Saturday, January 24, 2009

The worst mistake in the history of the human race?

According to Jared Diamond, it's agriculture!

"archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered."

here's one of his cases:

"One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from
skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show
that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a
generous 5'9" for men, 5'5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height
crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5'3" for men ,5' for women. By classical
times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still
not regained the average height of their distant ancestors."

While his cases are (as always) just so, the argument seems iffy. After all, agriculture accompanied a rise in the population which in most endogenous growth models, raises the stock of ideas and long run growth. Plus, if we'd stayed hunter-gatherers neither me or Lebron James would currently stalk this planet and that, people, would be a tragedy indeed.


Paul Gowder said...

Which would I rather have, six inches of height or civilization? Hmm... decisions, decisions.

(I'm sure Rousseau is warmly rotating in his grave though.)

asexual said...

I wouldn't trade my lifestyle for that of a hunter-gatherer. However, if I lived in the pre-1945 era or in some third world country, my guess is that it would be a tough call.

Norman said...

I'm curious what the implied counter-factual is here. If we'd stayed hunter gatherers, does Diamond think my physique would be average (6'5" and... lean, let's say)? How would humans in New England be fairing right now as hunter-gatherers?

Tom said...

Diamond describes our hunter-gather phase as "most successful," and yet, he doesn't add the punch line. I was expecting the paper to end with "...and so, this is my last essay on anthropology; I will take up a life of gathering nuts and berries and good luck to you all."

Since he didn't do that, I have to believe he is somewhere south of merely intellectually weak.

As for me, I plan to polish off an enhancement to identity tracking for remote transactions that I'm confident I can trade to some people, who will trade with some people, who will trade with some other people... and benefit the farmers who provided the coffee, toast, eggs, etc that I'm eating while enjoying KPC this morning.

Mongongo nuts, indeed!

hpalmer said...

Just because the mean heights declined does not necessarily imply that a higher % of tall people were born prior to the introduction of agriculture. Given the population expansion (increase in N on which the mean is based), it is possible that height distribution was unchanged but a larger % of small people survived long enough to be counted. It seems entirely plausible that taller people in a hunter-gatherer society would have an advantage and hence would be more likely to survive to adult age.

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