Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Early States, Capitalism, and the Domestication of Humans

There is a tendency to assume that human evolution has been characterized by an inexorable improvement in humanity’s capabilities and in the societies it develops.  When humans were at the mercy of the elements and could exercise little control over their environments, natural selection would favor characteristics that favored survivability in whatever current environment existed.  That produces change but it does not necessarily introduce what one might consider, in retrospect, as progress.  As time went on humans became more adept at influencing their own environments and creating new selection trends.  About 10,000 BCE humans began to experience and try to manage a number of changing conditions, probably driven mostly by increases in population and the ever-changing climate.  A species that had spent most of its existence as hunter-gatherers would gradually transition into farmers, herders and craftspeople.  Small groups would be replaced by larger communities that would ultimately evolve to states organized on the basis of an agricultural economy.  This is often viewed as a period of great progress on the part of humanity.  Humans filled the earth and to a great extend molded it to suit their needs.  However, in changing the earth they also changed the factors operative in natural selection.  By changing their environment, humans also changed themselves.

It was certainly a period of great change, but can it all be viewed as progress? 

James C. Scott is a political scientist at Yale University with an interest in the characteristics of the earliest formed states.  He was impressed by the amount of new information that had been produced by archeological and anthropological studies and was moved to present his interpretation of this fresh data in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.  His focus is on events in a region that is now roughly equivalent to modern Iran.  What Scott’s analysis makes clear is that the precursors of the modern state were entities driven by elites whose goals had little to do with any universal benefits to humanity.  Rather, these early political constructs seemed more akin to modern corporations—but ones with horrible human resource policies.

Scott introduces his final chapter with this warning:

“The history of the peasants is written by the townsmen
The history of the nomads is written by the settled
The history of the hunter-gatherers is written by the farmers
The history of the nonstate peoples is written by the court scribes
All may be found in the archives catalogued under ‘Barbarian Histories’”

The immediately accessible record of the distant past is generally self-serving documentation produced by a small element of the population.  In effect, any person who was not controlled by a state was considered a “barbarian.”  The term had nothing to do with the quality of life or the viability of the society in which these nonstate peoples lived.  In fact, Scott claims that one could make the argument that it would only be around 1,600CE that the majority of humans would have transitioned from “barbarism” to state domination.  That last statement carries a scent of cynicism.  That type of attitude is difficult to avoid after reading Scott who seems to enjoy indicating the conflicts of interest that exist between state rulers and state subjects.  For example, the most important task of the early states was to prevent the accumulated laborers under state control from escaping and regaining the safer and more comfortable life available under “barbarism.”

Scott provides a brief chronology of the period of interest.

“Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago and is found outside of Africa and the Levant no more than 60,000 years ago.  The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago.  Until then—that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth—we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and-gathering bands.  Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the first small, stratified, tax-collecting, walled states pop up in the Tigres and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism.  This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of public order.”

Here is his summary of our conventional wisdom as to our history.

“Historical humankind has been mesmerized by the narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms….In its essentials, it was an ‘ascent of man’ story.  Agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads.  Fixed-field crops, on the other hand, were the origin and the guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.  Those who refused to take up agriculture did so out of ignorance or a refusal to adapt.  In virtually all early agricultural settings the superiority of farming was underwritten by an elaborate mythology recounting how a powerful god or goddess entrusted the sacred grain to a chosen people.”

“No one, once shown the techniques of agriculture, would dream of remaining a nomad or forager.  Each step is presumed to represent an epoch-making leap in mankind’s well-being: more leisure, better nutrition, longer life expectancy, and, at long last, a settled life that promoted the household arts and the development of civilization.”

What actually happened was that these barbarians had already developed all the technology needed to implement an agricultural economy based on a few dominant crops and animals yet they decided against it.  They had very good reasons for not following that path, resisting such a move for over 4,000 years.  The region in which they lived, the Tigres and Euphrates Valley, was, at the time, rather lush with many wetland areas that provided an abundant and diverse assortment of food sources.  Acquiring one’s daily nutrition was a part-time occupation, and if conditions changed it was relatively simple to move on to a new location.

“Having already domesticated some cereals and legumes, as well as goats and sheep, the people of the Mesopotamian alluvium were already agriculturalists and pastoralists as well as hunter-gatherers.  It’s just that so long as there were abundant stands of wild foods they could gather and annual migrations of waterfowl and gazelles they could hunt, there was no earthly reason why they would risk relying mainly, let alone exclusively, on labor-intensive farming and livestock rearing.”

What was driving the development of the agricultural economy based on state control was not the desire to advance civilization, but the desire to earn a profit for the few from the labor of many.  There were many sources of food available, but grain was chosen to be the main crop because it provided critical industrial and fiscal advantages.  It was important because it could be traded, making it the equivalent of money.  It would require a great amount of labor to produce that wealth.  It would require much more effort than that involved in hunting and gathering.  Therefore, a degree of coercion was required to obtain laborers.  Either environmental conditions made hunting and gathering no longer competitive, or physical coercion was required.  What records remain of these early states indicate great concern about maintaining the workforce by preventing escape or replacing those who escaped by raiding other sites and enslaving captives.  So much for advances in civilization.

“The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’  Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages.”

“The fact that cereal grains grow above the ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier.  If the army or tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation.”

These early states were to be kingdoms, not democracies.  The people, other than a class of elites, were subjects, not citizens.  Wild animals were domesticated by controlling reproduction to produce desired characteristics.  It would take only a few generations of controlled breeding to produce a more docile species better acclimated to life in the agricultural economy.  Something similar must have also occurred with humans as they were extracted from the more intellectually challenging and nutritionally superior life of the hunter-gatherer and subjected to generations of simple but strenuous labor.

“’Domiciled’ sheep, for example, are generally smaller than their wild ancestors; they bear telltale signs of domesticate life: bone pathologies typical of crowding and a narrow diet with distinctive deficiencies.  The bones of ‘domiciled’ Homo sapiens compared with those of hunter-gatherers are also distinctive: they are smaller; the bones and teeth often bear the signature of nutritional distress, in particular, an iron-deficiency anemia marked above all in women of reproductive age whose diets consist increasingly of grains.”

“Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time.  The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average.  This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet.”

Animal species that have been domesticated all undergo physiological changes and suffer a loss of brain mass relative to their wild counterparts.  It is not clear exactly what that loss can be attributed to, but it seems foolish to assume that humans could not have been similarly affected.  In fact, physical anthropologists tell us that human brain size has been decreasing for the past 20,000 years.  Could it be that civilization places less demands on us and allows smaller brains to prove adequate?

“It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal grain farming as cereal grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line.”

The enshrinement of the agricultural economy, and the increase in population density of both humans and other animals, contributed yet another new feature to civilization: the creation of modern infectious diseases.  A virus or microbe that can thrive within an animal host requires a mechanism for transfer to another host and the availability of another host if it is to survive.  There will then be a minimum population size required for a disease agent to propagate and thrive.  That value will differ according to the characteristics of the given agent.  The critical point is that larger, higher-density populations invite new disease agents to move in and take hold.

“The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated.  It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.  They were, in the strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’  These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture.  Until very recently they collectively represented the major overall cause of human mortality.”

Agriculture’s specific contribution to the misery of humankind is the close association between herds of humans and the herds of other animals that ensued.  This provided infectious agents from humans the opportunity to attack other species (anthroponosis), and, more importantly to us, the opportunity for infectious agents carried by animals to infect humans (zoonosis).

“Estimates vary, but of the fourteen hundred known human pathogenic organisms, between eight hundred and nine hundred are zoonotic diseases, originating in nonhuman hosts.”

“In an outdated list, now surely even longer, we humans share twenty-six diseases with poultry, thirty-two with rats and mice, thirty-five with horses, forty-two with pigs, forty-six with sheep and goats, fifty with cattle, and sixty-five with our much studied and oldest domesticate, the dog.”

The zoonosis process continues.  HIV and Ebola are more recent zoonotic diseases.  As humans continue to increase in population and wander into unexplored ecosystems where new sources of pathogens exist, some have suggested that the rate of zoonosis is increasing.

Over the millennia, these new diseases had devastating effects on human populations, contributing to the rise and fall of states and severely limiting population growth—at least for a while.  Since survivors of a given disease acquire immunity, populations would eventually stabilize while allowing the disease to lurk in the background and survive—if there was a sufficient flux of new potential hosts.  The disease became endemic within that population, ready to leap out and devastate any group of humans without acquired immunity that it might encounter.  One legacy of the human civilization project is the burden of living under the continuous threat of new and even more dangerous epidemics.

We know, of course, that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle lost out in the long run as formalized, hierarchical states became dominant.  It seems some combination of population pressure and climate change probably forced people to accept the less desirable roll of state-controlled laborers.  Can this be considered progress?  Many view this transition as the source of the tale of humans being driven out of the Garden of Eden and being forced to live a life of suffering and toil.

Tales of paradise lost are probably extreme, but it is clear that this transition was quite painful and not without unforeseen consequences.  Scott is cautious in hypothesizing about what effect the state-dominated regime, with its economic demands, might have had on humans.  He believes not enough generations have passed for genetic consequences to be readily apparent.  He may be wrong.

Consider that we began with a picture of humans living in small bands where wealth was not accumulated and individuals were more or less equal in status.  The dynamic of a small band demands that members look out for each other and share their individual bounties when appropriate.  Would anyone use those same words to describe current societies?  What the “expulsion from Eden” did was create a hierarchical society where class mattered, and there were always elites who accumulated wealth through their control of society.  We went from living in a world of relative equality to one of rampant inequality.  We went from a society in which cooperation was demanded to one in which competition is required.  We started in a place where wealth was barely even a concept to one in which it is worth breaking all societal rules in order to acquire it. 

Living in such an environment for a few hundred generations is plenty of time for natural selection to have carried us off in some different direction.  We are not who we were, and we do not know who we will become.

There are at least two rapidly approaching crises with which humans will have to deal.  One is climate change; the other is the growth of automation and artificial intelligence.  It is likely that both will require a considerable retreat from the inequality and individual competitiveness we have grown accustomed to if we are to survive intact.  The question is: Can we discard the lessons of a hundred generations worth of natural selection in the next one or two generations?

I fear not.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged