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January 21, 2008


Monica J. Deza O.

1.-Jared argues that agriculture brought diseases (farmers had to live in a crowd), overpopulation (farmers could afford to feed more people), malnutrition (farmers were limited to the few carbohydrates they farmed), and social discrimination (they could now store goods) among other disasters.
Although I agree with the points Jared makes, I do not think that agriculture was the worst of all our mistakes. I think that agriculture could have been used in a different way. Agriculture was invented to obtain more food for less work. Had the farm belonged to the entire community however, with everyone contributing to it and only taking the amount of food necessary for the day, agriculture could have been the best invention in history. Hunter-gatherers had a happier and healthier lifestyle because they worried only about the current day, and greediness did not stress them. With a common farm, everyone would have benefited from having easy access to food for less work, social classes would have never emerged. Also, with a big enough farm, a vast supply of different types of food could be grown to combat malnutrition and starvation. For all that, a social planner was needed. Regarding overpopulation, I understand that agriculture made it easy for humans to reproduce at a faster rate, but it did not force humans to do it. We cannot blame agriculture on humans having used it in the wrong way.
I understand that hunter-gatherers are happier, healthier, sleep more hours and have a more balanced diet. However, they face the risk to be eaten by a wild animal, eating an unknown poisonous plant, or many other dangers. Farmers’ lives are hard too but do not have to be.

2.-According to Baumol, entrepreneurs’ drive to promote innovations depends on the rules, values, and reward system of the society they are in. Since societies’ culture and values change from society to society, it makes sense that the rate of technological progress depends on which society you belong to.
For instance, in medieval China, the monarch claimed possession of all property in his territories and he would confiscate properties when the government was in financial crisis. Thus, individuals would have no incentive to invest. Since technological progress has not been supported by the government throughout history, I wonder if their motivation to invent things came from love for knowledge or for pride. Societies in which reward for innovations existed and rules promoted technological progress, grew faster. There is a correlation between the degree to which the economy rewarded the productive entrepreneurs and the vigor shown in innovations.

3.-Yes. The same way that different society’s rules mean different rates of technological progress growth, I think that with certain “rules in the game,” agriculture would not have had the effects it did. Agriculture was a big milestone in human history, but technology can also be used in a destructive way if there are no rules that induce entrepreneurs to shift their attentions in positive directions.

Mitchell Hoffman

Because the Diamond paper is not an academic work, it is difficult to know how to evaluate it. Points are made often without citation and with limited, selective empirical evidence. Even attempting to evaluate the article as a popular piece, I find his arguments, on the whole, to be unconvincing and speculative, made perhaps with the aim of being controversial instead of adding to anyone’s knowledge.
The paper claims at least five ways that agriculture hurt civilization: health, material well-being, leisure time, conflict, and inequality. Probably the best argued one is the effect of agriculture on health. He lists several pieces of evidence (though without clear citation—which studies by Armelagos?) about how agriculture may have increased disease and reduced life expectancy. These are interesting. His claim that “farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition” is less straightforward; I was taught in high school that American diets were overly high in protein, and that improved health came from higher carbohydrates a la the Japanese or Northern Italian diets. Having only this little knowledge, I have no ability to evaluate the scientific validity of his argument, but I am certainly not convinced.
To argue how agriculture has hurt material well-being, or the total amount of consumption, he mentions the Irish potato famine. There are many, many examples though of shortage among nomadic societies. One way that Nomadic societies often face deprivation and risk is through their dependence on the population of certain animals. With the growing extinction of the bison in the United States, many central plains Indians starved, or were forced to turn to agriculture. Just as Diamond describes how agricultural societies compete for lands, American Indians often competed for herd animals, and this occurred (if I remember my US History coursework correctly) before the arrival of the Europeans. Many other societies, such as tribes in Africa like the Zulu, have engaged in competition for animals. Finally, even the statistics that Diamond cites in his argument, like 2,140 calories per day “when food was plentiful” seem, to a laymen dietician like me, extremely unconvincing; 2,000 calories is often recommended as a caloric limit for middle-aged people looking to maintain or lose weight. In colonial America, an agricultural society where people engaged in vigorous physical activity, caloric intake was much higher.
The abundance of leisure time afforded by agriculture is a commonly cited example of the advantage of agriculture. Diamond only addresses this point by saying that Bushmen had a decent amount of leisure time.
As described above, nomadic societies frequently fight over animals instead of land, and there are many examples of conflict. American Indian warfare was frequently brutal. I read a book about the Zulus and warfare there was also nothing nice. There are many examples of agricultural societies fighting wars simply because most societies today are agricultural.
As for inequality, nomadic societies are also oftentimes autocratic. Native American and African chiefs exercise tremendous power, as did Genghis Khan and other Central Asian nomadic leaders. Diamond’s claim that agriculture uniquely added to inequality or autocracy doesn’t seem well-founded.
Switching to the question of why organizational process is faster in some societies than in others, I found William Baumol’s article on this question and the general issue of the differential value of entrepreneurship to be much better argued and interesting. He argues that whether entrepreneurship is used for good (e.g growth & technological innovation) or ill (e.g. crime) is determined by societal incentives for innovation. I found the piece intriguing. While Baumol’s use of the historical record seems balanced and thoughtful, I am interested in seeing how his theory might explain more contemporary differentials in entrepreneurship. I am also a little uncertain on whether entrepreneurship and crime/plunder are really two sides of the same coin. Would a successful drug lord also have made a successful businessmen? Why do countries like Columbia that have implemented free-market policies and seem to provide incentives for entrepreneurship still have enormous issues with the drug trade and other undesirable innovation?

Edson R Severnini

Diamond (1987) argues that the adoption of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race because it was bad for health (cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition, risk of starvation due to limited number of crops, and spread of parasites and infectious disease because of crowed societies) and it deepened class divisions. The arguments were very well developed but I think they are not convincing for his central point since they only covered the side-cost of a standard cost-benefit analysis. And the benefits of the adoption of agriculture?
I think one important benefit of that adoption was the possibility of deepening the division of labor. If people have different skills, why they would have to do almost the same tasks as in the hunter-gatherer societies? The division of labor allowed people specialize in jobs that they had more ability for and then it brought the possibility of advancing in knowledge in other areas than hunting and gathering, and consequently brought technological progress in several fields. This benefit more than doubled the life expectancy at birth, for example. In a counterfactual exercise, how this indicator would have evolved if the hunter-gathered societies had continued? Another benefit the adoption of the agriculture brought was the challenging problems created by that adoption. If the life style of the hunter-gatherer societies were so better, would have those people the incentives to create the technology that permitted human beings live more? I don't think so: looking the evidence provided by Diamond about the modern hunter-gatherer societies, we see that they lived in a very similar way that their ancients lived.
That is true, however, that the challenging problems brought by the adoption of agriculture were not solved in the same pace around the world. In some human societies technological and organizational progress were relatively slow and in others relatively fast. This is a consequence, as Baumol (1990) argues, of the allocation of the entrepreneurial skills between productive and unproductive activities. If the society offered relatively high payoffs to productive activities like innovation, then the entrepreneurs devoted efforts in discovering ways to produce more efficiently, for instance. On the other hand, if the incentives of the society were towards unproductive activities, like bureaucracy in medieval China, then most of the entrepreneurs were wasted. But it is also true that even in societies with slow pace of progress, the adoption of the agriculture brought some advances. As Temin argues, even in the Roman Empire, where there was little innovation and the agriculture was the main activity, the farmers gained from the specialization in some products and from the market exchanges.
After all this explanation, I think that the Diamond's claim that the adoption of the agriculture was the worst mistake of the human race was a little precipitated. I am not able to do a balance of the costs and benefits of the adoption of the agriculture, but I would guess that the benefits are bigger, as we can see in the evolution of some indicators such as life expectancy at birth.

Josh Hausman

Let me divide Jared Diamond’s (1987) argument into two parts. (1) Diamond argues that in the several millennia before the industrial revolution, people were worse off as farmers than they had been as hunter-gatherers. (2) Diamond argues that even now, two centuries after the industrial revolution, people remain worse-off than their hunter-gatherer predecessors. The first of these arguments is defensible, the second much less so.

(1) Diamond provides rather persuasive evidence that hunter-gatherers lived better than their farming successors. Indian skeletons from the Illinois and Ohio River valley’s suggest, for example, that life expectancy dropped from twenty-six to nineteen years when these groups switched from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers. Some of Diamond’s evidence is less clear-cut. What are we to make of the fact that hunter-gatherers in Greece and Turkey were taller than today’s Greeks and Turks? Modern day Greeks are not worse-off than their hunter-gatherer predecessors.

(2) Diamond suggests that even now, an alien from outer space might consider the agricultural revolution a mistake. Diamond has two things in mind. First, that despite the riches of the Western world, most people live a miserable, Malthusian existence. Second, that one should evaluate questions like these with something like a Rawlsian social welfare function. We ought to gauge our progress since the days of the hunter-gatherers by the welfare of those least well off today.

This first point is dated. When Diamond wrote his piece in 1987, China had just begun its rapid economic growth, and India’s economy remained relatively stagnant. The second point is a subject for a philosophy class. In this moral calculus, it is certainly not obvious that no weight should be assigned to the material lives of those in the industrialized world.

Diamond appears to have little hope for the spread of the Western world’s riches to those in the developing world. This brings us to explanations of differences in economic growth across time and space. Our other readings address one historical case of poor economic growth: Rome.

Finley (1965) argues that it was the culture of the upper classes in imperial Rome that lead to the paucity of innovation. His argument is rather Marxist: in Finley’s view, Rome was not a market economy, the result (and / or cause) was a culture that did not support practical inventions. Temin takes issues with this view, arguing that Rome was a market economy. In the case of Rome, Temin is a proponent of Smith’s view that man has a natural “disposition to truck, barter, and exchange.” Baumol (1990) is less optimistic, he argues that the way in which the ambitious go about pursuing wealth and power depends on the ‘rules of the game’.

Tijl Vanneste

The reasons why in some human societies technological and organizational progress appears relatively slow and in others relatively fast are numerous. In explaining an apparent lack of technical innovation in the Ancient World, Finley comes up with different sets of arguments from within the given society, such as a political and cultural framework that was not beneficial to entrepreneurship, but also the lack of organizational and operational tools for the mobilization of private capital, that could be invested in innovation (Finley, 1965). William Baumol connects the allocation of entrepreneurship to different forms of invention with the changing ‘rules of the game’, by which he meant the relative payoffs society had to offer different forms of entrepreneurship (Baumol, 1990). The Romans’ almost total separation between science and practice, the low status they attached to commerce and industry and their different reward system all contribute to explain why the Roman empire did not progress much in terms of productivity.
This internal argument alone is not a sufficient explanation. Innovations correspond to a certain need, a need that could arise either because of exogenous (for instance climate change) or endogenous factors (for instance population pressure). It is the second factor that is of particular interest here. Finley states that the incapacity of the Romans to deal structurally with an increase in population proofs their shortcoming to raise productivity significantly. It is also the need to feed more mouths that is given as the main reason by Jared Diamond for the invention of agriculture. As such, it is a sign of rapid technological progress as a response to an imminent problem of society. Such a need seems to have been smaller in the case of the Roman empire, as is argued by Finley, when he stated that ‘it is not often that one can point to slaves and say simply and with confidence “There lies the explanation for a static technology and a static economy”’ (Finley, 1965). In this, he connected the abundance of labor force with an incapacity to use known inventions (the water-mill) in order to obtain higher productivity. That agriculture really was the ‘worst mistake in the history of the human race’ and that mankind should have chosen for population control, is impossible to acknowledge. To start with, it suggests that man had that choice. Also, Diamond seems to suggest that the organizational progress that came along with the technical innovation, i.e. a much more complex organization of society, only had negative consequences. In doing so, he not only suggests that agriculture corrupted mankind. He also denies that the growing complexity of human relationships had positive consequences as well, such as specialization of labor and a growth in human exchanges such as trade.

Eva Vivalt

Agriculture was not a disaster. In making his argument to the contrary, Diamond notes that life expectancy at birth in a particular pre-agricultural community was about 26 years, which fell to 19 years post-agriculture (1987). Diamond also suggests that we consider an agricultural life in Ethiopia as our benchmark of present-day agricultural life. Yet people in Ethiopia today have a life expectancy of approximately 50 years, so his argument seems suspect; even if adopting an agricultural lifestyle might initially result in reductions in life expectancy, as in his example, modern life expectancies provide reason to believe that any such dip is transient. This is even more compelling evidence that agriculture was good for people when one considers Diamond’s image of a clock, with each hour representing 100,000 years and 11:54 pm the date of adopting agriculture; the post-agricultural period has been so short relative to the pre-agricultural period, yet in it gains in life expectancy have been made which by far surpass those made in the pre-agricultural societies.

What might fuel such an extreme link between the adoption of agriculture and life expectancy? Krugman has argued that large populations increase innovation (1995). With Diamond admitting that agriculture allows people to live in much bigger communities, this seems to be one of many logical, concatenating ways in which agriculture would have an impact on life expectancy – and, moreover, on quality of life. Further, interactions between these larger groups are more likely in agricultural societies, allowing innovations to spread.

This emphasis on the circumstances which nurture innovation mirrors that of the article by Baumol, which suggests that the innovations of an era are a product of the incentives with which potential entrepreneurs are faced (1990). Baumol’s examples seem sound, overall, and are reinforced by articles by Finley (1965, 1970) and Temin (2001). Baumol’s hypothesis does, however, seem to miss part of why technological and organizational progress appears relatively slow or fast in different societies. For Baumol writes only of the incentives that potential entrepreneurs face, ignoring the substance with which the entrepreneurs have to work. Completely apart from the potential entrepreneurs’ incentives, one might want to ask about their education, or about what is already known in the society (with some discoveries making others more likely). It is well documented that technological progress often has spillover effects, and these or agglomeration effects (under which population size would fall) may also thus have an effect on why technological progress appears relatively slow or fast in different societies.

Finally, one can imagine different ways in which it might even be the case that the inequality that Diamond bemoans in agricultural societies (though his tacit claim that pre-agricultural societies did not suffer from inequality is implausible) helped give rise to incentives that encouraged potential entrepreneurs to innovate. On the other hand, inequality could credibly instead stifle innovation by reducing the pool of potential entrepreneurs, for example, or by channeling elites' efforts into unproductive ventures, depending on the society. Much more could be studied here.

Lemin Wu

1.Whether the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake is more of a normative question. Its answer is based on our values. Jared Diamond gave us some important facts about the living standard of the gatherer-hunter society, which was important in supporting almost any arguments that are prone to the worst-mistake view. However, as for the question itself, the invention of agriculture was a long historical process instead of a series of events or accidents, in which sense the “mistake” argument may not apply. In Diamond’s bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, he described the situation in which the gatherers and hunters discovered agriculture, the essence of which lies in the selection of seed, whether unconsciously or deliberately, which to some extent suggests the inevitability of agriculture given the endowment of the earth. Be it inevitable, faster is better.

2. Endogenously, technological and organizational progresses are intimately related to each other. Beyond the interactive pattern of technology and organization, culture is an important determinant in the sense that culture shapes the reward pattern and people’s attitude and psychology about the innovative activities both in technological and organizational sense. However, given the endogeneity of culture itself, we tend to find geology, geography and climate as exogenous variables that explain the gap between different areas.
As I understand the dependence of technological and organizational development on geography, the access to neighboring human societies seems as one of the decisive factor. More concretely, the size of the land in connection to the habitat determines the accessibility to neighboring culture, the availability of long-distance trade and technological communication as well as the extent of competition between different organizations, all of which contribute greatly to the development pattern of a human society. This explains the gap found by new-world explorers between the two continents of Asia and North America (what a natural experiment!) and that between Australia and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the natural resources also play big roles. It’s not accidental that Middle East turned out to be the source of civilization. Besides the above reason as it is well connected with three big continents, Middle East is also home to most species of edible big animals, not to mention its mineral resources. However, in the view from a smaller scale of history, the abundance of natural resources can also be a curse because easy mining encourages rent-seeking activities in an economy. The organizational niche tends to become a trap of development as the related despotism and violence disrupts productive activities.

3. I’ve no idea whether the invention of agriculture is a curse to human race as a whole given the normative nature of the question, but it is clear that a human society has to face fatal disaster if it knew nothing about agriculture due to isolation from outside world before the inevitable invasion of agricultural peoples. The idea was made clear also in Diamond’s bestseller. Agriculture supports far more dense population and makes settled life possible. The dense population through communication within itself achieved far higher level of technology which gives the dominant people swords and guns to destroy. The density also leads to fatal epidemical diseases which doomed to kill tens of millions after they touched the land “uncontaminated” or less contaminated by agriculture. In this sense, it is maybe the worst mistake for a single isolated human society not to invent agriculture as soon as possible.

Hongyan Zhao

Jared Diamond maintains that the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. He cited the evidence of archeological findings and paleopathologists’ analysis to show the reasons of his assertions. Compared with their hunter-and-gatherer predecessors, people living in agricultural economy suffer more from malnutrition, starvation and epidemic diseases. Also in agricultural society there exist deep class divisions and sexual inequality. Although the examples he listed seem reliable, we should try to think more on the fundamental reasons why human race ever entered the era of agriculture.

Taking the human history as a whole, how about the assumptions that there are two equilibrium? In one case, the population is less but the life’s quality is really higher just as people living in the hunter-gatherer society. Whereas in the other case, the population is more and life quality is relatively lower just as in the agriculture society. If we construct these two steady states and prove that the former is a global steady point but the latter is only a local steady point or a saddle point, then it is natural for people to transfer from hunting and gathering to farming. The key point lies in that there are no contraception measures to control population in primitive society. Thus just as Diamond said, we ancestors have to choose between quantity and quality. From this sense, evolving into agriculture is unavoidable and cannot be said as a worst mistake.

After we enter the agriculture, the questions people faced made them get technological progress and develop the contraception measures. It is already seen that we dealt with the difficulties of malnutrition, starvation and diseases more effectively than before.

Whether a human society can gain technological progress or not depends on many factors. One of the most important is whether there are correspondingly institutions. Only when people have stimulus can they make use of their intelligent to invention and creation. Just as Finley exemplified in his article, ancient Greek and Rome have little technological progress because they don’t encourage that.

In agriculture society, because we have to meet the basic needs of persons, we tried to make the land more productive, develop trade to satisfy diversifying demands, build up countries to solve the question of people’s inequality and so on. Under these conditions, people have incentives to make technological and organizational progress. However, if we did “fortunately” avoid the worst mistake in human history and now are in the hunter and gatherer society, then definitely we unfortunately make less progress. Perhaps the lives are still unchanged as the remaining tribes in Kalahari today. Also from this respect, I think entering agriculture society is beneficial to all humans and it is a necessary progress in our human evolution history.

Wayne Feng

Jared Diamond’s (1987) argument that the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in history seems to glean over the current progress of society as a whole. The primary examples of how agricultural societies worse off than their hunter-gatherer counterparts were using equivalent groups in developmental comparison (e.g. not comparing modern humans having what we have today in peak development versus the peak of hunting-gathering). A more fundamental question may be to ask how far hunters-gatherers would have advanced if agriculture had not dominated the world and where we would be now in modernity (rather than comparing the initial change). As such, it can be argued that agriculture allowed for a world that promoted innovation and market systems which in the end has benefited the living standards of the human race as a whole.

In regards to the rate of progress by civilizations, both Finley (1965) and Temin (2001) seem to follow Baumol (1990) in the idea that circumstances and leaders drive rewards which direct innovation (although they do disagree on the historical status of the Roman economy). From this we may seek to apply Baumol’s ideas to the rate of progress as a result of the entrepreneurs. For example in Finley’s analysis, the rate of useful adaptation of technologies being stunted by the perception by academics and leaders of productivity, quality, and wealth. As such, it can be argued that the rate of development in a civilization is determined by the incentives offered.

Linking the two questions and conclusions, we now ask if agriculture created an environment which was directed towards positive progress versus hunting-gathering. In terms of the economic incentives, it would seem as if agriculture was indeed the more incentive paved path. With the grouping of people into sedentary communities there is the development of more specialized jobs and services within the community. This in turn may have allowed for more innovation within specific jobs. Likewise the development of communities not only allowed for the rapid spread of disease (negative) but also of ideas (positive). If agriculture was the result of overwhelming population, the negative aspects of this may have been balanced out by increased economies of scale and the ability to utilize resources better (as well as access them more efficiently). When comparing the agricultural world to the hunting-gathering counterparts, it is hard to imagine the situation where with the same resources, time, and development that the hunting-gathering alternate universe would have developed into as advanced of a civilization. This begs the larger questions of advanced or well off, but in terms of technological and organizational development it would seem as if the agricultural world allowed for the best and quickest development given the environment and incentives that were created.

Francois Gerard

Francois GERARD
Memo 1: Modes of Production

Diamond supports the surprising idea that agriculture might have been the worst invention of the human race. While his point of view interestingly encourages considering the question of the consequences of that decisive invention for the human race with a richer perspective, I do not agree with his conclusion.

First Diamond has a far too restrictive idea of human progress. There is obviously no consensus on what “progress” means and, in a way, Diamond is right to consider that an increase in the amount of goods per person does not imply per se “progress”. But the fact that hunter-gatherers were healthier (he could have add that they were doing less harm to the Nature) is a much too medical approach that is clearly linked with his specialization. So yes, with agriculture, the population increases, the first cities appeared and merchants started traveling from one place to another carrying infections and diseases. But is that all? Definitely not! With agriculture, population increases, some people started to survive without producing food but trying to specialize in other and new activities, thinking, developing, inventing,… and trade and communication between distant cities made the diffusion of ideas and inventions possible. So yes, hunter-gatherers were (are?) maybe healthier, living in more peaceful societies and even more “happy” but that does not imply that agriculture was a mistake because agriculture made available fantastic new areas to develop (and was itself the result of) the insatiable force that drives the human race, the one that makes us think, invent, undertake, gather, share, communicate,…
Second, Diamond gives too much importance on the specific effect of agriculture. If the world now does not look much more attractive than the world of the hunter-gatherers, it is not only because of the development of agriculture: the force that I introduce here above may not have been well oriented. Agriculture opened new possibilities of progress but those possibilities may not have been exploited efficiently. That is the point of the other articles. Indeed they suggest that cultural aspects in some societies, resulting in a structure of incentives that did not promote inventions (and their diffusion) and entrepreneurship, caused a slower technological and organizational progress than possible. And as Temin suggests that was not because of the absence of a market economy. During most of the post-agriculture history and in most places of the world, practical inventions and activities have been discredited; social consideration has not come with ingenuity and the leading class has rarely been composed by the most progress-enhancing people. Then we can read Diamond by concluding that even a tremendous invention that offer fantastic new opportunities for the human race will not lead for sure to a progress for the human race if it does not come with an institutional structure that encourages studies, inventions, entrepreneurship and diffusion of techniques that makes possible a progress-enhancing exploitation of that invention (whatever the definition of progress is). But as Diamond explained the post-agriculture history is still really short with respect to the whole history of human race and as we can see in the additional material provided for this week, progress (at least economically speaking) seems to be on a better track recently (last 200 years), so we may hope that a future Diamond writing in 200 years will never conclude that agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of human race.

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