Jared Diamond: World’s Worst Mistake?
Posted: 29 August 2010 01:28 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Just reread parts of Jared Diamond’s essay - Agriculture: World’s Worst Mistake.  I was impressed with this essay when I was younger, but now that I’m older, I’m starting to wonder if it is seriously misleading.  Jared Diamond does admit that it isn’t solely just agriculture that is the problem, it is the human propensity toward population growth that brings about a need for agriculture.  Diamond himself writes:

“Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

So is it right to conclude that just because we couldn’t control our reproductive instincts that agriculture is to blame for that?  Agriculture arguably permitted less warfare, because by being able to feed more people, there was less of a reason to go to war.  Steven Pinker covers the subject of violence in his TED talk, A brief History of Violence.  His argument is that the hunter gatherer mode of existence was equally if not more prone to violence due to the much larger land space required to support a small tribe, so when there was any kind of population pressure or if there was a need to migrate due to change in environment, there was a reason to go to war with neighboring tribes.

Here’s an interesting and relevant clip:

General Miles Blows off American Indian Myths

Now, that clip is from a movie, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt, but it is a compelling and intuitive point of view. 

Here is the graph Steven Pinker uses in his TED talk on warefare among hunter gathers:

deaths.jpg

Now, this is suddenly a dramatically flattering view of agriculture.  Pinker and Diamond are amazingly opposed ideologically, so one of them is being very dishonest or deluded.

Now, I acknowledge that the graph just links to a standalone image - no website with text to explain the graph. As for the graph itself, it’s a bit suspicious and I will go onto the official TED site to see if I can find any citations that support Pinker’s graph.  Also to note, is that there are thousands of tribes in the world, but it shows eight specific (and perhaps obscure) tribes. It doesn’t show overall averages across tribal societies in general, so there’s no indication that these eight tribes are representative of tribal societies in general.  So these examples could be cherrypicked.

Diamond refers more than a couple times to the Kalahari bushmen, who he seems to see as a model for sustainable living.  I wonder how often the Kalahari go to war?  Why don’t their populations start to spill out into other areas causing conflict?  These are questions I plan on researching over the next month or to, I just thought some of you may find this interesting, or perhaps you have an insight into these issues you might share.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 01:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It takes agriculture to facilitate huge standing armies.

Even though aggression and violence may be a staple of more primitive hunter gather cultures, there is no comparing the kinds of wars they are capable of waging and the kinds of wars standing armies of tens or hundreds of thousands of full time dedicated warriors could bring about.

So far as the evils of agriculture - I think perhaps the ability to fix nitrogen (I believe an outgrowth of WWI science) created the monster that will gobble itself up before it’s done.  The self-destructive population explosion of the past century… we do after all live on a finite planet, with finite resources.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 02:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Under agriculture, more people get to live, so that creates larger death tolls, but what about the ratios?  Isn’t life under agriculture currently creating an unprecedented decrease in the ratio of a population that dies in warfare?  It is relatively unusual in western society for a parent or spouse to lose a loved one in warefare.  We do not go to war as frequently and larger ratios of people are allowed to live, compared to hunter gatherer existence.  At least, this is Steven Pinker’s argument.  Do you find Pinker to be perhaps deluded or disingenuous on this issue?

As for sustainability, I suppose if indefinite survival is what we value, then there are virtues to hunter gather existence, provided you are willing to have significantly higher death through tribal warfare, and also provided you are willing to sacrifice accumulation of scientific knowledge and technology.  You can’t practice metallurgy without the kinds of populations that only agriculture can support, and without metalurgy you aren’t going to accomplish much scientifically or technologically.  And the lack of science and tech of hunter gatherer existence has long term survival drawbacks as well.  There is no opportunity to escape the earth through space migration, no opportunity to engineer our biology to overcome irrational urges to reproduce and be violent. 

As one thinker I know put it “Agriculture has generated an immense economic and intellectual machine. Now literacy and communications are as never before. Now we have genetic engineering, and may one day create new species of intelligent life. Now we can travel to other planets and may one day inhabit them. Now we are learning to manage our environment on an increasingly large scale. All is not lost. ”

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Posted: 29 August 2010 03:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM

Under agriculture, more people get to live, so that creates larger death tolls, but what about the ratios?  Isn’t life under agriculture currently creating an unprecedented decrease in the ratio of a population that dies in warfare?  It is relatively unusual in western society for a parent or spouse to lose a loved one in warfare. 

Go ask that question to the folks living in the middle east or Africa, or Europe and Russia and Japan and China a few decades back.  Seems to me our ability to, and infatuation with, waging war is on the increase.

Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM

As for sustainability, I suppose if indefinite survival is what we value, then there are virtues to hunter gather existence, provided you are willing to have significantly higher death through tribal warfare, and also provided you are willing to sacrifice accumulation of scientific knowledge and technology.  You can’t practice metallurgy without the kinds of populations that only agriculture can support, and without metallurgy you aren’t going to accomplish much scientifically or technologically.

Quite right about the science, don’t get me wrong I’m not saying we should go back there.  However, that doesn’t detract from the suicidal nature of our scientific, industrial development.  Also, don’t get me wrong I love science and learning about the mysteries of life and the universe.
I really have to question the conclusion: “significantly higher death through tribal warfare”  Who makes that claim and what’s it justified with?

Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM

Now we have genetic engineering, and may one day create new species of intelligent life. Now we can travel to other planets and may one day inhabit them. Now we are learning to manage our environment on an increasingly large scale. All is not lost. “

Oh boy, here you are turning to sci fi fantasies.  We can not travel to other planets just because some instrumental space ships have made it into outer space.  And the thought that humans will colonized a planet is ludicrous in it’s lack real world potential - even if some love to spend fortunes dreaming about it.  Creating new species of “intelligent” life?  Oh christ, we can’t even figure out how to get human intelligent life to think rationally, just what do we need another “intelligent” life form to compete with our greedy, myopic, egos.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 03:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The Kalahari Bushmen do not go to war,but are often victimized (murdered) by the neighboring tribes who don’t consider them to be ‘human’.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 03:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Cory Duchesne, just curious, have you read any of Diamond’s more recent works?  The article you cite is from 1987.  If anything, in Collapse, he gave a five-point framework for why societies succeed or fail.  Anyone, a combination or all five can account for such massive failures such as the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and more more recently Rwanda and Haiti.  In this book, he does not explicitly blame agriculture.  The five points include hostile neighbors, the loss of friendly trading neighbors, environmental changes, anthropogenic environmental changes and how ruling governments deal with these changes.  I guess one could argue that without agriculture, none of these would be factors. 

In dealing with such ideologies, one could easily blame a whole host of human constructs for the essence of violence.  In his book he refers to some phenomenon regarding exponential growth and linear food production… 

I’ll return when I eat some food, as my wife is calling for me…  perhaps I’ll be less antagonistic once I have some chicken in me.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 04:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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“Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”
Huhn? I don’t think there was any choosing or forcing going on.

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Posted: 04 September 2010 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Relevant to the subject of population growth, reproductive instincts and civilization is an argument from the book “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by anthropologists Cochran and Harpending.  In it they say that the development of agriculture, although it brought a vast array of unforeseen problems, might have caused a huge increase in the rate of human evolution, and “numerous evolutionary adaptations to the change in lifestyle and society”. So while mass agriculture seems needlessly destructive, it might serve another goal of “nature” altogether. A goal that doesn’t have to include the welfare or happiness of the average person, or even the longevity of a certain social system or civilization.

It’s already obvious there can be way more recombinations in a large (and now global) population. More mixture with “alien” material as well, as they keep finding traces of viruses and bacteria in the human genome too (8% of our genome is constructed of what used to be retroviruses).

I see agriculture with metallurgy and everything that has followed as the means toward further evolution, or the furnace of which the ore of humanity is broken. The progress of civilization itself could be seen as a dangerous trek up a steep mountain, and the higher we climb the more perilous yet potentially glorious the situation becomes.  Happiness has little to do with it, it’s perhaps more about the ideal toward a horizon, it is the love of danger, adventure and transformation. Or perhaps more commonly and less flatteringly, a panicked scramble for (and a stumbling onto) imaginative solutions, with some incidental impressive results.

Diamond’s big thing seems to be “sustainability”, and I suppose if indefinite survival is what we value, then there are virtues to hunter gather existence, provided you are willing to have significantly higher death ratios through tribal warfare (at least if you go by Pinker’s data) and also provided, and this is a big one, you are willing to sacrifice accumulation of scientific knowledge and technology. You can’t practice metallurgy without the kinds of populations that only agriculture can support, and without metallurgy you are going to accomplish squat scientifically and technologically. And the lack of science and tech of hunter gatherer existence has long term survival drawbacks as well.

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Posted: 04 September 2010 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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citizenschallenge.pm - 29 August 2010 03:03 PM
Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM

Under agriculture, more people get to live, so that creates larger death tolls, but what about the ratios?  Isn’t life under agriculture currently creating an unprecedented decrease in the ratio of a population that dies in warfare?  It is relatively unusual in western society for a parent or spouse to lose a loved one in warfare. 

Go ask that question to the folks living in the middle east or Africa, or Europe and Russia and Japan and China a few decades back.  Seems to me our ability to, and infatuation with, waging war is on the increase.

Well, if this is true, it’s helpful to note that we are running out of room on the planet.  Whenever there is pressure on a population, war is apparently the natural response.

Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM
Cory Duchesne - 29 August 2010 02:28 PM

Now we have genetic engineering, and may one day create new species of intelligent life. Now we can travel to other planets and may one day inhabit them. Now we are learning to manage our environment on an increasingly large scale. All is not lost. “

Oh boy, here you are turning to sci fi fantasies.  We can not travel to other planets just because some instrumental space ships have made it into outer space.  And the thought that humans will colonized a planet is ludicrous in it’s lack real world potential - even if some love to spend fortunes dreaming about it.  Creating new species of “intelligent” life?  Oh christ, we can’t even figure out how to get human intelligent life to think rationally, just what do we need another “intelligent” life form to compete with our greedy, myopic, egos.

Juan Enriquez shares mind boggling new science

Whether you like it or not, we are in for an interesting ride.  Buckle up.

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Posted: 04 September 2010 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Cory,

I doubt one could find a direct effect of agriculture on the decline of violence. (BTW, from a personal experience, arguing about this topic with citizenschallenge is simply a waste of your time.) What seems to be at play here is natural selection, selecting less violent people as the density of population increases. I could think of many reasons why this happens, but I suspect that the main reason would be nepotism. Europe, which is currently the most peaceful part of our world is also the most inbred. Surely two Swedish towns are genetically much closely related than two neighbouring tribes somewhere in the Amazons. Why do Sunnis and Shiites fight? Is it their religious beliefs or the fact that the two groups are practically two large extended families? This must be what is the fundamental drive of evolution: families progress to become races, races progress to become species.

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Posted: 04 September 2010 11:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I just realized that there are a few problems with what I have written here and I’ll try to correct it when I have more time.

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Posted: 13 September 2010 12:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Cory Duchesne - 04 September 2010 06:56 AM

Whether you like it or not, we are in for an interesting ride.  Buckle up.

Amen

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Posted: 13 September 2010 12:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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VYAZMA - 29 August 2010 04:09 PM

“Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”
Huhn? I don’t think there was any choosing or forcing going on.

THE EFFECT OF THE HABER PROCESS ON FERTILIZERS

Raymond Zmaczynski
The Haber Process for the synthesis of ammonia (NH3) gas from its elements nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) is discussed in almost every high school chemistry text as an excellent example of chemical equilibrium. Very little, if anything, is said in most chemistry texts about the effects of this process on the course of history and on society. However, the effects of the Haber Process are important to the history of fertilizers and, to a lesser extent, the history of explosives.

Natural fertilizers such as manures and ground animal bones have been known since ancient times. The ideas of crop rotation, letting soil lie fallow, and planting certain crops to enrich the soil are also very old. The modern study of plants, soils, and the chemical requirements for growth was not established until the 1840’s in Europe. The first production of fertilizers from inorganic chemical sources also begins at this time.

Scientific study established three elements as necessary in large quantities for plant growth: potassium (K), phosphorus (P), and nitrogen (N). These inorganic fertilizer elements were all originally mineral deposits. From the 1840’s to the present day various deposits of phosphate rocks and potash have been found to provide adequate sources of the elements phosphorus and potassium. The process and techniques of fertilizer preparation and production have changed but the chemical reaction and concepts that are involved continue to remain basically the same. ...
~ ~ ~
The use of ammonia in fertilizer has made it the second most important chemical in the United States. It is the most important source of nitrogen in fertilizers today. The use of fertilizers today is over 400% greater than it was in 1940. ...

Without it, the population explosion couldn’t have happened near as dramatically as it has this past century.

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Posted: 13 September 2010 03:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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And interesting poster (HansMustermann) over at the Randi forum writes:

Jared Diamond is spewing sensationalist BS that is basically what a certain audience wants to hear. As usual.

I’ve already addressed agriculture before, but here goes again.

When you analyze bone densities you get this: http://www.anthro.ucdavis.edu/facult…nry/ajpa29.pdf

Short story: in periods of manutrition, you get bands of different bone densities, but they tend to even out back again when you get enough food for a few years. The bones from hunter-gatherer tribes are the worst cases by far. It shows not only that malnutrition did happen, but it was more regular and more severe than what you get even in bones from the saxon dark ages.

Analysis of tooth enamel, ditto, shows that a lot of those tribesmen grew up severely starved.

Warfare and violence, well, short version is: he’s an idiot.

Long version: warfare in tribal societies is permanent and endemic, with attrition rates going up to two thirds. Yes, of all people born there, up to that many can die in tribal warfare. More median cases like the Yanomamö had over a third attrition, which is to say, over a third die in endemic warfare.

We also know that the most peaceful American Indian tribes “only” attacked their neighbours once a year, the least, well, let’s just say they were right bloodthirsty.

And while warfare in agriculture age became better documented and more organized, and more clearly for resources, violence in tribal societies tends to be for just about any reason whatsoever, from accusations of sorcery to basically just for lulz. E.g., for the aforementioned Yanomamö, the chief reason for warfare seems to be accusations of sorcery.

Tribal mind set often was basically: If your shaman says he summoned more animals for you to hunt, but your tribe still starves, it must be because the evil shaman of another tribe is driving the animals away from your hunters. (It can’t be that your shaman is full of it.) Time to teach that evil tribe a lesson.

And they often had codes of violence escalation for it. Starting from premeditated murder of someone from the other tribe, and at least theoretically going all the way to complete genocide. Yes, genocide too is one thing that agricultors didn’t invent.

And so on, and so forth. Basically there’s a name for the whole idea: the noble savage myth. You know, oh, life was so much better, and happier, and everyone so equal, and caring, and bla, bla, bla. BS.

Oh yeah, and one more thing… the idea of egalitarianism back in ye goode olde days? Bunk too.

Exhibit one, infanticide.

Yes, it happened. Lots. It actually seems to have been a lot more prevalent before agriculture. So think of it as retroactive birth control, I guess. (We just got told that those enlightened hunter-gatherers practiced birth control, unlike those evil agricultors who wanted lots of offspring. So, yeah, think of leaving a baby in the snow or beheading it as birth control, I guess. Yes, it rubs me the wrong way too.)

But what I wanted to talk about is something else about it: Almost all over the world evidence points out that female infants were far more killed than male ones. Yes, even in the paleolithic. If you find a little beheaded skeleton, chances are a lot higher it will be a little female baby. In some places the estimates are as high as 50% of all females born were killed. Yes, in the paleolithic.

Exhibit two, yeah, let’s talk about height. While in the paleolithic males were indeed quite tall and thin, the funny thing are female skeletons. A heck of a lot are disproportionately shorter than the males, and there’s also a lot more variability in size among females, and even more important a lot of regional variation. (Unlike what would happen if there were simply a preset sexual dimorphism in the species.) E.g., if you look at the prehistoric skeletons in Menorca, the females were practically dwarves.

Now it’s possible that there was some weird-ass genetics at play. As I was saying, they _were_ a different race. But if you want to ascribe the size differences to just nutrition (and the afore mentioned variability would kinda point that way too), then guess who got to go to bed hungry when food was scarce? Yep, the girls.

Both factors don’t exactly tell to me “gender equality”. On the contrary, it’s what you’d expect in a society where the boys matter (e.g., because they’ll be great warriors and carry your name and so on) while the girls are a liability.

I’ll take it with a grain of salt, but interesting writer.

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Posted: 14 September 2010 08:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Cory Duchesne - 13 September 2010 03:48 PM

I’ll take it with a grain of salt, but interesting writer.

Yes, and it was an interesting read.
Agreed, only fools can think that Paleolithic and Neolithic life wasn’t brutish.

But, all that don’t preclude the super success of our agricultural society
having some super ugly down sides,
especially when the ‘lebensraum’ runs out.

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Posted: 14 September 2010 08:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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George - 04 September 2010 11:24 AM

arguing about this topic with citizenschallenge is simply a waste of your time.


Yo, George,
Instead of sniping from the bushes,
why not stand up and pick on me, fair and square?
Were we arguing?

Explain to me, what you find so wrong with my basic meme…
let’s say, as presented in “Why Bother To Vote?”

I would be interested in your thoughts.

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