Oops! We made a mistake!

According to the highly influential best selling author Jared Diamond, the development of agriculture was "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race."

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It's not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn't want.

At this point it's instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we're still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it's unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture's glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?

While I am not sure that it is entirely fair to attach the "we" pronoun to actions taken by Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, let's assume for the sake of argument that Diamond is right. What are "we" supposed to do? How do "we" reverse our greatest mistake, and restore the glorious hunting and gathering existence which Diamond thinks was our proper destiny? Were Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution mistaken too?

How are "we" to correct ourselves?

And what are "we" to do about the billions of "us"? Can they be erased too?

posted by Eric on 09.14.10 at 12:39 PM


If it wasn't for agriculture there wouldn't be Arugula. That would be racists

David Obst   ·  September 14, 2010 1:55 PM

I wouldn't have thought that Jared Diamond would ascribe to the views of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. I could see in his book 'Collapse' that he was getting a bit dubious about the sustainability of our present culture - but it seems he's gone pretty far down the 'kill 'em all, we're not worthy' road.

Funny thing is - if it weren't for agriculture and technology, he - like the rest of us - would lead lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. (Unless he figures he'd have survived long enough to become a respected tribal elder or something...)

Personally, I see hot water and electricity and abundant food as good things.

JLawson   ·  September 14, 2010 2:35 PM

I notice the referenced article is from 1987?

Brian   ·  September 14, 2010 2:46 PM

I notice the referenced article is from 1987?

Unless you're arguing that Diamond didn't mean what he argues so emphatically, I don't see how the year of publication matters.

He wrote the piece as a UCLA professor in 1987 (when he was 50), and it has been widely linked, mostly by supporters who approve wholeheartedly of his view:


Unless he retracted it, I don't see why it would matter in the least when he wrote it. And if he did "take it all back," then why is it being quoted so admiringly and extensively?

Eric Scheie   ·  September 14, 2010 4:16 PM

I'm getting so tired of people who hate all humans and of extinction porn (like After Us or whatever the TV show is.) The "future evolution" program on the animal channel was controlled by such human haters they had to go out of their way to have every warm blooded being become extinct and tree-swinging squids rule the Earth.
Perhaps this is the result of an education that blames what the student is for all the ill in the world, the villains being presented as America, Western Civilization, Civilization and, eventually, humans. I mean, it can't be a natural, non-learned self-hatred, because in that case these people would kill themselves and leave the rest of us alone!

Sarah   ·  September 14, 2010 5:32 PM

I'll pose it another way -- suppose a happy, financially independent family of two live a wonderful day, up until 11:54, when the woman gives birth to a baby that might end up eating them out of house and home and breaking up the family.

Does that mean that they shouldn't have had the baby?

Phelps   ·  September 14, 2010 6:16 PM

I don't get just why the hunter-gatherer life style is supposed to be superior. Lasting a long time doesn't mean a hell of a lot. (What's the longest lasting species? Should we emulate them?) If you judge by numbers, there sure are a lot of people around since we became farmers. If you judge by technological development, hunter-gatherers didn't do a lot.

hanmeng   ·  September 14, 2010 6:58 PM

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history.

Yet oddly enough, Jared still isn't hunting and gathering himself. Maybe he's afraid to succeed.

Apparently the definition of "success" is "incredible poverty and constant threat of death."

TallDave   ·  September 14, 2010 9:49 PM

Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture's glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?

OK, this is just beyond stupid. We don't imagine those blessings, we experience them everyday.

GGS was pretty good, but Diamond is a loon sometimes.

TallDave   ·  September 14, 2010 9:51 PM

My hot water went out last year and since I live in a rental unit and the maintenance guy lived 40 miles away, it took over a week to get things straightened out.

You can't believe how depressing it is to live without running hot water.

Think dishes and showers to top the list. Jared is a fool. As some one above pointed out: without technology (which agriculture fosters - since agriculture IS a technology) he would be a nothing.

M. Simon   ·  September 15, 2010 4:51 AM

What? Progressives don't love humanity? Racists!

Brett   ·  September 15, 2010 7:46 AM

"The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race."

Since Dr. Diamond participates in the fruits of agriculture and of subsequent industrialization, he belongs to "the worst mistake in the history of the human race."

Gringo   ·  September 15, 2010 5:28 PM

Shouldn't he have written that article in the form of cave paintings?

Joseph Hertzlinger   ·  September 19, 2010 2:44 AM

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