The case against civilization

John Lanchester writes: Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial. [Continue reading…]

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