Even as lifespans lengthen and misery abates almost exactly in parallel with the advance of modernity, the old idea that grass-hut life was better still haunts us. Recently it’s turned up in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. The author, James C. Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science and professor of anthropology at Yale, argues that the traditional view of settled agriculture as the seed-bed of civilization is terribly mistaken.
“Given what we now know, much of this narrative is wrong or seriously misleading,” Scott writes. He argues that agriculture — specifically grain farming — succeeded not because it gave rise to cultural progress, but because it fit the needs of a coercive state and the small, exploitative elite it served. Even the cuneiform marks in clay tablets that, in the fullness of time, evolved into the letters you’re reading now began as mere record-keeping designed to quantify and tax harvested grain.
Far from driving civilization to greater heights, the professor finds that grain’s predictable growing season, easily locatable fields, and quantifiable, taxable harvests, made it a perfect tool for a ruling class determined to both control and profit by the work of a large population of once-happy and independent wanderers who had been tempted inside the walls by doubtful promises of stability and security.
It’s an argument in support of an idea that is hardly new. “Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains,” wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, arguing that in antiquity, man lived in creatively disordered harmony with nature and his brothers, and was consequently happier, healthier and altogether better off.
This notion was hinted at throughout history in the ancient Gilgamesh saga, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, Cain’s exile, and Noah’s flood. In 1580, Michel de Montaigne nominated Brazilian cannibals as salutary role models for cruelly uncivilized Europeans, and in his 1672 play The Conquest of Granada, John Dryden coined the phrase “noble savage” to describe man’s much-missed unfallen state.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the palisade, it seems.
Evidence of Success
Scott insists that sedentary communities pre-date settled agriculture and therefore don’t owe their existence to it. He cites evidence of relatively sedentary foraging communities in the fertile Mesopotamian environment well in advance of the settled urban states that traditional scholarship has tied to non-nomadic agriculture, grain surpluses, early writing, labor specialization, and the gathering momentum of human achievement that we know as civilization.
Fair enough. But it implicitly suggests that fixed agriculture allowed communities to prosper and grow even in less naturally fertile surroundings, the strenuous necessity of wresting a living from the earth driving steady improvements that less hard-pressed populations may not have needed.
The professor also argues that state-based, fixed-field agriculture created such a noxious combination of disease, oppression, and stultifying boredom (compared with the delights of hunting and gathering) that no-one “in their right mind” would choose it over pastoral foraging.
It certainly seems to have been true that the gathering of the tribes, their livestock, and all their attendant microbes sparked unprecedented epidemics and mortality. But even allowing for that, there must have been a net gain from moving into settled, relatively close-quarters agriculture, or the phenomenon would have quite literally died out. Even Scott concedes that fixed-field cultivators actually had “unprecedentedly high rates of reproduction – enough to more than compensate for the also unprecedentedly high rates of mortality.”
Usually, higher reproduction rates are taken as evidence of the success of a pattern of life, but Scott explains it away. “Nonsedentary populations typically limit their reproduction deliberately,” he says. “(T)he spacing of children of hunter-gatherers is on the order of four years, a spacing that is achieved by delayed weaning, abortifacients, and neglect or infanticide.”
Having more children more quickly in fixed-field agriculture was most likely an economic decision, he says, children merely adding to the supply of workers available to produce taxable grain. But they would have also added to the binding warmth and joy of the family hearth, a civilizational and cultural advance in its own right. Of course, this presupposes the existence of a fixed hearth.
Scott also contends that fixed-field farming was somehow less intellectually stimulating than dodging about through the underbrush picking berries and trying to avoid being picked oneself. He posits a plunging cascade of intellectual complexity from hunting and gathering to cereal grain production to “repetitive work on a modern assembly line.”
This, of course, is simply insulting. My late father-in-law, who grew up plowing with horses and lived to see his son working the fields with satellite guidance, could spot subtle changes in crops and livestock just driving by in his dusty pickup. “Every sparrow that falls,” we’d joke about Don’s deep, comprehensive, and ever-changing knowledge of his 800 acres of Indiana farmland.
This depth of devotion to a plot of land is undiscovered country for Professor Scott. “Why would foragers in their right mind choose the huge increase in drudgery entailed by fixed-field agriculture and animal husbandry unless they had, as it were, a pistol at their collective temple?”
There are a few reasons: consistent, reliable return for effort invested; more stable family life; neighborly help; less wandering around in the hunting grounds of predators both animal and human; and sturdy, defensible communities able to withstand depredations by outsiders.
This last Scott finds particularly unconvincing. In his telling, the so-called barbarians that supposedly drove people behind walls for protection were not so awfully bad, being attractively untaxed, untamed, unruled, and charismatic in their free-spirited roaming that often, as luck would have it, involved raping and pillaging their way through the settled states he finds so unattractive.
In the book, he goes at the matter from a somewhat foreboding angle, questioning whether the “collapse” of established states to scattered barbarism was necessarily so bad.
“What I wish to challenge here is a rarely examined prejudice that sees population aggregation at the apex of state centers as triumphs of civilization on the one hand, and decentralization into smaller political units on the other, as a breakdown or failure of the political order. We should, I believe, aim to ‘normalize’ collapse and see it rather as often inaugurating a periodic and possibly even salutary reformation of political order,” Scott writes.
One can only shrug helplessly at the perverse and almost adolescent view that this book and the philosophy it represents more than hint at: that the imperfections past and present of our culture leave it no better, and quite a bit worse, than foraging tribes that in millennia never took one step toward producing a symphony, building a skyscraper, or curing a case of childhood cancer.
It’s a bit like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. If someone doesn’t already see that it’s a terrible idea, there’s little that can be said to convince them.