How the Agricultural Revolution Changed our Social and Economic Evolution

Yves here. Get a cup of coffee. An intriguing, wide ranging, if sobering interview.

By Lisi Krall, a Professor of Economics at the State University of New York, Cortland, with expertise in political economy and ecological economics. She is the author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History, which explores the interconnections of economy, culture, and land in U. S. history. Originally published at Evonomics

Interview by Upstream’s Della Duncan with Economist Lisi Krall

Della Duncan: Welcome Lisi.

Lisi Krall: Thank you Della.

Della Duncan: Let’s start with just a brief introduction about yourself for our listeners.

Lisi Krall: Ok. I am a right now a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland. And I concentrate on, I guess you would call ecological economics. But I actually have a lot of disagreement with much of what goes on in ecological economics.

Della Duncan: Yes I’ve seen you associated both with ecological economics and evolutionary economics. So what do those two areas of economics mean to you? And what are the disagreements that you have?

Lisi Krall: The main disagreement that I’ve had with ecological economics is that I actually don’t think ecological economics in a lot of ways has a real good handle on the economic system. There are a lot of ecologists in ecological economics, and it’s always said that economists don’t understand ecology. But I also think that the problem is somewhat the opposite as well, and that is that the ecologists don’t understand enough about the economy to have a real solid understanding of the problematic economic structure we have on our hands.

Della Duncan: And if you were to just briefly describe ecological economics, how you see it? What is ecological economics?

Lisi Krall: Ecological economics basically derives from the basic idea that the Earth is a subsystem of the biosphere and therefore some attention has to be paid to how big this economic system can be. So that’s kind of the starting point. Ecological Economics has gone in two different directions — there are two branches. One is this eco sphere studies branch of ecological economics, and that branch is sort of associated with putting prices on things that aren’t priced in the economy. That’s entirely what it’s about. And it is hardly discernible from standard orthodox economics. It’s the study of externality, public goods, and that sort of thing. There’s really no difference. The other branch of ecological economics, which is the more revolutionary branch, is the branch that talks about the issue of scale. That branch has been very good in talking about the need to limit or end economic growth. But in the conversations about how we might do that — and in particular dealing directly with the problem of whether or not you can have a capitalist system that doesn’t grow — I think that’s where that branch of ecological economics has not been as clear as it needs to be.

So this kind of helps us transition into something that you talk about: ultrasociality. Can you first explain ultrasociality as a concept within the more-than-human world, within animals or insects. What is it in the more ecological sense?

First of all let me just say this that I don’t think that there is an agreement about the definition of ultrasociality, either on the part of evolutionary biologists, or on the part of anthropologists and economists like myself. So I think that it is word that’s used by different people to describe different things in the broader sense. I think it refers to complex societies that have highly articulated divisions of labor and develop into large scale — essentially city states, and practice agriculture. That’s the definition that’s used in our work, the work that I’ve done with John Gowdy. We have adopted that definition. And so ultrasociality I would say is a term that has meaning other than in human societies. To talk about those kinds of societies that occur mostly in other than humans: in ants and termites that practice agriculture.

Della Duncan: Can you describe that? Describe, to an ant, what that is? What the concept is.

Lisi Krall: I’ll take the example of the leaf cutter ant, the Atta ant. They develop into vast, vast colonies that have highly developed, profound divisions of labor. And the divisions of labor in Atta ants are so incredible that they actually change morphologically based on the job that they do.

Della Duncan: Within their lifetime?

Lisi Krall: Yes. Well, I think you get one ant that develops in a certain way it will stay that way, although there is flexibility in terms of tasks that they do as well. But they have this very highly articulated and cohesive division of labor, and what they do is cultivate fungi. They cut and harvest leaves and then they feed the leaves to their fungal gardens, and they themselves then feed on the fungal gardens. And so I call these kinds of things self-referential, they are very expansive. E.O. Wilson refers to the advance of social insects like that as the “the social conquest of the earth.” They are extraordinarily successful and they are what I would consider ultrasocial.

Della Duncan: What do you mean by self-referential?

Lisi Krall: By self-referential I mean that it sort of refers to itself. So you have a very highly differentiated ant colony that will cut leaves and process those leaves and continue to expand as long as they’re not invaded by some kind of bacteria or toxin that ruins the fungal gardens and creates problems for them. And as long as they have the leaves to cut they are extraordinarily expansive. They’re sort of a system unto themselves, that in a sense their dynamic is cordoned off in a way from the exterior world. They kind of refer to themselves. The only reason that I started looking at ants is because a number of years ago John Gowdy came to me and he had become aware of these superorganism ant colonies that practiced agriculture. And so he came to me it was about, I don’t know, four or five years ago? And said to me, “Do you think that it’s possible that the evolutionary dynamic of these species of insect has any similarity to humans when humans made the transition to agriculture” Because one thing we know is that the population dynamic for humans changed dramatically. There are many other things that changed dramatically too but the population dynamic changed dramatically when humans made that transition to agriculture. So I guess I was crazy enough to say, “Well yeah that’s possible. Why don’t we look at it?” And so that led us down this the path of this present project.

Della Duncan: So let’s go into that then. So eight thousand years ago, about the time of the agricultural revolution, what is it that happened from your perspective? For humans — what’s the story that you see now with your research.

Lisi Krall: Well eight to ten thousand years ago humans began the practice of agriculture. And over the ensuing five thousand years after that, what happened to their societies was profound. They went from relatively small bands that lived in mostly equal societies, basically geared toward fitting in with the rhythm and dynamic of the non-human or other-than -human world that surrounds them. That’s not to say that there was no manipulation of the non-human world, but it was modest. Human beings lived as hunters and gatherers — and I think this is something that people don’t think about — not for 5000 years or 10,000 years, or 15,000 years, but literally as anatomically modern humans for something like 150,000 years a long, long, long time. So we became human in that kind of environment. With agriculture you have a human ability to engage agriculture because humans have a capacity for dividing up tasks, communication, and that sort of thing that lends itself to engaging an agricultural economy. And so John and I talked about the division of labor as one of the economic drivers of ultrasociality. And I would say without the capacity to do that, and not every species has that capacity — ants and termites do — But not every species does, without that capacity I think agriculture could not have been engaged and it certainly could not have been engaged to the point where you get, within 5000 years, the development of these vast, highly complex — anthropologists call them state societies. And then we get into this growing of annual grains and mining all of that Pleistocene carbon in the soil. There was a stock of carbon in the soil that we were able to mine and that boosts things, and the division of labor starts, the production of surplus, and the expansion of the division of labor. Hierarchies begin to develop and we’re engaged in a vast, self-referential expansionary system. And then you get the development of markets — and markets have their own institutional, evolutionary dynamic where you go from markets as a place of exchange of surplus to a market economy where the whole purpose of the economy is the production of surplus value, profit, reinvestment, and expansion.

Della Duncan: So let’s unpick the term ultrasociality because it has to do with what you’re talking about. So it doesn’t mean extroversion — that we’re hyper social — or that we’re really outgoing or anything I think people could think that hearing the phrase ultrasociality. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be lonely or isolated within an ultrasocial environment. So can you unpick what ultrasociality means?.

Lisi Krall: Ultrasociality is different than sociality. It has to do with these rather mechanistically articulated kinds of economic systems that take hold, where the individual becomes more of a cog in the machine of producing those annual grains and keeping the society going in that respect. So people are more alienated. They have less personal autonomy. In humans, these societies became extraordinarily hierarchical. I like to think about the fact that within five thousand years, after the onset of agriculture you get the development of these large-scale state societies. Where probably the majority of people lived in some realm of servitude. That’s not a liberating thing. And they are extraordinarily expansive and they are disengaged from the rhythm and dynamic, in some sense, of the other-than-human world. So they’re ecologically destructive. If you look at the global market economy right now, it’s a very expansionary, highly articulated economic system. We would call it a superorganism. And systems like that are extremely difficult to disengage. And one of the reasons that we started looking at agriculture and started looking at this ultrasocial transition, is because we recognized that the altered dynamic that had taken hold with agriculture is still with us. I think about it in this way: when we engaged agriculture the trajectory of our social and economic evolution was altered profoundly. We think it was a major evolutionary transition for humans. So what does that do to the human being? First of all, individual humans become less important and it sets humans up in this vast, self-referential economic system that’s no longer engaged in the rhythm and dynamic of the non-human world. It sets humans up to have this kind of oppositional relationship with the non-human world.

Della Duncan: Not just oppositional but dominant over.

Lisi Krall: Right. We manipulate and control it and dominate it. And it is other than us. Not part of what we are, but other than us. And capitalism is really this kind of self-referential system with this imperative of growth and this internal kind of connectivity that is hell bent on domesticating every last smidgen of the wild earth before it’s done. So we’re involved in a system like that, that is going to leave us alone with ourselves. If you look at our evolutionary history you find that we evolved as human beings in a world where we were basically embedded in this vital, other-than-human world. And we came to know ourselves — what we were individually and how we fit in — through interaction with that varied, robust, non-human world. We as humans have a very long period of maturation. It takes us 20 years to reach maturity. That long stretch of maturation was timed and punctuated with deference to the non-human world. So that we became healthy human beings psychologically through this constant play between us and the non-human world. We came to know ourselves individually, to be able to see ourselves in the complexity of the world. Not to have to dominate, but to be one of many. And so the tragedy for us is that we have this very complicated evolutionary history where on the one hand we do best embedded in a robust other-than-human world. We do best, we’re healthiest in that kind of world. And yet we have this strange part of our social evolution now that has taken us on tract which is going to destroy every bit of the non-human world before we’re done. And so when I look at our present ecological crisis that’s how I see it. It’s a crisis of our own evolution.

Della Duncan: And one aspect of that which you talked about is that our current ecological and economic crisis is not human nature. It’s actually more of this kind of natural selection kind of accident or this kind of evolutionary — I guess what I’m saying is people will say, “Well, you know, we’re inherently selfish.” Or, “Capitalism is just the natural way that we are set to be.” But you’re saying, “No, actually natural selection was a part of it and we haven’t always been this way.”

Lisi Krall: I think human nature is really complicated matter. What is human nature and what isn’t human nature? Let me see if I can touch on kind of a number of things. I think our crisis is not a problem of human nature in the way that that you alluded to in that people often talk about how we’re inherently greedy, exploitative kinds of beings. And that this is the problem. I don’t think that’s true. I think the more serious problem is that we engaged a kind of social evolution, that started with agriculture, that put us on a path of expansion and interconnectedness and ultimately, in humans, hierarchy, and all that kind of stuff. That is a really difficult path to disengage now. Agriculture couldn’t have been engaged if humans didn’t have some kind of inherent capacity for task allocation, sociality. So there is an element of social evolution. What traits we have that allow for that kind of system to get going. But engaging that kind of system itself is a different evolutionary proposition. It has to do with the evolution of groups and cooperation. And so when we engaged agriculture we took off on this altered kind of trajectory. It’s not human nature in the sense that it’s about the evolution of a group and the force of group selection in human evolution, in a sense. But, I mean, that is a natural process that takes place. And so I suppose I sort of shy away from talking about human nature. It’s part of an evolutionary process, but we have a complicated evolutionary history, and evolution doesn’t just play out at the at the level of the individual. It also plays out at the level of the group. And so I would say that. Okay, so now on to Adam Smith and “capitalism as natural”. That too is a complicated proposition. Adam Smith thought that the market economy was the natural order of society because it takes our innate human tendencies and puts them together in an organized way, where people can be selfish because we have an innate tendency for selfishness, and that that selfishness is channeled into a socially optimal outcome. Adam Smith thought human beings have a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. He thought there was a natural human tendency to markets. So what do you get with capitalism? You get the development of markets. You get that development of exchange. People can pursue their self-interest and at the end of the day what do you get? Everybody gets what they want in the amounts that they want for the lowest possible price — if you have competition. Right. He thought it was natural order. Is it a natural order? I do think there’s something in our evolutionary history that puts us on a path of having these kinds of finely articulated, expansionary systems that started with agriculture. And they can take a variety of forms depending on the institutional clothing that humans give them. There is kind of a natural tendency in that respect. Now having said that, people need to understand that evolution is not necessarily about perfection. It can’t see ahead. And it is quite possible that we’ve been placed on an evolutionary dead end. So I don’t look at the process of evolution as something that is constantly creating ever more perfect outcomes. Evolution responds to the immediate circumstances. Things get selected or not based on whether they’re good at that moment. There’s no question that agricultural societies had a selective advantage. Ten thousand years later, can we honestly say that global capitalism and expansionary, highly interconnected systems are a good thing? No. But that’s where we’ve ended up.

Della Duncan: It really brings up for me the Native American concept of the Seventh Generation thinking. You know, what if all decisions and ideas that we made had this kind of real, futuristic thinking of how this would affect seven generations for now. So I wonder about that. And I also think about our being able to have a conversation about our own evolution. I’m imagining, is the difference between us and termites, or ants, the way that we have an ability to change it? I’m wondering if our awareness of this and the fact that we were organized in a different way, than maybe we have the potential to organize yet again in a different way? Can our awareness be that opportunity for change?

Lisi Krall: Well, you asked the ten thousand dollar question, and that is whether we have the capacity to reflect, and through that reflection to alter the path that we’re on. I don’t know the answer to that question. We also have things that ants and termites don’t have. We have institutional fabric, private property laws, the development of markets, methods of redistribution of income, and I could go on and on about the institutional fabric that humans have. We also have the capacity for technological change, and the creation of institutions and technological change makes us very different than ants and termites. It actually creates a situation where things might be even more problematic for us because of these institutions. We have this infinite variety of cultures that we can adopt. But once you adopt one it has a lot of staying power. So it’s actually hard to change institutions. And technological change, and the structure of technology at a given moment in time, is very difficult to alter. Look at the challenge of trying to change our energy economy. We have this entrenched kind of fossil fuel structure — very difficult to change. Not impossible, but it is difficult. So do we have the capacity? Well, we have all kinds of localized movements — movements of localization. And an extensive conversation about sustainability. We certainly have an ability to reflect and understand that this is not sustainable, that this path we’re on is not sustainable. But I think it is extremely difficult to dismantle a complex system like we have, because when you start pulling the threads you don’t know where you’re going to end up. And each and every one of us is articulated in some way with this system. So I think, yes, through reflection we can try to create different institutions, try to create change, and try to create different incentives and a different kind of system. Whether that will be sufficient to assuage the sixth great mass extinction, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question. And I don’t think anybody does. I always feel bad because I think, well, that doesn’t sound very hopeful. But I think that it’s important for us to understand the problematic economic structure that we have on our hands, and how difficult it is to undo that. And I don’t think people think about that enough.

Della Duncan: So what has been the response that you’ve gotten as you’ve uncovered this and as you’ve shared some of this thinking?

Lisi Krall: I think generally people want a message of hope, and I don’t necessarily think that the work that I’ve done offers a message of hope. What it offers is some serious thinking about the nature of economic structure and the complexity of it. When people ask me what my research is, I say, “well, I’ve come to the conclusion that humans evolved like ants and we’re screwed.” [Laughs] I get deer in the headlights eyes. Like, “What!?” Or even just the proposition that we have a lot to learn about our social evolution by looking at social insects. People don’t believe that’s true. If you want to talk about our sociality and talk about primates, people are open to talking about that. They see that connection. And yet I think that there’s as much to learn by looking at the evolution of social insects for human beings as there is by looking at primates, in terms of our sociality. I think that’s hard for people to embrace. Because you look at an ant and they’re so different than we are, for one thing. And then you look at those superorganism colonies, and for most people they find them kind of creepy. And so we look at those and we say to ourselves, “We’re nothing like that.” And yet I think it’s actually a case of convergent evolution that’s going on.

Della Duncan: So as we get into this more involved conversation of evolution, I know that you’ve described yourself as a closet evolutionary biologist, and I know this is partially because this idea of evolutionary biology, often referred to as sociobiology, can have some problems or challenges. It can connect with issues of biological determinism. Can you discuss this a bit and maybe just define the field of sociobiology?

Lisi Krall: Well, I think it means in a simple way that there’s a biological basis for social behavior. But sociobiology developed into things like social Darwinism — sort of survival of the fittest where you could justify the power of the robber barons because they were somehow better adapted and they won that competitive battle. I mean, I have problem with that kind of sociobiology. Also as a social scientist you don’t want to say behavior is genetically encoded. You can have all kinds of problematic plays on that right. Because then you can start to say, “Well, women are going to behave in certain ways because this is how they’re built. Men are going to behave in other ways.” We don’t like social scientists to do that — to think in those terms. But I guess for me I started to confront questions which didn’t have any easy answers. And I found I think the kinds of questions we are confronting right now, like the question of how we reckon this vast global economic system with a limited planet. How did we come to this? I don’t think those kinds of questions can be answered well unless you’re willing to go into interdisciplinary work. So interdisciplinary work provides the most fertile ground for trying to think about what happened to us, what the possibilities are for change, and how we might change. You know, for example, we have conversations about the energy transition and making the transition to renewable energy. I’m all for transitioning to renewable energy. Don’t get me wrong. But conversations about transitioning to renewable energy without conversations about employment, without conversations about what kind of world we want, what should the relationship with humans be with the non-human world, how much of this planet do we want to domesticate, what are the advantages to downsizing. Those are conversations that we never have when we talk about this transition to renewable energy. And in some sense the transition to renewable energy in that way is no more enlightened than talking about clean coal, because it’s a technological solution to what is actually a profound social and evolutionary problem.

Della Duncan: Particularly if we maintain the same level of consumption and try to have the same level of growth.

Lisi Krall: Yeah.

Della Duncan: So you’re questioning the goals of the system and what it means to live a meaningful life.

Lisi Krall: What it means to live a meaningful life and how do human beings — and I’ll use Wes Jackson’s words here — once again become a “species in context.” Because Wes says that with agriculture we became a species out of context. And he’s right. Our job here is not simply to map out a road to some kind of vague sustainability with renewable energy. That’s not what we want to do. It’s not going to be enough either. It’s not going to be enough and it’s not where we want to end up.

Della Duncan: It’s not fulfilling.

Lisi Krall: It’s not fulfilling. And, you know, at some level — and I know this sounds simplistic — but I look at the non-human world and I see such magic. I think about the sources of human imagination. That’s where they mostly come from. And that’s not a deep ecology perspective. I mean that’s a human centered perspective. Why in the world would we want to end up without that? I don’t think it’ll be the end of the world. Whatever happens to us. But it could be really tragic.

Della Duncan: It will bring about a lot of human and more-than human suffering.

Della Duncan: Yes. And a much less interesting world. And why would we want to do that? And yet how do we dismantle the structure and dynamic of this system? And so I want to see the conversations about ending growth ferreted out more carefully. Everybody knows we need it. That’s nothing new. The question is how we do that. And that goes back to your question: do we have that capacity? Do we have the capacity to change? And I think that’s the ten thousand dollar question. I don’t know the answer to that question. I think we should take seriously the power and evolutionary significance of a vast system like we have. It’s no small matter to change that dynamic at this point.

Della Duncan: And maybe it’s already changing as well? Maybe if we start to look for it and we start to bring out the stories or the examples where it is changing, it will kind of grow? And you mentioned localization — and so there’s localization. There’s also de-growth or steady state economy movements. And then also the change from GDP to Gross National Happiness — those types of movements. It’s almost like we haven’t found a new system, like the next system, or a new economic system, but that at some there’s multiple places of intervention that are being tried around the world. Different points, different attempts. It’s almost like a holistic approach.

Lisi Krall: I think that’s true. And I also think that the system itself has many contradictions and those contradictions lead to significant problems from time to time. So I think right now about kind of the movement of technology, the financialization of the economic system. The increased inequality. That creates some significant contradictions in the system because that’s not sustainable for the way this system has to work. You have to have people spending money on the things that are produced. If you’re producing things without people — and people are making a lot of profits on them — and you don’t have people with enough money to buy what’s produced you…I mean it’s a simple kind of circular flow problem. You’ll have a crisis. You’re going to have a crisis. And so I think that the system itself is unstable. It expands and it contracts. And now we’re in this period of what seems to be secular stagnation. Employment is a greater challenge in a period of secular stagnation. So we have that kind of ongoing problem and contradiction. And I do not believe that lowering taxes on corporations and the rich is going to resolve that problem.

Della Duncan: One thing that I like to do is try to connect the conversations with ways that individuals who are listening can really think about in their own lives, or change their own behavior potentially — just invitations for people. Based on what you’re saying, I’m really seeing an appreciation for foraging and relearning skills from the wild, like bushcraft and foraging. That kind of connection to nature that’s not just a garden or that’s not agriculture. That learning about place, and learning about natural seasons and things like that, and medicine, and all that kind of stuff. So Foraging and connection to nature. Another thing is I really do think that there is something with this idea of changing from growth to well-being, and looking at how can we change the goals of our economic systems from growth to well-being. Or to really explore steady state economics or degrowth, and understand that growth without regard to our planetary boundaries is a problem. People you’ve talked to have a hard time seeing themselves — seeing the relation between themselves and an ant. And being that cog in the machine, which I can imagine doesn’t feel good to me — to acknowledge the similarity. So what about an invitation to see one’s work as more of right livelihood, or to see one’s work as more purpose-driven, or to challenge ourselves to think about how can we live more in line with our integrity or our greater purpose. To just start to break out of that mentality of, “I’m just a cog in the machine,” and actually to look at our agency, our capabilities, what we see as our passion or purpose? And then the final invitation to people is around this idea that it’s not that we have cooperation as an innate capability or not. It’s what we use our cooperation for. What are we cooperating to create. And so to really invite people to cooperate to build on those qualities, to leave our children or future generations with the qualities of altruism, of giving, of cooperation — for these kinds of goals of well-being, of connection to nature, of harmony, of connection to the more-than-human, other-than-human world. Really seeing what it is that we leave beyond. And also what are we cooperating for, what are the goals that we’re working towards, the vision that we see. For me, hearing what you’re saying, maybe these can be invitations for people to explore in their own lives. What do you think? Is there anything that you would?

Lisi Krall: Well I think you articulated it in a very wonderful way. It’s a challenge for a more reflective existence, a more critical existence, in a world that doesn’t encourage it. What I would add to that is that I think people also need to pay attention to system-wide change, because it isn’t clear to me that those kinds of changes will change the system. It may change your participation in it. But it’s not clear to me that it’ll change the system. A starting point for system change, for example, is a much, much more expansive social welfare system. So when you engage in the push for expanding things like Social Security, opportunities for students to educate themselves without ending up two hundred thousand dollars in debt, having good quality, affordable child care, healthcare, maternity leave — all those kinds of things that an advanced economy ought to be able to offer. Once you put in place those kinds of things. Then people are able to think more critically about what they do. Because right now people are so harried and worried and stressed that it’s hard for them to stop and hear a bird song, you know? So, I think the broader kind of structural changes, I would say, in distribution, in the social safety net — let’s stop having the conversation of renewable energy in isolation. Let’s connect that conversation directly to the problem of employment for people. What’s connected to growth. Let’s take it out of this unimaginative, technological solution realm so that we can start to think about structural changes, in addition to the kinds of things that you’re talking about. Those are just a couple of things. I mean I could go on and on. I’d say in every revolutionary action that you take, reflect on how it interfaces with this vast system. Does it confront it? Or is it merely a way to keep it going? Because unless we can change the dynamic of this vast system, all of our individual actions — and I’m not saying they’re not virtuous or valuable — but I don’t know that at the end of the day they’re going to change the course of history. But I’m not the most optimistic person that’s ever walked the planet, you understand that right? I’ve been studying ants for too long. [Laughs]

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  1. ambrit

    Dense but worth the read.
    I’d say that the first thing that popped into my head after reading this is that the dynamic described is similar to the theological conundrum of “Free Will.” In a very real sense, Fate is the hunter, and Doubt is the farmer.
    The adoption of agriculture would be a very early example of a “transformative technology.” Agriculture itself is a technology. The problem here is that the discussion is occurring in and as part of the society that evolved as a result of that adoption of a technology. A sort of intellectual infinite regression could be the result.
    This is a post I’d suggest that readers revisit tomorrow, after having ‘slept on it’ and reread.
    The mention of ant societies made me think of Clifford D Simaks’ story collection called “City.” The ants play a significant role therein.

    1. jsn

      For the ants, to feel another ant step on your back is an instruction to “bridge”, to hold your position until ants stop walking over you. I suspect the instruction is bred into the genes. For people, the instructions are “bred” into culture via our social institutions of cultural transmission.

      Our technologies are built of layer upon layer of such instructions, nurtured down through the generations from some transformative moment in the past when the success of the notion, whatever it was, embedded it in the mechanisms of cultural transmission. Krall suspects we’re no better than the ants as we no more understand the causal motives at the start of that chain of cultural transmission than ants do their genetic impulses.

      Reading the first edition of “The Limits to Growth”, its hard to argue with Krall, but we can learn, and tend to best under stress.

  2. Lee Robertson

    Proliferation will overpower deliberation, so it’s 90 MPH down a dead end street. There will be Hell to pay, and the tab is coming due. Absent some sobering shock on a Biblical scale wealth remains the opiate of the responsible.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Who is in the car? Who is driving? What is beyond the dead end? Your metaphor suggests lots of open-ended questions. I tend more to the Thelma & Louise metaphor – accelerating over the cliff – but many of the same questions apply. I increasingly am drawn to the notion that the car is remote-controlled.

      1. Lee Robertson

        C G Jung’s “Collective Unconscious” is a not-so-remote suspect. Ignorance and a wealth soothed influential class assure every living creature on Earth a blithe journey. As to picking up the pieces it’s anybodies guess.

  3. Jef

    WoW! Great post. This is exactly the information that needs to be disseminated widely and focused on consistently. This cuts through the “humans are just that way” BS.

    Also feeds into my position that people always say that without a system set up the way it is to force people to work the would do nothing. In truth the system is set up so a small percentage of people (1%?) can do nothing because everyone else does everything for them. The system is always marketed as a way to include everyone in the prosperity but instead only a few prosper and the rest toil.

    At this point however, most of humanity has been isolated from the non-human/natural world that they simply don’t care about it, don’t believe it is that important, and most are deathly afraid of it.

  4. Jamie

    I think Ms. Krall is way off the mark. To begin with, I don’t think she adequately or correctly describes ecological economics. I won’t speculate on why that might be. After dismissing ecology as less relevant to economics than anthropology and evolutionary biology, she tells a story that does not actually incorporate evolutionary biology per se, but relies on the notion of “group selection” which is a fringe idea in evolutionary biology that most evolutionary biologists decry. I do think her story about the fungus growing ants is very cool… that is I think the ants are cool, and her story is clever, and her appropriation of the term ‘ultrasociality’ is clever.

    But as she unfolds her story she unduly stresses the revolutionary aspect of agriculture. She talks as if there was no division of labor in hunter gatherer societies, but there was. Division of labor was not new with agriculture. She makes similar claims about hierarchy, stressing the long period (150,000 years—which is not that long actually in evolutionary terms) that humans were physiologically modern before agriculture, and implying that those were not hierarchical (or not as hierarchical) times. But social hierarchy extends well into the past beyond our physiologically modern period. It is part and parcel of being an ape. So what does the period of physiologically modernity have to do with this?

    I could go on, but suffice to say, while the interview is interesting, I don’t think the ideas Krall is promoting have much scientific merit.

    1. Alex V

      In regard to hierarchy, I don’t believe the point she was trying to make is that agriculture created hierarchy – I believe she was trying further a theory that agriculture reinforced and expanded hierarchy far beyond that which existed before. The storing of food beyond that immediately required begat the accumulation of wealth over time, which eventually led to ever increasing differentials in power, etc, etc… Bezos.

      In any case, what are your opinions on how agriculture shaped the evolution of human society?

      1. nonsense factory

        It is a very simple notion that farmers began producing far more food than they themselves needed to support their families, and this is what allowed the rise of city-states, priestly castes who did no farming but invented writing, merchant classes who bought and sold the excess production from the farmers, etc. This is nothing new.

        One can see a real change in the 20th century, however, due to several factors – mechanization, synthetic fertilizers (natural gas to ammonium nitrate), and highly productive hybrids. A farmer with a mule might be able to farm, what, 40 acres and a mule? As the saying goes – but a farmer with a tractor and combine harvester and so on, could farm 1000 acres. So now we have a situation where as little as 3% of the population grows all the food for 97% of the population; this is new for the 20th century; in the past, it might have been 80% farmers, 20% city dwellers (serfs in Russia, say).

        However, trying to call all this an extension of what ants do? That’s just too much of a stretch; this is the flaw in EO Wilson’s Sociobiology approach. A theoretical evolutionary model that works for ants, applied to humans? We are not driven by pheromonal triggers to the extent that ants are, it just doesn’t work. So where people are skeptical is when Krall says this, above:

        “ And yet I think that there’s as much to learn by looking at the evolution of social insects for human beings as there is by looking at primates, in terms of our sociality. I think that’s hard for people to embrace. Because you look at an ant and they’re so different than we are, for one thing. And then you look at those superorganism colonies, and for most people they find them kind of creepy. And so we look at those and we say to ourselves, “We’re nothing like that.” And yet I think it’s actually a case of convergent evolution that’s going on.”

        No, it’s not convergent evolution, not even close.

      2. Jamie

        …what are your opinions on how agriculture shaped the evolution of human society?

        Since you ask, in a word, I don’t think it has. I think Ms. Krall’s story depends on a common confounding of the term ‘evolution’. It is not always clear where she means the differentiation of species through the mutation of genes and natural selection and where she means something more prosaic like “the way things change over time”. I think that there are genes that give us the ability to create cultures, including agricultures, but I don’t think we are more genetically fit for capitalism now than our ancestors who lived in middle-eastern hydraulic societies were, or that they were more genetically fit to live in those hydraulic societies than we are, or that people living under feudalism transported by miracle to the present would shrivel up and die because they don’t have the genes for capitalism. I very much doubt that I understand what “the evolution of human society” even means except as a fancy way to say that things have changed.

        As far as changes go, agriculture is a big one. It has led to unprecedented growth in our population. It is not clear whether we will survive that in the long run, because at the same time it has enmeshed us within certain dependencies that so far, overall, have worked out well for us, but that are vulnerable to over-exploitation and sudden collapse. Culture is all about degrees of freedom, making choices and justifying them. You can rationalize bad choices, but you can’t escape their consequences. The Easter Islanders were at their cultural peak when they cut down the last few trees they had. Within fifty years they had ceased to exist.

        What I am trying to say is that the fact of agriculture is not any one specific culture. We might be able to have the benefits of agriculture without the specific form ti currently takes, i.e. industrial monocropping, extensive fossil fuel inputs, private land ownership… I don’t think any of that is genetic.

            1. Jamie

              One of the points that Coyne makes in the link I gave below:

              So if group selection is so intellectually and scientifically unproductive, why do we hear so much about it? I think there are two reasons.

              First, its few proponents make a lot of noise. And those proponents include well-known scientists like Martin Nowak, E. O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and Jon Haidt…

              …the arguments for group selection are being made in books aimed at the general public, but the critical responses by evolutionary biologists are not only buried in technical papers, but involve arcane scientific arguments that sometimes use (horrors!) mathematics. So while group selection may flourish in the public mind, it’s moribund to most evolutionary biologists who have followed the technical debates in the literature.

              I think this adequately rebuts your display of the popular literature as a claim that group selection is “well supported”.

              1. jsn

                Try reading the book: it’s not popular literature.

                Your quote is a convenient argument to maintain your prior assumptions, many of which are no doubt good.

                It’s a researchers effort to lay out progress in his field over the last 20 years.

                1. jsn

                  And, I see in readingf more recent comments, there is a mistake in my usage. I should have written cultural evolution rather than group selection.

                  Cultural evolution, as addressed in The Secret of Our Succesd is unlikely to impact genes, rather it’s the reason we still know how to cook after 150k years without a gene for it, and the reason our cooking has improved.

                  Because culture, for which our capabilities are genetic, is selected over generations for group success, we risk destroying our ecology due to ancient cultural adaptations that have, through our genes for hierarchy, institutionalized themselves to the point where “the iron law of institutions” could be fatal to the species.

                  I believe similar ambiguities of usage in the interview are behind much of the disagreement in this thread.

                  1. Jamie

                    Thank you for clarifying. I do not think we are far apart in our thinking. I have no trouble with the phrase “cultural evolution” as long as it is understood more or less as “culture undergoes change over time”. There may even be as yet unelucidated “laws” of cultural change. But Kralls seems to be saying that, through the phenomena of group selection, culture both determines and is determined by biological evolution. That is the thesis I reject. And I have remarked elsewhere on this thread that I, too, think the confusion stems from the ambiguity in the use of the term ‘evolution’.

                    1. jsn

                      You are obviously more expert in this subject mater than I, but the book I referred is on exactly the subject where you are disagreeing with Krall. The idea is that as culture has allowed us to re-make our habitat into one increasingly dependent on our technologies, culturally developed social, political on productive organizations, our gene expression is increasingly optimized for this culturally constructed reality, which across enough time and change in the physical environment feeds back into genetics.

                      I read it several years ago, so I’m probably remembering wrong, but the author goes into methodology etc and understands the skepticism you express.

                      In any case, this has been a very informative set of comments and helped me to discipline my thinking.

          1. Jamie

            Thank you for the update on Easter Island. I am quite willing to qualify my previous statement with a ‘probably’ or a ‘perhaps’, now that I know there is a competing theory in play. But I don’t think the possibility that Diamond was wrong affects my argument. I’m not going to suddenly think, “oh, the Easter Islanders had a genetically evolved successful culture, not a non-genetically determined unsuccessful one”. By the way, I don’t look to anthropology for “settled science” in the same way as say, physics. Anthropology is an historical science and no historical science can ever be “settled”, it can only be accepted or in dispute. And there may always be a degree of subjectivity in decided what is “in dispute”.

            Take the word ‘fringe’, for example. In my speech community it is primarily a referent of quantity. There is a majority view, held by the majority, perhaps a minority view that may be held by a substantial number but less the half, and a fringe view that is held by relatively few.

            Science, of course, is not a matter of numbers and the fringe view can certainly be the correct one. Moreover, ‘fringe’ is not precisely defined. We don’t know if the fringe is properly speaking, <10%, <5% , <2%… or whatever. But it is certainly not whatever one opposes as you suggest. I am well aware that the idea of group selection has been gaining traction in certain quarters. I would never say it is ‘fringe’ in the same way that, say, Flat Earth is ‘fringe’. But I admit I haven’t bothered to do any counting. If you prefer to follow Gould that’s fine, but I think Jerry Coyne has the right of it:


            Anyway, I will concede ground on the matter. I don’t need Ms. Krall’s ideas to be ‘fringe’. It is sufficient that I think they are wrong.

            1. giantsquid

              Sorry, I’m very late to the game. I was quite startled by your claim that group selection is presently a fringe concept among biologists, having worked half my life as a biologist. It is true that the naive group selection views of Wynne-Edwards et al. were demolished in the 1960s, particularly by George C. Williams and that a distaste for group selection prevailed into the mid 1990s, however, since that time views have shifted fairly strongly. Certainly, there are some who still dismiss group selection (or what is now commonly referred to as multilevel selection), with Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Steven Pinker being prominent among them. But many highly esteemed scientists, ranging from E.O. Wilson to Robert Sapolsky, now accept it as a given. In fact, to quote Peter Turchin, evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut with an appointment at Oxford and vice president of the Evolution Institute: “David [Sloan Wilson] lost that battle [over group selection in the 1980s], and for two decades the gene-centric theory reigned, while adherents of group selection were banished to the wilderness. And then a strange thing happened. The gene-centric paradigm began collapsing under the weight of empirical and theoretical anomalies. We now understand that evolution can occur simultaneously at multiple levels: a trait that is disadvantageous at the individual level may still be favored by natural selection if it’s advantageous at the level of groups.”

              I believe that your view that group selection is a fringe concept among biologists is clearly wrong.


      3. Lambert Strether

        > In regard to hierarchy, I don’t believe the point she was trying to make is that agriculture created hierarchy – I believe she was trying further a theory that agriculture reinforced and expanded hierarchy far beyond that which existed before.

        I don’t believe that hunter-gathers had priests, or tax collectors, or CEOs, or kings.

        1. ambrit

          They did have, and still do have, where they are encountered, shamans and hunt leaders. People who specialized in activities considered ‘important’ to the group. Specialists in determining what plants to harvest, and how to prepare them figure in there too.
          I see it as a matter of scale at first. Where the boundary line is from one ‘level’ of complexity to the next, I’m not smart enough to discern.

          1. jsn

            The boundary that’s relevant is where exploitation becomes possible.

            When you eat what you hunt and gather, the energy loss in exploitation outweighs the gains of exploitation.

            With institutionalized production of surpluses, which agriculture provides, all of the sudden sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies to exploitation start to yield increasing benefits. The rest is History.

        2. vlade

          If we assume that the old HG societies behaved not massively different from the recent ones, then the HG societies are pretty stratified too. Whether you look at Native Americans, Australian Aborginees, some African or South American tribes etc. etc.

          At the very minimum you pretty much always have spiritual leaders (shamans, but also artists), hunt/war leaders, and clan leaders. Clan leaders may or may not be the same as hunt/war leaders, but generally hunt/war leaders are younger generation that gets moved (I don’t want to say “promoted”) to the wise-men role. Clan leaders often do act as tax collectors (or kings) in terms of redistributing the bounty, especially one that is a result of communal efforts.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Ecological economics sounds like a marriage made in Hell. I have a problem with a discussion that spends so much of its energies wrestling with terms like ‘ultrasociality’ or ‘self-referential’. Neither the terms nor their discussion helped clarify anything for me. And assertions like “sociobiology developed into things like social Darwinism” do little to comfort me with the discussion. I may be mistaken but I have labored under the impression that doctrines of social Darwinism preceded concepts of sociobiology by a century or so. Should the word ‘developed’ be replaced with ‘devolved’? The middle discussion registered a strong flavor of TINA peppered by waffling caveats. The discussion treats the ‘growth’ dynamic as built-in to our economic systems, ignoring things like utilities and the steady returns on investments some of us oldsters remember and miss. I recall the ‘growth’ mantra as tied to a stock picking technique from the 1980s and morphed into a justification for the law of Corporate responsibility to the shareholders and a blessing for ever growing GDP tripling benefits down on all. The discussion ranges to ‘secular stagnation’ and the related ferreting of “conversations about ending growth” and employment as a greater challenge. At the close I was expecting a proposal to gather volunteers and form a committee to study the problems and find answers and “more important than answers, we need solutions”.

      Agriculture and science enabled the proliferation of humankind and with it the possibility of extended hierarchies and larger social structures. We may have once wandered the Earth as hunter-gathers or bone-marrow extracting tool makers who followed the swirl of vultures to the leavings of a kill by large predators we feared. Much of social philosophy seeks to define an innate nature for humankind. Humans are cooperative, humans are greedy and competitive, humans are compassionate, humans are savage killer apes, humans as hunter-gathers, humans are scavengers waiting to pry marrow from the prey of large predators. Social structures find explanations and apologies in appeal to human nature or harsh critiques in appeals to the contrasts between human nature and the nature demanded by ill-fitting societies. I believe the innate nature of humankind is adaptability. Humans are a creature most malleable and our natures guarantee neither our happiness nor our sorrows within the social systems we invent. Humankind is also Mercurial and unyielding to social constraints. But be these things as they may, our present human society faces an existential crisis.

        1. Lambert Strether

          It’s my impression that periodically we get a book where an anthropologist meets a previously unknown (to us) tribe, “The Peaceful _____.” Then it turns out they’re not peaceful at all.

          Still, is violence between two tribes really the same as the Battle of the Somme? Or even the siege of Troy? I’m not sure.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I don’t believe (despite what Stephen Pinker says) there is any consensus at all among archaeologists and anthropologists about this. At almost any period of history or pre-history – going back well into the Paleolithic, there is evidence of violent deaths, and frequently organised massacres. On the rare occasion where there is a statistically valid sample found (for example, a graveyard used over a number of years), there have been widely variable figures found. And of course its very hard to tell the difference between someone who died violently in a family argument and someone who died in a war, especially pre-iron age, where weapons like wooden clubs leave little archaeological trace (the wooden club was probably the main weapon used for many thousands of years – simple to make, and in many ways just as effective as a sword in skilled hands).

            Its also complicated by the nature of wars. In many primitive societies, they had lots of wars, but relatively few deaths by war, as the battles were ritualised (for example, pre-fuedal Ireland). In others, such as the Biblical Middle East, genocides seem to have been the norm for losers in any conflict. I think in many early wars the rate of death was worse (by percentage) than the Somme as it wasn’t just young males thrown into conflict, it was entire populations.

            I suspect that the nature of humanity is relatively long periods of relative peace (or at least, when conflict occurred, it was ritualised to minimise damage), with periods where the social norms preventing wars broke down for one reason or another, and violent death became very common. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in his takedown of Pinker, these things don’t flow in neat linear statistical patterns.

          2. ambrit

            Violence is intimately important to those who suffer as a result. It’s a matter of scale. This seems to be about a materialist analysis of violence versus a moral analysis.

  5. BlueMoose

    Good stuff and I would concur with Ambrit that it deserves a revisit in the morning. Also interesting that JMG has started a discussion recently regarding the coming/ongoing transition from an age of abstraction back to one of reflection.

  6. Susan the other

    Thank you for this post. Killer. I like the way these women think. I’d just like to add some thoughts here. Our ultrasociability had an extra bit of alienation to help it progress along its unbelievably delusional path – we invented money as a symbol of value which quickly became a symbolic commodity. And it allowed us to “externalize” all sortsa stuff. So one thing we might consider doing is have a long talk about just what value/values money should represent. Sustainable ones? Sane ones? Cryptocoin is just an even more insane derivative of our current symbolic money. But you could call it an ultrasociability exchange medium – just going in the wrong direction. And another thing about evolution and biology… Everybody I know sleeps on a problem and wakes up sometime later – in my case sometimes years – with a solution that fomented subconsciously. And it just occurred to me that we otta look at this subconscious process because it seems like the very mechanism of change. We agonize about our complex problems with all their complexities and contradictions and we get problem fatigue. Then it marinates in our subconscious and it hits us – an idea that performs a veritable differentiation. An evolutionary move, albeit it just a mental one. I don’t think ants do that so much. I guess our creativity is a double edged gift – because we have to use it wisely. Like accept logical conclusions and begin to decompress our idiocy into a sustainable organization of local eco economies. Not impossible. And for a touch of Real-Sociability I’d like to suggest the first thing we do is address our garbage dumps.

    1. Jamie

      And it allowed us to “externalize” all sortsa stuff.

      You get that that’s the part that she throws away with her dismissal of ecological economics, right? All that study of externalization and how to re-internalize ecological costs… she thinks is a waste of time? That her view not only dismisses it, but is antagonistic toward it?

      1. Lambert Strether

        I think her point is that the discipline doing that sort of economics has, in essence, become the handmaiden of the landfill operators.* Not so much that there are no “externalities” — though when you think about it, how can there be, since the earth is round? (Marge Piercy) — but that’s the service that the economics departments with that focus deliver.

        * “Here is our cost-benefit analysis for poisoning the Penobscot.”

        1. JohnnyGL

          Yeah, she doesn’t say it specifically, but I gather she’s weary of further extending neoliberal ideas by putting prices on the value of nature.

          It’s a dangerous game to play. The pro-environmentalist crowd doing this work may desperately want to prove that the value is too great to destroy, say, a rainforest, but that kind of thing can easily backfire with a couple of handwave assumptions that land-grabbing would-be plantation owners are happy to employ.

          You can easily see a conversation going like this:

          “Don’t cut down the rainforest, we might find something that can cure cancer.”

          “Maybe, but that’s speculative. We need palm-oil plantations now because we need foreign currency and jawbz!!!”

          1. Jamie

            OK. I gather from what you say and what Lambert says above that I am out of touch with how ecological economics has developed. I still think of it as the discipline described by Herman Daly in For the Common Good and Beyond Growth, Boulding’s “cowboy” versus “spaceman” economy, the attempt to construct a human welfare index to replace the GDP, the recognition that natural capital is a thing with limits that is not infinitely fungible, etc. etc. It was in no way neoliberal.

            1. JohnnyGL

              Krall actually breaks this out….Lambert and I were taking swipes at the first one…

              “Ecological Economics has gone in two different directions — there are two branches. One is this eco sphere studies branch of ecological economics, and that branch is sort of associated with putting prices on things that aren’t priced in the economy. That’s entirely what it’s about. And it is hardly discernible from standard orthodox economics. It’s the study of externality, public goods, and that sort of thing. There’s really no difference. The other branch of ecological economics, which is the more revolutionary branch, is the branch that talks about the issue of scale. That branch has been very good in talking about the need to limit or end economic growth. But in the conversations about how we might do that — and in particular dealing directly with the problem of whether or not you can have a capitalist system that doesn’t grow — I think that’s where that branch of ecological economics has not been as clear as it needs to be.”

              1. Jamie

                Thanks for that. I was unjustly harsh on Krall on that point then because I didn’t understand how things had developed. But I still think she is off the mark in regard to group selection and what economists need to learn from biology.

  7. nonsense factory

    This is an interesting article but it is rather light on a couple of topics:
    (1) Ecology as the study of energy and mass flow through natural systems. The real pioneer in this area was a guy from Yale named Hutchinson, who focused on lakes. The ecological productivity of a lake is limited by various factors, just as is the economic productivity of say, an island economy (take Hawaii, pre-European invasion, as a model system). The basic notion of ecological economics is that the same kinds of physical limits apply to humans as they do to fish populations in a lake. You can find a lot of discussion of this approach at Google Scholar by limiting the dates to pre-1980 works (ecological economics). One good case study would be the dessication of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan by the Soviet planners who diverted the rivers feeding the sea in order to expand agricultural production. This destroyed the fishing economy of the Aral Sea; clearly there is an underlying physical limit here, growth in one area must be balanced by die-off in another area. It’s akin to the physical concept of conservation of energy (something your neoclassical economist doesn’t seem to grasp).

    (2) As far as “the agricultural revolution”, it’s not clear what they’re talking about. One can think of two such revolutions in human history – one in prehistory, when humans first developed agriculture and began to settle cities, which was only possible due to the greatly expanded food production relative to hunter-gather societies, leading to more class structure as well – and then there was the 20th century ‘green revolution’ in which per-acre yields again increased, due to the production of synthetic fertilizer and plant breeders developing highly productive hybrid species.

    (3) When people claim that the ‘green revolution’ was responsible for the huge explosion in human population (obviously both an ecological and economic issue/concern) in the 20th century, they’re ignoring an equally important factor – the development of antibiotics, which greatly reduced childhood mortality relative to previous centuries. In many ways, these high childhood survival rates drove the green revolution, as there was a pressing demand to feed all the new mouths and prevent global famine.

    The most pressing need for ecological economics now, however, is that climate change, i.e. fossil-fueled global warming, is likely going to severely impact agricultural production, and technology doesn’t seem able to prevent this. Basic water supplies are threatened, and without water, food cannot be grown. The neoclassical economic model can’t handle this situation.

  8. samhill

    Rather perfect place to link this:

    and in particular dealing directly with the problem of whether or not you can have a capitalist system that doesn’t grow

    It could grow ‘backwards, undoing the damage of the last 300 years of industrial revolution, kind of like Keynes Idea of paying people in a bad economy to dig a giant hole and then to fill it in.

    1. JohnnyGL

      I’m not clear that there’s a real conclusion as to whether humans ‘jumped’ toward agriculture or ‘were pushed’. Did we HAVE to adopt agriculture because of overhunting and gathering and population pressures? Or did agriculture come first and create and reinforce any existing population pressures?

      At risk of oversimplifying, the Toby Hemenway lecture link I posted elsewhere on this thread argues for using Permaculture ideas to move society towards a kind of middle ground between agriculture and wild foraging.

      1. gepay

        It appears obvious to me that the agriculture “revolution” happened when the glacial age ended. A few thousand years later the “weather” had settled down enough to be an actual global climate change favorable for farming. it is not farming per se that led to Empires and stratification but grain production – Wheat, rice, corn, potatoes (not a grain but similarly used for population growth by the Incas – kept for years when freeze dried).
        labor intensive-natural fertilizer – small scale agriculture outproduces the green revolution and is much healthier. People are lazy so if there is an alternative to growing one’s own food it appears most people are happy to let others do it. Even man made CO2 leading to catastrophic climate change skeptics like me would be glad if CO2 was sequestered in the soil – enriching it and enabling it to retain more moisture. Vanishing topsoil and agriculturally usable land is a real problem.
        Citizens of the US can’t even get the US military industrial complex under control – Do you really think you are going to get society to make wholesale changes. A carbon footprint would just be another control method of Powers That Be. Nuclear War however, would be a global catastrophe for humanity.

  9. Amfortas the Hippie

    the Harvester Ants around here not only farm fungi…they also farm a different fungi as fodder for the aphids they capture and raise as dairy cattle(for the honeydew that aphids secrete).
    on the larger issue…as someone who cut his interweb teeth as a Doomer, I’ve thought about this sort of thing for long time.
    The conclusion to all this rumination? we’re prolly Frelled…and good.
    since before we were fully human, we’ve only known how to expand. Agriculture served as rocket fuel for this penchant for expansion…and then all the rest of our innovations and invention, until our expansion went all reverse L shaped(see: population graph, circa 8000Bc-1200 AD to present)
    To survive in any meaningful way, we have 2 options: 1. learn to live within the limits that Mother Nature has set, and eschew our insane prerogative for expansion above all…or 2. expand out into the stars.
    There are so many barriers to #1….above and beyond whatever innate expansionary imperative, to include systems logic, the machinations of the Elites,etc…I fear that this is a bridge too far.
    Add to what this woman is talking about the Kurgan Hypothesis…wherein pastoralists, with their skyfather, and exploitative ways of life, invaded agriculturists, with their egalitarian caring and sharing ways(reflected in mythology, the world over(see: Joseph Campbell, Gimbutas, et alia)…and we’ve got a huge cognitive problem, baked into the foundations of our consciousness.
    If we’re able to do #2, I can easily foresee a time when We are the aliens in Independence Day…ravaging and ravaging worlds, then moving on to another.
    The fundamental problem in both scenarios is that we’ve never learned how to be satisfied…”Enough”…or Eudaimonia.
    If I were shot back into say the 2nd millennium BC, I’d use the magic of my zippo and the rubber bands and such in my pocket to impart just that lesson.

  10. Pelham

    Wow, a really powerful read.

    I would suggest one thing: From what I’ve read about recent thoughts on agriculture, it’s not the cultivation of the land that was the problem so much as the specific cultivation of grains. These require large, easily quantified plots of land, which allowed powerful forces to levy taxes and institute other measures — eventually including land seizures — to create cities and desperate masses of people to fill them and labor pitiably therein for the benefit of their lords.

    So perhaps the answer to this grand quandary isn’t a return to a hunter-gatherer existence — there is nowhere near enough nature left for that — but rather a return to a simpler form of agriculture less reliant on grains and using what we’ve learned about things such as hydroponics, aquaponics, drip irrigation and the like as well as technologies (such as 3D printing) to produce most of what we need on a smaller-scale, more distributed basis.

    I also very much like what Krall has to say about our great capacity for imagination emerging from the pre-agricultural state. We have pretty much lost that. For instance, it’s virtually impossible for modern beings to believe in God the way people as recently as the Middle Ages could believe. And for someone like myself who in just a few quiet moments has oh so briefly felt the merest hint of the power and awe of such belief only to have it slip away, it’s understood as a quite palpable and grievous loss.

    1. Jamie

      Don’t know what you’ve been reading recently but Marvin Harris has an excellent chapter in his book Cannibals and Kings about the hydraulic societies around the Nile Valley. According to his view, it was the irrigation project, a massive engineering endeavor, that provided the organizing principle for those societies. And it was the constant tension between the elites’ desire to “coast” and the need for constant maintenance of the system that brought one “administration” after another to ruin. The system would be repaired at great expense to the state and then neglected for years while the rulers grew fat and wealthy and the system fell into disrepair. Those old rulers were chucked out and a new young administration would pay the repair bill and the whole cycle would repeat. If I understood correctly, this went on for centuries, making the system as a whole relatively stable, but the quality of life of the masses at any given time depended entirely on where in the cycle you were.

      Of course this worked in the Nile Valley because every year the soil was replenished. It was a thermodynamically open system. The point has been made elsewhere, and I agree with it, that it is the irrigation engineering and global warming that is becoming problematical today. I would add to that the constant soil depletion that we mask with massive fertilizer inputs and the problems that are inherent in monocropping that are big challenges. The vulnerability of grain fields, per se, to enclosure and taking I can’t really track. It seems the wealthy have no problem taking what they want whether it is large grain fields or open wilderness, or anything else they want. But like I said, I don’t know what you’ve been reading.

  11. Roland

    Too much deduction here. Everything depends on an assumption that agriculture was a revolutionary development of about 10,000 years ago.

    As research continues, it looks like that assumption is probably mistaken. The collection and processing of cereal grains began long before that.

    I won’t go into a linkfest. The studies are mounting up. You can find plenty if you look. Here are just a couple of examples I fetched in a few seconds:

    An important thing to bear in mind is that animal bones, and the weapons and tools associated with hunting, easier to identify in an archaeological dig than are generalized grinding tools and trace plant remains. Our methods for a long time were simply incapable of recognizing the signs of early grain processing.

    Archaeology and anthropology are not forms of history. These areas of study are themselves undergoing historical development.

    It is inadvisable to construct models of human society and behaviour upon some very remote and largely imagined prehistory. People like to do this because they want to put their own claims of how things should be on some sort of ultimate and unchallengeable basis. This method of argument might take the outward form of scientism, but I think the psychological impulse is similar to that which underlies religions.

    If you want to model how people behave and why, you have plenty of examples in the present day and in the historical past.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Hmm. I don’t think “the collection and processing of cereal grains” is the same as agriculture. One might seed one year and then periodically forage, for example. That’s not the same as having fields and above all tax collection. (I think Against the Grain makes this point, though I’m too lazy to find the quote.)

      1. ambrit

        A quibble, if I may.
        There is also a ‘tax on time’ based on group imposed tasks that benefit the group rather than just the individual. “If you want to live with this band, you have to learn to knap flints, or identify edible mushrooms for us all to eat.” Taxes do not have to be in some form of transferable commodity.

  12. The Rev Kev

    I have to admit in reading this I got sidetracked by the following quote: “Adam Smith thought human beings have a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. He thought there was a natural human tendency to markets.” Now Adam Smith’s work in considered to be a cornerstone of economics. Certainly I can see how Ayn Rand was influenced by him. But is that quote a valid assumption?
    Consider this. If Adam Smith was transported with a flux-capacitor powered DeLorean to 50,000 BC then the “natural propensity” would not be to truck, barter, and exchange but to cooperate, track and hunt. If you took him to ancient Sparta the “natural propensity” would be to drill, fight and dominate. Adam Smith grew up in a time long before any form of common welfare so the ability to truck, barter and exchange was the tool-set that you had to have so that you did not starve to death. Vital yes, but only when your whole society is set up for it to be so.
    OK, I will chew on this bone a bit more. This tool-set does not work in all places. Consider an army. Try to have an army with this skill-set and what you will have is a bandit army of mercenaries. Even pirate ships had to organized along semi-democratic lines as well as rigorous discipline. In fact, some of the disastrous results that you see nowadays in society I put down to the fact that more and more of the work force are now contract-based so that ideas like public-service, faithfulness and loyalty are discarded because you cannot write them into a contract. Want to know what I call a contract-based workforce? A mercenary workforce. And that has a mercenary attitude to their work and careers. I think that we have all seen examples aplenty of this in operation.

    1. JBird

      Whenever I get back to studying anthropology, the age of anything ascribed to modern humans gets pushed back, often to before modern humans. In both stone tools and fire, it has been push back to millions of years (although with fire, it is hard to distinguish from natural burns and the primitive fire pits which makes determining whats what difficult.) So that is several species ago, including some recently discovered species whose name I can’t remember right now.

      I seem to recall very ancient, as in 100s of thousands of years ago, trading networks for preferred stones, minerals, and seashells in southern Africa. If you want sharp edged tools, obsidian is the best, and making jewelry out of shells has been a thing since before homo sapiens. Certainly before modern Homo sapiens. So there was trading, often across hundreds of miles. We only know about those particular items because they don’t decay and are fairly easy to track from place of origin. The Northern California coastal tribes use to trade with tribes in the Rockies similarly up into the 19th century. I don’t remember for sure, but I seem to remember reading that there were regular meetings, and trading routes. Darn it, I really have to start buy the books.

      No matter how self-sufficient a community might be, there are always useful even vital items like salt, obsidian, minerals, copper, or even plain wood.

      As for farming, that practice probably evolved over tens of thousands of years ago. Even today, there are communities that practice some mixture of hunting, gathering, and farming.

      Modern capitalism is an abomination, and modern agricultural practices are really bad, but they both are twisted versions of earlier practices that had evolved organically from over 20 thousand years ago with farming to probably near half a million years with trading, and probably some kind of regular markets. Heck, the Assyrians were practicing international banking over 3000 years ago.

  13. Clif

    There is a lot of foggy thinking here, but that’s ok. These are big ideas. A fractal conception reduces the scale and simplifies the distinction between ants/termites and humans in that a rudimentary family/tribe geometry is different that a queen/worker. Agriculture a boundary limit.

    I loathe the gooey inclusion of Adam Smith into evolutionary considerations. There is a real issue with limited knowledge in market operation, not everyone has the same information, but that doesn’t mean markets don’t allow for self interest to include evolutionary questions. Huge advance in advocating for the pricing of ‘externalities’, though, I hope it is not too late.

  14. Kristiina

    A genuinely new idea! Thank you for putting it out! Interesting how this reframes the cultural impulses for domination, hierarchy and expansion as a – do not even know a suitable word – a secular ecological self-serving process. A hamster wheel of sorts. There is a tendency to judge the predatorial business practices as evil, transgressing the human decency. But this perspective shows how some processes can become all-devouring just by participants serving the system the best they can. Extremely useful perspective.

  15. Shane

    I concur with the notion that agriculture was adopted quite gradually, with many steps of improvement in its methods from what was a pretty dismal start. Early agriculturalists relied on a significant amount of hunted and foraged food. Even into the industrial revolution when crops failed peasants knew how to find some food in the wilds. In fact a big chunk of the worlds protein intake today is still hunted in the ocean. A big part in why the system is becoming so fragile is because there is not enough wild space left to provide a buffer if the current industrial agricultural system fails, let alone knowledge of how to use it.
    Grains definitely seem to be key to forming large and complex societies due to their ability to be rapidly measured and easily stored and transported. This allows formation of a ruling class who can tax grain production, centralise its storage, and leverage it to feed specialist armies to wield violence. Societies without a suitable grain crop seem to go down a different path (sometimes called horticulturalists) that develop without centralised domination (but also without its benefits in developing science and culture further, though less prone to collapsing, but more prone to being conquered).
    My main problem with the picture presented is it argues that agriculture inevitably leads to the kinds of societies we see today (or at least saw in the recent past before mechanisation and massive fossil fuel use). The agricultural foundation for our society could be very different, with direct consequences for how society forms around it. To throw out an example, why couldn’t we breed/engineer easily farmed strains of fungi so that everyone can turn any vegetation into human food (to take a lesson from the Atta ants). People could spend much of the day pruning their gardens in order to eat. Less speculative is to grow our staple crops on trees as several other complex societies have done before.

  16. James Trigg

    So cultivating some of the seed you gathered is the reason the world is going to heck in a handbasket.

  17. Harry Shearer

    Big time hole there between taking up agriculture and Adam Smith. What happened in between? “Dominion” and “be fruitful and multiply”. Man’s dominance over the non-human environment and the insatiable desire for growth originated in the Good Book. The real evolutionary change in man’s relationship to his planet came with the mass conversion to monotheism, imho.

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