« Why Should Economists Study Economic History? After-Action 210a Note | Main | Brad DeLong's Notes of Jan de Vries's Talk on the Purpose of Economic History »

January 21, 2008


Alexandre Poirier

ared Diamond's piece, in my opinion, is used to stir controversy and shake up our beliefs about the benefits of agriculture and farming over the nomadic lifestyle. But I don't think I am convinced that standards of living, as of 2008, would be better had agriculture never been invented. Maybe agriculture's beginnings were a disaster, and slow growth until the industrial revolution have prevented the sedentary lifestyle of achieving its full potential. Diamond argues that nomads were healthier than farmers, because of the diversity of their sources of food and because farmers needed to clutter, which brought disease on them. But this is not the case anymore, since with better transportation technology we can import food products from different farming regions with relative ease. He also mentions that the advent of farming did not increase leisure time. But what is harder to quantify, is the quality of that leisure time. In a nomadic world, with rudimentary technology, one could argue that leisure time was not as fulfilling as it is now.

Also, it is hard to underestimate the progress that has been made since agriculture's adoption. Nomadic tribes are not a good environment for research and design, technology and science, because everyone has to subside to his own needs. Our very high current standards of living would not have been possible without the specialization of labor that agriculture permitted. Diamond also asserts that agriculture encouraged inequality. It is true that there are huge income per capita disparities, but one should not only care about the minimum of these incomes, using a Rawlsian utility function. Rapid growth is occurring in previously poor nations such as China and India. I think if Diamond showed a little more faith in technology, and its potential to promote growth and health on a worldwide stage, he would not be so favorable of the nomadic lifestyle. I highly suspect that any alien civilization, with sufficient technology to visit Earth, must have gone through an agricultural revolution that permitted them to develop the technology to travel through space. Also, it is nearly impossible to argue that we are less healthy now than we would have been as nomads, especially if the benchmark is life expectancy, which varies between 50 to 80 in most countries.

Low growth in ancient times is due, according to Baumol, to the different ways that entrepreneurs can channel their work: either in the good way (creating businesses) or the bad way (turning to crime, or rent-seeking activities.) He argues that the supply of entrepreneurs might have been relatively stable through periods with very different growth rates, but that only the payoffs for the different activities provided incentives for entrepreneurs to switch from productive to unproductive activities. He argues his case with limited data, but using a very convincing set of historical observations. Of course, institutions and human capital should not be discarded as factors influencing the rate of entrepreneurship.


A brief glance at a few of the memos already posted and a few anecdotal remarks over pizza have led me to conclude that our class on a whole was not too persuaded by Diamond’s argument. This was my initial reaction as well and while I haven’t exactly changed my mind, I thought in the spirit of the discussion, I’d devote a bit to trying to defend parts of his argument.

It seems admittedly silly to refer to a change in a way of getting food that was likely necessitated by a scarcity of resources, in part caused by population growth, as a “mistake.” Even if looking at fossils show that hunter gatherers of one generation and agriculturalists who were probably of a much later generation show differences in health and nutrition, it seems unlikely that this change could have existed within the generation that made the transition. If a farmer who grew up hunting and gathering is hungry, wouldn’t he just go hunt and gather, assuming that the resources were there?

However, if one reads Diamond’s “mistake” as one large coordination failure, the argument seems more convincing. Most of the problems that Diamond points out are problems due to a rapid increase in population growth facilitated by agriculture. The woman has more kids and so each kid gets less. This is a tough argument because it seems like anything that leads to a decline in mortality is going to lead to population growth and associated problems, but it would be tough to call Penicillin or the elimination of malaria in the US or any reductions in infant mortality “mistakes.” Still, Diamond’s argument is more complex. If fewer kids die and people live longer, that’s good, but if people start having kids faster than they can support them, that might not be.

Whether this is what happens is a factual question and without a knowledge of what’s out there, I’m not sure that Diamond has presented all the facts. If a newly agriculturalist woman is overburdened by having kids every two years, has she forgotten whatever birth control methods were available to her hunting and gathering grandmothers? I’m skeptical that the change was in what the men wanted because Diamond acknowledged that by carrying children on their backs, female hunter-gatherers also bore the brunt of the responsibility of early child-care. Many summary accounts of hunter-gatherers seem to oversell the equality of the sexes. Men were still in charge and women’s roles were still limited by child-production.

But again, interpreting this as something like a coordination failure helps to strengthen Diamond’s argument. Once the barrier to having kids quickly (needing to carry them on the back) is lifted, then from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s best to have lots of kids because the number of kids that one family has is not likely to influence how many of them survive. However, if the number of kids an entire society has increases dramatically, then this could start to cause the type of problems that Diamond points out. So in this way, the introduction of agriculture was a curse that removed an obstacle to something that is individually beneficial, allowing a short-term (on the order of generations not years) advantage. This in turn greatly contributed to population growth, without an increase in life-expectancy, and contributed to reproduction becoming even more central to women’s lives, something that over many generations probably did lead to greater inequality between the sexes.

In conclusion (of my defense of Diamond), I think that the strength of his argument rests on the difference between removing an obstacle to survival of an individual and removing an obstacle to a higher birth-rate. This quickly allowed individual concerns to move away from the concerns of the group and produce a significant loss in welfare.

One final point to join the group criticizing Diamond is that it seems likely that the fall in welfare from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists was not sudden and took a few generations. And, that welfare went back up to a point higher than before the transition. So it can only be a mistake for perhaps generations 3-20 (or 50), but not for 1 or 2 and not for anything later. That’s a pretty specific time-frame. Those who remained hunter-gatherers until today are by most standards the worst off, even though the fact that they are still hunting and gathering implies that they must have had an easier time of it than did those who transitioned earlier.

As for the second and third questions, the connection seems to be the link between necessity and innovation through incentives. If there is a scarcity of basic necessities, then the incentives for developing new ways of procuring those goods is greater. Baumol’s well-qualified argument that differences in allocations of entrepreneurial energies can explain some differences in productive innovation was very convincing. The debate between Finley and Temin, at least from the perspective of Temin’s argument, was so based in facts that I don’t know, that it’s impossible for me to distinguish. However, some of the lack of innovation in Rome explained by Finley seems tied to Baumol’s arguments about incentives.

For example, perhaps the innovation was in creating such a complete political/class system that the elites were easily able to meet their needs on the backs of others. They controlled all that was of value – possibly in large part by controlling the beliefs of what was important (land ownership and number of slaves and not industry and commerce, for example). It seems that incentives are based on the ability to get things of value. While money can do this, so can political power so perhaps the incentives at the time were set up so that gaining political power (through land and status) rather than economic power (more money through more production) was more “valuable.”

Finally, I’ll make one more connection between the two questions and that is through my earlier reliance on finding coordination failures. Finley points out that the interests of the state should have been to think of ways of increasing production (p44, Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World). Yet, he mistakes the mistake many people make of anthropomorphizing the state and assuming that the state has interests. It doesn’t. People do. The actions of the state that he describes seem more in line with the interests of the individuals who were participating.

Summary: Diamond’s argument makes more sense if “mistake” is interpreted as “coordination failure,” and looking at changes in history as the results of individual actions based on individual incentives, sometimes in the absence of coordination, does seem to explain some changes in technological and organizational progress.

Gabriel Chodorow-Reich

Human Progress: Why Rousseau (and Diamond) Were Wrong

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor… It was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality).

Jared Diamond’s Rousseau-ian excoriation of the advent of agriculture contains two interrelated components. First, he cites evidence that humans suffered physiologically from the transition, whether measured by average height, life expectancy, or nutritional intake. In fact Diamond implies that, with the exception of a small elite, humanity’s standard of living has not yet recovered. The claim that humans remain worse off today than their hunter and gatherer ancestors conveniently allows Diamond to ignore the difficult problem of assigning generational weights to compute the total social welfare change wrought by agriculture. Unfortunately (for Diamond, quite happily for the rest of us), Table 1 shows that at least in physiological terms the world’s population appears far better off today than in pre-agricultural society, when life-expectancy at birth was only twenty-six years.
Table 1. Life Expectancy at Birth in 2000
Population in countries Total Percent
with life expectancy of at least: (billions) (cumulative)
26 years 5.8 100
40 years 5.8 99.6
50 years 5.4 92.7
60 years 5.2 89.1
70 years 2.8 47.9
Note: Data cover 190 countries containing 96% of world population.
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators.

If by modern standards life in pre-agricultural society was short, was it also nasty and brutish? Rousseau answered no: “I see [the hunter and gatherer] satisfying his hunger at the first oak, and slaking his thirst at the first brook; finding his bed at the foot of the tree which afforded him a repast; and, with that, all his wants supplied.” The second component of Diamond’s argument embodies Rousseau’s claim that hunters and gatherers lived a “better” life than we do. Such a comparison of metaphysical utility presents an entirely untestable hypothesis, evidence on labor hours notwithstanding.
Suppose then that after an initial decline, humanity’s fortunes have indeed prospered relative to pre-industrial society. How did we get from there to here? Or, to paraphrase M.I. Finley, what took so long? The proximate diagnosis is low innovation and slow adoption of new technology. Finley’s iconic example is the water mill, an invention of enormous practical importance in ancient Rome which nonetheless took nearly half a millennium to achieve widespread use (Finley 1965, 35-36).
Peter Temin and William Baumol take up Finley’s challenge to explain why it took so long for productivity growth to begin. Temin rules out one possibility, the absence of a market economy, with his analysis of market exchange in ancient Rome. Baumol offers a more positive approach, by rating societies on whether they encourage entrepreneurs to engage in “productive” or “unproductive” activities. Following Finley, Baumol sees Rome as providing a “reward system [which], although it offered wealth to those who engaged in commerce and industry, offset this gain through the attendant loss in prestige (Baumol 1990, 901).” This system encouraged conquest and confiscation as a means of attaining wealth, rather than the (non zero-sum) pursuit of productivity gains. By contrast, increased industrial activity in the “high middle ages” gets linked to “improved rewards to industrial activity.”
Baumol’s thesis has appeal, but perhaps we can dig deeper. What determines rewards to entrepreneurship? Here Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism comes to mind. Deeper still? Quickly this game turns away from testable hypotheses to epistemological assertions, and the economist’s comparative advantage dissipates accordingly. Therefore I will stop here, content that I was born in 1982 rather than into pre-agricultural society, and with the hope that the progress achieved by various segments of the global population will come to be shared ever more widely.

James Zuberi

Although Jared Diamond’s article about the evils of agriculture is a catchy and surprising premise, there are many holes in his line of reasoning; and I suspect this article was written more whimsically than an anything else. I will try to address each of Diamond’s points, but because of space requirements I (thankfully) won’t get through all of them.

First, the author asserts that agriculture made the food source vulnerable to outside forces and in doing so made villages, towns, cities, etc. more vulnerable to starvation. Of course, having food in one place would surely make the crop susceptible to forces like weather, attack, etc. – but it is not clear to me that the vulnerability of the food source was much greater with agriculture than with nomads. For instance, if there is a drought and the crops in the field are not getting water, the shrubs and berries in the forest aren’t getting water either, nor are the wild monkeys (or other animal) that nomads supposedly catch. Further, in the present world we often make sacrifices to secure a more stable food source. Plants are genetically modified to be more resistant to rodents and other pests but in doing so the genetic variability of the crops is lessened and so the crops are more vulnerable to disease.

Second, the author asserts that a great deal of gender and class inequality emerged from the advent of agriculture. This is absolutely a plausible point to make however we must take a step back to determine exactly how evil this development was. Personally, being male and not on the poverty line I am reasonably alright about this; but probably more importantly, the clumping of people together into settlements may well have allowed for the development and sharing of ideas which, in turn, spurred technological advancement and intellectual progress. In this way, the increase in gender and class inequality cannot be honestly put forward without also describing the potentially breakthrough benefits that close association provided.

As for the last point that I will address, Diamond describes that leisure time does not increase when a person is in a fixed settlement engaging in agriculture. This may well be the case even though his argument is based on modern nomads (a fact he freely admits). Let’s say for a moment that this premise is indeed correct. Well in that case he can plausibly refute the common narrative that living in an agricultural settlement did not provide more free time than living in a nomadic settlement. Unfortunately, this does not support the thesis that the introduction of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race unless he is asserting that the metric that should be used to properly gauge the different organizational structures of the human race is leisure time.

Omar Nayeem

Jared Diamond’s fascinating article is extremely thought provoking,
though he misses the point. If one were to list the worst mistakes of
the human race in a linear ranking system, I agree that agriculture
would probably be in the top 7, however agriculture is quite
insignificant if one were to compare it to the likes of clothing. In
some cultures, it is called raiment, the application of fabric to the
human skin for vanity, temperature or propriety considerations has been
a great deal more detrimental to my human race.

Why don’t we start from the beginning. Well, we can’t literally start
from the beginning because time machines do not exist. But in many
national geographic documentaries about cultures in Africa I can see
that people live their lives completely in the nude. These naked
people not only are very skillful at climbing trees and catching fish,
but throughout the course of the documentaries they are smiling. You
may think that they are smiling at the camera that is being pointed at
their face, and I grant that this is a potentially confounding
variable, but I believe whole heartedly that they are much happier
people. Add to this the fact that Africa is a very warm place and that
modern humans migrated from Africa, it is profoundly simple to see that
our ancestors did not use clothing.

Now on to the classical times. It is a well-known fact that Helen of
Troy had the face to launch a thousand ships. The Trojan war not only
destroyed the powerful city of Troy, but also isolated a poor Trojan
prince by the name of Aeneas who endured countless hardships in finding
a new home. Now are we to believe that it was Helen’s FACE that caused
all of this suffering? Many fashion designers today will tell you that
a person’s face is by far not the characteristic of a woman that imbues
her with beauty – it is the clothing. Therefore, Helen’s clothing is
to blame for the death of Greece’s greatest hero Achilles and Priam’s
enormous sorrow at the loss of his beautiful son Hector.

In today’s world, clothing has installed itself in an especially
invidious place in society. Clothing companies like Gucci and Prada
cater to the wealthy, vain and arrogant who buy different pieces of
clothing and in doing so reinforce their distorted view of the world.
But the situation is far more dire! There are also cheaper companies
that sell cheap alternatives to the expensive pieces of clothing and so
much of the population at large tries to buy clothing in order to look
like they are rich and better than their neighbor. It is for this
reason that Louis Vitton bags are all over the place. I hope that in
the course of the next few years Jared Diamond will update is beliefs
and publish an article which acknowledges the horrible effect that
clothing has had on our human race.


Jared Diamond points out, 1) hunter-gatherers were enjoying better life than farmers, 2) people started farming not by choice, rather from necessity to feed people, and 3) those farmers out-bred the hunter-gatherers and thus forced them out. Based on these facts, he argues that the decision to start farming was the worst mistake in human history (and implies that we should learn from this).

I am by no means in a position to judge if these three 'facts' are true. Assuming that those statements correctly depict our past history, however, I want to provide two problems regarding his interpretation of those facts, which make it difficult to understand his remark in a sensible way.

First, it is not clear how to evaluate the 'decision' of human as a whole. Obviously, those people who gave up hunter-gatherer life to adopt agriculture are directed neither by a single person nor by one organization.

Assuming that this decision made human as a whole worse off, the real problem is not about inability to foresee 'the evils of farming' nor the lack of resistance to 'the transient abundance' (otherwise, they will be dominated by farmers' society for its sheer size as he pointed out), but the failure to coordinate. In other words, the ancient society lacked methods to collectively make a decision that benefits all of them, that is, to avoid farming, according to his argument. This is a typical public good problem.

Although the modern world should have better mechanism to avoid such issues, it is hard to blame the ancient society for the lack of coordination measure that we are still suffering from.

Second, there is no simple way to conclude the farmers' society is worse than the hunter-gatherers' counterpart. Showing that an average farmer is worse off than an average hunter-gatherer is not sufficient to argue the latter society is 'better' than the former.

This is a problem, commonly found in cost benefit analysis: whose welfare should be counted? Take an extreme example: imagine cutting half the population of a hunter-gatherer society. Now people have twice more resources per person. They would be better off than before on average. Is this a reasonable way to compare two societies?

When adoption of farming will lead to many more new lives, otherwise never realized, can we ignore the value of such lives if we somehow think life is valuable? I am not arguing that his conclusion is wrong, but that his logic is not very compelling.

I agree with that we can learn from this history, though. We should be careful in assessing a new technology (e.g. GM, global warming, nuclear technology, and so on) and its consequence. Also we need to better coordinate ourselves to make a decision beneficial to us all.


Finley argues that ancient world was more innovative than we usually imagine and that those inventions had been hindered by the lack of political, economic, and cultural elements that could otherwise have brought them into existence.

Baumol explains the variation of technological progress by the payoff for various entrepreneurial activities. In a society which provides more incentive for technology-accelerating entrepreneurial activities, entrepreneurs pay more effort for innovative activities rather than unproductive one he might take instead, e.g. rent seeking.

Different society has different social framework and policy regarding entrepreneurial activities. These differences will lead to the difference in technological progress.

Since technology and organization are interdependent as I argue in the next part, both of them vary among societies as a consequence.


Diamond showed that the introduction of agriculture changed the structure of society, for example, by introducing class division and inequality between sexes. On the other hand, Baumol argues that how entrepreneurial people can better pursue power, prestige, and wealth in their society does affect the allocation of such people and thus the technological progress and its spread.

I found these two forces interact each other and hard to judge one of them apart from the other. Technology drives the social structure which in turn influences the other.

For instance, large, crowded cities would not be possible without agriculture. And the division of labor is only possible in such populated cities. As each person pursues in a specialized task under the division of labor, there will be more technological progress in such a society.

Ernie Tedeschi

Jared Diamond’s argument that the invention of agriculture was “the
worst mistake in the history of the human race” is, I think, valid if we view in-
novation as at once socially beneficial by definition and an ideally-monotonic
phenomenon; that is, an idea is “innovative” if and only if it yields a direct
and immediate social return, and continues to do so over time. Even within
the confines of this definition, which I will critique momentarily, Diamond’s
evidence is selective and not exhaustive. It is to be expected that any inno-
vation that increases a society’s capacity to produce a basic human need – in
this case, food – will in turn have dramatic effects on the social, political, and
economic dynamics of that society, and it is plausible that not all of these
effects will be positive. Of the list of agricultural evils Diamond compiles,
overspecialization in one or two crops is the most compelling, although for
the sake of argument I will grant him his list in its entirety. The problem
with Diamond’s piece is that trade-offs can be innovations too, such that not
all innovations are unambiguously beneficial to society. In fact, few are. The
industrial revolution of the 19th Century led to pollution. The automobile
led to sprawl. Penicillin led to more resistant strains of bacteria. Each of
these innovations was a trade-off within and across generations. Perhaps
agriculture was too.
Diamond would probably approach from the opposite direction and argue
that while agriculture was not unambiguously bad , its development was still
a net detriment to human civilization in the long run. I disagree. Agriculture
was a trade-off necessary to laying the foundation for a human society that
rewarded innovation – a condition that Baumol (1990) argues is the crux of
a society’s propensity to innovate – for the simple reason that, on balance,
innovation is both more likely and more beneficial if a society is more populated. On the former point, we can think of human capital economies of
scale: the conglomeration of people and their ideas in cities yields more than
just the sum of their individual parts. Yet such conglomeration would have
been impossible without marked progress in the efficiency of providing food.
Hunter-gatherers could never have sustained an Imperial Rome, population
1 million. On the latter point, I would point out that Diamond uses several
small, primitive human tribes to advance his argument about agriculture,
without taking a step back and acknowledging that they are both small and
primitive. As a human being, a member of the Kalahari Bushmen without
question has the capacity to invent, say, the toilet. But how many would it
benefit? Few. And, pace Baumol, what would the reward, if any, be? Small.
Perhaps Diamond is right that pre-agricultural tribes have lives more
blissful than ours. On the other hand, perhaps agriculture was a long-term
investment on the order of millennia, with immediate costs to nutrition and
social hierarchy and gradual, but substantial, benefits in the form of the
human capital necessary to innovate and, thus, counteract agriculture’s neg-
ative effects.

Omar Nayeem

Jared Diamond’s characterization of the invention of agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” is intentionally hyperbolic and, exactly as Diamond anticipates, strikes the reader as absurd. Diamond blames agriculture for the levels of inequality, disease, and despotism that have persisted throughout human history. However, the evidence that he presents in support of his thesis is, in my view, inadequate and ultimately unconvincing.

Diamond points out that members of certain tribes of modern-day hunter-gatherers have more leisure time and better diets than their agrarian neighbors, and although this fact is interesting, it of course applies to a particular geographical region and should not, by itself, be used to draw very general conclusions. Diamond goes on to invoke a fascinating body of “paleopathological” evidence, according to which members of communities that adopted agriculture showed more pronounced signs of malnutrition and disease than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. To conclude based on this evidence, however, that agriculture is an inferior system would be rash. Like all paradigm shifts, the transition to agriculture was probably not smooth, and in the short run probably was in some ways a step backwards. Diamond also notes that reliance on agriculture raises the risk of starvation (as was seen in the Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century), but I would argue that this increased risk is not a direct consequence of agriculture per se, but rather the result of overdependence on a few specific crops; the well known investment principle that diversification mitigates risk applies in this context as well. Sophisticated agrarian societies that cultivate a number of staple crops and maintain inventories should face low chances of starvation. Indeed, since hunter-gatherers, by definition, do not accumulate inventories of food supplies, I would argue that they are even more sensitive to natural disasters – and hence face an even greater risk of starvation – than their agrarian counterparts. Viewed as consumers, hunter-gatherers effectively consume all of their “income” each period, which is clearly risky behavior.

Diamond characterizes rising population levels as a negative consequence of the advent of agriculture. This view implies that he feels that, ideally, humans would have remained as hunter-gatherers, and that the human population would have reached a natural upper bound that would have been enforced by the scarcity of resources. Of course, the scarcity of resources would have enforced the upper bound through starvation and disease, and so those problems would still exist.

It is also worth noting that the vast majority of “civilized” societies adopted agriculture at various points in history, and independently of each other. Does it seem reasonable that “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” would have been repeated so many times and in so many societies?

William Baumol extends the Schumpeterian model of entrepreneurship to include “non-productive” and even “destructive” activities that exhibit the essential characteristics of entrepreneurship. In his view, entrepreneurial activities in a society will be productive only if the entrepreneurs are given the right incentives. In his propositions, he frames these incentives in terms of payoffs that are determined by the rules of a game. I find his argument to be well supported and compelling, and the examples he presents from ancient Rome, medieval China, and medieval Europe are all quite illustrative. Based on Baumol’s thesis, we may posit that progress is more rapid in environments where technical innovation that increases productivity is encouraged through appropriate incentives. However, a natural question to ask would be whether there are examples of societies where technical innovation is fostered but productivity is still low; that is, do sufficient incentives for technical innovation guarantee rapid growth? Surely other exogenous factors are important too. A subsistent society (such as one of hunter-gatherers) would have low, if any, investment, and so technological growth and innovation seem unlikely, if not impossible. An abundance of natural resources may not be strictly necessary (and certainly not sufficient) to guarantee rapid progress, but it would certainly be helpful. So while having the right incentives in place for entrepreneurs to pursue productive endeavors is very likely a necessary condition for rapid technological and organizational progress, it is not a sufficient one. Other exogenous factors also play a role.

The two questions are related in the sense that, if we agree (Diamond’s thesis notwithstanding) that the advent of agriculture was an example of progress, and if we know that society A adopted agriculture well before society B (taking their relative ages into account and given that both societies faced similar geographic conditions), then we could look for features of society A that motivated and enabled it to adopt agriculture before society B did. An example would be to compare the Kalahari Bushmen that Diamond mentions with their agrarian neighbors and see what features of the Bushmen’s society leave them without the incentive to adopt agriculture as a way of life. Diamond portrays them as being complacent as hunter-gatherers, but the question asks not whether they are complacent, but rather why they are complacent as hunter-gatherers when their neighbors (perhaps many generations ago when they decided to adopt agriculture) obviously were not.

Ethan Lieber

Jared Diamond presents some clear evidence that peoples quality of life degraded due to the advent of agriculture. Agriculture led to malnutrition, while hunter-gatherer tribes maintained superior diets, and agriculture required more intensive physical labor. (Diamond, 87, p. 4) He also says that the invention of agriculture came as a necessity due to growing population density and a need to feed a large amount of people that couldn’t be sustained by hunting and gathering. (Diamond, 87, p. 6) Still, I disagree with Diamond that agriculture was a mistake. Agriculture allowed for much higher population densities 100:1 (Diamond, 87, p. 6), and I believe that this paved the way for technological progress. Agriculture gave rise to all the great ancient cities, and with them came complex political and institutional structures. William Baumol offers insight into how entrepreneurship fosters innovation. In general, he seems to say that society determines whether or not their entrepreneurers will bring innovation by the activities they put value upon. Baumol suggests that one reason Rome saw little technological progress was because their attitudes on achieving wealth made entrepreneurial activities of little interest. (Baumol, 90, p. 8) However, had the governmental institutions enacted policies that fostered entrepreneurial activities, Rome may have seen explosive technological progress. Baumol’s discussion about the Cistercian monks is a good example of a powerful institution that held entrepreneurial activity in high standards, leading to the invention of sophisticated water-driven mills that were effectively used all across the land. (Baumol, 90, p. 14) Anyway, the point I’ve been meaning to make is that all of this would never even be possible without high population densities and thus agriculture. Large populations have greater exchange of ideas, and the institutions that arise can potentially encourage technological progress. In hunter-gatherer societies, there doesn’t seem much need or value to engaging in such activities. So it seems that entrepreneurship is probably why certain societies progress faster than others. Baumol talks a great deal about the existence of entrepreneurial behavior in ancient times and how it largely didn’t exist, plus M. I. Finley presents a clear argument that the ancient world saw little innovation and technological progress. The two arguments match up pretty well. As Diamond might put it, the relationship between the invention of agriculture being the worst mistake in history and the causes of differing speeds of technological progress among different societies is that agriculture created a sharp social divide that perhaps led to our current state where the developed nations see greater amounts of economic progress and farming nations are the poorest. I would say that the link is the rise of entrepreneurship and the different ways it was exercised. Even now, we can look at the difference in innovation between the US and France. I believe President Bush said, “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneurship.” Haha.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search Brad DeLong's Website