this is an important book that must be read (part 2)

#52 – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Part 2 – The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution started about 10,000 years ago when humans focused on planting crops and rearing animals instead of foraging for food.

“more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley.

No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.

If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”

the practice of agriculture did not have a single point of origin. it was practiced around the world independently.

“Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated.”

surprising – “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.”

“The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

“The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

“Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price (for agriculture). Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.”

Farmers are extremely dependent on their crops. Crop failure could lead to starvation for many. Foragers did not face this problem.

Foragers could move on when faced with a strong enemy. Farmers tend to stay because of their investment and ties to the land. This results in wars.

“Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15 per cent of deaths, including 25 per cent of male deaths.”

cultivating wheat allowed exponential human population growth.

“This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

with agriculture and permanent settlements, women can have children every year instead of having one every few years. more mouths to feed meant more farming needed. more cereal meant that infants were weaned earlier. these weakened their immune system. more people living in proximity meant more diseases. more dependence on wheat meant that many lives would be lost when crops fail. more crops meant more risks through thefts and wars with other communities.

“The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”

“Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?”

“In 1995 archaeologists began to excavate a site in south-east Turkey called Göbekli Tepe. In the oldest stratum they discovered no signs of a settlement, houses or daily activities.” But they found a temple.

“Stonehenge dates to 2500 BC, and was built by a developed agricultural society. The structures at Göbekli Tepe are dated to about 9500 BC, and all available evidence indicates that they were built by hunter-gatherers. ”

Scientists found one domesticated variant of wheat thirty kilometres from Göbekli Tepe.

“It’s likely that the cultural centre of Göbekli Tepe was somehow connected to the initial domestication of wheat by humankind and of humankind by wheat.”

“It may well be that foragers switched from gathering wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, not to increase their normal food supply, but rather to support the building and running of a temple. In the conventional picture, pioneers first built a village, and when it prospered, they set up a temple in the middle. But Göbekli Tepe suggests that the temple may have been built first, and that a village later grew up around it.”

“people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs. The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first. So were the skinniest and most inquisitive females…The result was a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep.”

“Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches. Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens.”

“The natural lifespan of wild chickens is about seven to twelve years, and of cattle about twenty to twenty-five years. In the wild, most chickens and cattle died long before that, but they still had a fair chance of living for a respectable number of years. In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months, because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age from an economic perspective.”

“To ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice off a chunk of each pig’s nose. This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sniff. Since the pigs cannot find food or even find their way around without sniffing, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human owners. In another area of New Guinea, it has been customary to gouge out pigs’ eyes, so that they cannot even see where they’re going.”

“Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after giving birth to calves, kids and lambs, and only as long as the youngsters are suckling. To continue a supply of animal milk, a farmer needs to have calves, kids or lambs for suckling, but must prevent them from monopolising the milk. One common method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves and kids shortly after birth, milk the mother for all she was worth, and then get her pregnant again. This is still a very widespread technique. In many modern dairy farms a milk cow usually lives for about five years before being slaughtered. During these five years she is almost constantly pregnant, and is fertilised within 60 to 120 days after giving birth in order to preserve maximum milk production. ”

“Another method is to keep the calves and kids near their mothers, but prevent them by various stratagems from suckling too much milk. The simplest way to do that is to allow the kid or calf to start suckling, but drive it away once the milk starts flowing. This method usually encounters resistance from both kid and mother. Some shepherd tribes used to kill the offspring, eat its flesh, and then stuff the skin. The stuffed offspring was then presented to the mother so that its presence would encourage her milk production. The Nuer tribe in the Sudan went so far as to smear stuffed animals with their mother’s urine, to give the counterfeit calves a familiar, live scent.”

“Tuareg camel breeders in the Sahara used to puncture or cut off parts of the nose and upper lip of young camels in order to make suckling painful, thereby discouraging them from consuming too much milk.”

“A modern calf in an industrial meat farm. Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body. There the calf spends its entire life – about four months on average. It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong. Soft muscles mean a soft and juicy steak. The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.”

“Around 10,000 BC, before the transition to agriculture, earth was home to about 5–8 million nomadic foragers. By the first century AD, only 1–2 million foragers remained (mainly in Australia, America and Africa), but their numbers were dwarfed by the world’s 250 million farmers.”

“The earth’s surface measures about 510 million square kilometres, of which 155 million is land. As late as AD 1400, the vast majority of farmers, along with their plants and animals, clustered together in an area of just 11 million square kilometres – 2 per cent of the planet’s surface. Everywhere else was too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, or otherwise unsuited for cultivation. This minuscule 2 per cent of the earth’s surface constituted the stage on which history unfolded.”

“The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service. The agricultural economy was based on a seasonal cycle of production, comprising long months of cultivation followed by short peak periods of harvest. ”

Farming enabled the formation of large-scale political and social systems.

“Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.

These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples.

Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. ”

“It was not food shortages that caused most of history’s wars and revolutions. The French Revolution was spearheaded by affluent lawyers, not by famished peasants. The Roman Republic reached the height of its power in the first century BC, when treasure fleets from throughout the Mediterranean enriched the Romans beyond their ancestors’ wildest dreams. Yet it was at that moment of maximum affluence that the Roman political order collapsed into a series of deadly civil wars. Yugoslavia in 1991 had more than enough resources to feed all its inhabitants, and still disintegrated into a terrible bloodbath.”

“Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.”

“Around 2250 BC Sargon the Great forged the first empire, the Akkadian. It boasted over a million subjects and a standing army of 5,400 soldiers. Between 1000 BC and 500 BC, the first mega-empires appeared in the Middle East: the Late Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, and the Persian Empire. They ruled over many millions of subjects and commanded tens of thousands of soldiers.”

“In 221 BC the Qin dynasty united China, and shortly afterwards Rome united the Mediterranean basin. Taxes levied on 40 million Qin subjects paid for a standing army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and a complex bureaucracy that employed more than 100,000 officials. The Roman Empire at its zenith collected taxes from up to 100 million subjects. This revenue financed a standing army of 250,000–500,000 soldiers, a road network still in use 1,500 years later, and theatres and amphitheatres that host spectacles to this day”

“How can myths sustain entire empires?…

In 1776 BC Babylon was the world’s biggest city. The Babylonian Empire was probably the world’s largest, with more than a million subjects. It ruled most of Mesopotamia, including the bulk of modern Iraq and parts of present-day Syria and Iran. The Babylonian king most famous today was Hammurabi. His fame is due primarily to the text that bears his name, the Code of Hammurabi. This was a collection of laws and judicial decisions whose aim was to present Hammurabi as a role model of a just king, serve as a basis for a more uniform legal system across the Babylonian Empire, and teach future generations what justice is and how a just king acts.”

“The text begins by saying that the gods Anu, Enlil and Marduk – the leading deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon – appointed Hammurabi ‘to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak’. It then lists about 300 judgements, given in the set formula ‘If such and such a thing happens, such is the judgment.’ For example, judgements 196–9 and 209–14 read:

196.    If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.”

“Hammurabi’s Code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice, dictated by the gods.”

“Hammurabi’s Code was based on the premise that if the king’s subjects all accepted their positions in the hierarchy and acted accordingly, the empire’s million inhabitants would be able to cooperate effectively. Their society could then produce enough food for its members, distribute it efficiently, protect itself against its enemies, and expand its territory so as to acquire more wealth and better security.”

“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”

“believing in it (“imagined orders”) enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.”

“Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.”

“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”

“You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.”

“There is no way out of the imagined order.”

“Because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny. A conscious effort has to be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse.”

“(the) distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. ”

“Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.”

“Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.”

“But people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it’s economically expedient. Like the Aryan conquerors of India, white Europeans in the Americas wanted to be seen not only as economically successful but also as pious, just and objective. Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division. Theologians argued that Africans descend from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution.”

spreading racist myths created a “a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect, a vicious circle.”

“You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior. ‘Look,’ said the average white citizen, ‘blacks have been free for generations, yet there are almost no black professors, lawyers, doctors or even bank tellers. Isn’t that proof that blacks are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’ Trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.”

“Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history… We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.”

“The Bible decrees that ‘If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife’ (Deuteronomy 22:28–9). The ancient Hebrews considered this a reasonable arrangement.”

“As of 2006, there were still fifty-three countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife. Even in Germany, rape laws were amended only in 1997 to create a legal category of marital rape.”

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility.”

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.”

“Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?”

“There is little sense, then, in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth, or that homosexuality is unnatural. Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.”

“At least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women.”

why do so many societies value manhood over womanhood? there are many theories but we don’t know.

the common theories:

1. man are stronger than women and use force to dominate women

2. man’s aggressive nature made them masters of society

3.“men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies” – women needed men to take care of them during pregnancy and the rearing of children.

“the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine genes that made it to the next generation belonged to women who were submissive caretakers. Women who spent too much time fighting for power did not leave any of those powerful genes for future generations.”

all these theories have flaws.


Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

My previous newsletters are here: https://isaiahlim.wordpress.com/category/isaiahlim_newsletter/

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