural Revolution and assume that it was always a good thing for everyone, judging history by our current situation and perspective. But as Harari writes, ancient farmers whose lives may have been worse off than the lives of ancient foragers certainly didn’t think that their transition to farming was always and unambiguously a good thing. They didn’t know what the future of humanity would become tens of thousands of years later, based on the system of farming and communal living that they were pioneering. By substituting how we feel about the Agricultural Revolution today for the lived reality of those who went through it, we get an incomplete and inaccurate view of what it really was.
The Agricultural Revolution is History's Biggest Fraud - Yuval Noah Harari - Joe Abittan Sapiens Book

History’s Biggest Fraud

When you think of the biggest fraud in human history, you probably don’t think of the Agricultural Revolution, but Yuval Noah Harari does. In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “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.”
The general picture of the Agricultural Revolution was humanity mastering crops and moving from the dangerous lifestyle and near starvation of foraging to bountiful harvests. The reality is that the agricultural revolution was a great disappointment in comparison. The first crops that humans domesticated were barely more productive than wild plants. Controlling land and planting crops was only slightly more effective and efficient than harvesting a lucky cache of wild edible plants. The work was hard and tedious, and a full day focused on a single crop meant that farmers were not out finding edible fruits, nuts, fungi, and animal meat to provide a well rounded and nourishing diet. Farmers ate what they grew, almost exclusively, and nutritional deficiencies were common.
Harari finds it amazing that early humans were able to persevere through the early days of farming given the terrible tradeoff involved. Farming was not a clear bounty for humanity and was not an obvious plus for the species. It was not until substantial investments over time and smarter approaches to farming had been developed and implemented that the Agricultural Revolution began to pay off. Initially, it was a fraud, promising security and full bellies but instead delivering poor quality crops that didn’t meet a human’s nutritional needs while demanding incredible efforts.