Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

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Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#1  Postby Cory Duchesne » Aug 29, 2010 8:32 pm

Just reread parts of Jared Diamond's essay - Agriculture: World's Worst Mistake. I was impressed with this essay when I was younger, but now that I'm older, I'm starting to wonder if it is seriously misleading. Jared Diamond does admit that it isn't solely just agriculture that is the problem, it is the human propensity toward population growth that brings about a need for agriculture. Diamond himself writes:

"Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny."

So is it right to conclude that just because we couldn't control our reproductive instincts that agriculture is to blame for that? Agriculture arguably permitted less warfare, because by being able to feed more people, there was less of a reason to go to war. Steven Pinker covers the subject of violence in his TED talk, A brief History of Violence. His argument is that the hunter gatherer mode of existence was equally if not more prone to violence due to the much larger land space required to support a small tribe, so when there was any kind of population pressure or if there was a need to migrate due to change in environment, there was a reason to go to war with neighboring tribes.

Here's an interesting and relevant clip:

General Miles Blows off American Indian Myths

Now, that clip is from a movie, so I'm taking it with a grain of salt, but it is a compelling and intuitive point of view.

Here is the graph Steven Pinker uses in his TED talk on warefare among hunter gathers:

Image

Now, this is suddenly a dramatically flattering view of agriculture. Pinker and Diamond are amazingly opposed ideologically, so one of them is being very dishonest or deluded.

Now, I acknowledge that the graph just links to a standalone image - no website with text to explain the graph. As for the graph itself, it's a bit suspicious and I will go onto the official TED site to see if I can find any citations that support Pinker's graph. Also to note, is that there are thousands of tribes in the world, but it shows eight specific (and perhaps obscure) tribes. It doesn't show overall averages across tribal societies in general, so there's no indication that these eight tribes are representative of tribal societies in general. So these examples could be cherrypicked.

Diamond refers more than a couple times to the Kalahari bushmen, who he seems to see as a model for sustainable living. I wonder how often the Kalahari go to war? Why don't their populations start to spill out into other areas causing conflict? These are questions I plan on researching over the next month or to, I just thought some of you may find this interesting, or perhaps you have an insight into these issues you might share.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#2  Postby Varangian » Aug 29, 2010 8:38 pm

:popcorn:

Fruits of Agriculture popcornTM - for better growth. Just bookmarking.


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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#3  Postby Leonidas » Sep 01, 2010 10:32 pm

Maybe some groups of ancient humans did restrict their populations. But most of us are descended from those who did not. :mrgreen:

After 4 billion years of survival by maximising reproduction and maximising food supply it is naiive to expect a single species to abruptly adopt a low reproduction, sub-optimun food supply strategy at a time when those with larger armies and more resources could and did exterminate smaller and poorer groups.

Human development anyway is consistently towards less conflict. Look at any troup of apes, monkeys, meerkats, lions etc. Who are their enemies? Who do they fight or drive off? Answer is any and every other troup, group, pack or pride of the same species. The only group living mammal species which is not always and forever hostile to all of its neighbours is homo sapiens. We have conflicts but neighbouring communities usually have many links by marriage, friendship and common interests. And even with enemies we often have peace treaties. Just try negotiating a deal between two lion prides!

Neanderthal Man seems to have followed the age-old mammal pattern because there is little or no evidence of trade between different groups. Neanderthal groups were probably all hostile to one another and that might be why they did not survive in competition with larger allied groups of homo sapiens.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#4  Postby Onyx8 » Sep 02, 2010 12:39 am

Mostly bookmarking here, as I have little to share and much to learn, but in a recent thread I commented that Gwynne Dyer, in his Book "War", made and supported the claim that hunter-gatherer societies had the same % kill rate as modern societies, even including such events as WWII.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#5  Postby Onyx8 » Sep 02, 2010 12:44 am

I've also seen it put that agriculture was not an improvement that supported more people, it was a necessary evil to support the expanding numbers of people. That it led to harder work, more working hours, less leisure, poorer nutrition, misogyny and an unequal distribution of the work load, and perhaps modern warfare.

Apart from that its great though. :thumbup: :thumbup:
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#6  Postby Cory Duchesne » Sep 04, 2010 2:46 pm

Relevant to the subject of population growth, reproductive instincts and civilization is an argument from the book “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by anthropologists Cochran and Harpending. In it they say that the development of agriculture, although it brought a vast array of unforeseen problems, might have caused a huge increase in the rate of human evolution, and “numerous evolutionary adaptations to the change in lifestyle and society”. So while mass agriculture seems needlessly destructive, it might serve another goal of “nature” altogether. A goal that doesn’t have to include the welfare or happiness of the average person, or even the longevity of a certain social system or civilization.

It’s already obvious there can be way more recombinations in a large (and now global) population. More mixture with “alien” material as well, as they keep finding traces of viruses and bacteria in the human genome too (8% of our genome is constructed of what used to be retroviruses).

I see agriculture with metallurgy and everything that has followed as the means toward further evolution, or the furnace of which the ore of humanity is broken. The progress of civilization itself could be seen as a dangerous trek up a steep mountain, and the higher we climb the more perilous yet potentially glorious the situation becomes. Happiness has little to do with it, it’s perhaps more about the ideal toward a horizon, it is the love of danger, adventure and transformation. Or perhaps more commonly and less flatteringly, a panicked scramble for (and a stumbling onto) imaginative solutions, with some incidental impressive results.

Diamond’s big thing seems to be “sustainability”, and I suppose if indefinite survival is what we value, then there are virtues to hunter gather existence, provided you are willing to have significantly higher death ratios through tribal warfare (at least if you go by Pinker’s data) and also provided, and this is a big one, you are willing to sacrifice accumulation of scientific knowledge and technology. You can’t practice metallurgy without the kinds of populations that only agriculture can support, and without metallurgy you are going to accomplish squat scientifically and technologically. And the lack of science and tech of hunter gatherer existence has long term survival drawbacks as well.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#7  Postby Rome Existed » Oct 26, 2010 4:49 pm

It wasn't unusual it seems back in say ancient days (just a couple of thousand years ago :D ) that when two armies fought that one would be pretty much be wiped out in just a day or 2 of fighting. I've read of Roman battles where they lost something like 50 000 dead in 1 day, which give much smaller population numbers, is a huge number of soldiers to lose, not that it wouldn't be a huge number today.

Name a modern war where that happened.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#8  Postby Tyrannical » Nov 04, 2010 7:17 am

Rome Existed wrote:It wasn't unusual it seems back in say ancient days (just a couple of thousand years ago :D ) that when two armies fought that one would be pretty much be wiped out in just a day or 2 of fighting. I've read of Roman battles where they lost something like 50 000 dead in 1 day, which give much smaller population numbers, is a huge number of soldiers to lose, not that it wouldn't be a huge number today.

Name a modern war where that happened.


I think that level of killing was far more unusual back then than it is today. It's modern fire arms starting around the 1850s that made mass killing efficient.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#9  Postby Rome Existed » Nov 05, 2010 9:48 am

Most wounded back then would die though. Most wounded today survive.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#10  Postby babel » Nov 05, 2010 9:56 am

Rome Existed wrote:It wasn't unusual it seems back in say ancient days (just a couple of thousand years ago :D ) that when two armies fought that one would be pretty much be wiped out in just a day or 2 of fighting. I've read of Roman battles where they lost something like 50 000 dead in 1 day, which give much smaller population numbers, is a huge number of soldiers to lose, not that it wouldn't be a huge number today.

Name a modern war where that happened.

Didn't the romans used to dramatize their battles by exaggerating the numbers in both armies, you know, to make the hollywood productions more visual? :scratch:
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#11  Postby Mazille » Nov 05, 2010 10:04 am

babel wrote:
Rome Existed wrote:It wasn't unusual it seems back in say ancient days (just a couple of thousand years ago :D ) that when two armies fought that one would be pretty much be wiped out in just a day or 2 of fighting. I've read of Roman battles where they lost something like 50 000 dead in 1 day, which give much smaller population numbers, is a huge number of soldiers to lose, not that it wouldn't be a huge number today.

Name a modern war where that happened.

Didn't the romans used to dramatize their battles by exaggerating the numbers in both armies, you know, to make the hollywood productions more visual? :scratch:

:this:
Don't trust those ancient sources, when it comes to numbers. If they were true Caesar would have fielded half the Italian peninsula against the rest of fucking Eurasia in "De Bello Gallico".
Although one might add that the actual fighting back then didn't do much damage in terms of loss of lives. Once an army broke and routed the following pursuit was where people died.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#12  Postby Delvo » Nov 06, 2010 2:45 am

Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?
No, Jared Diamond was not the world's worst mistake. He probably wasn't even his parents' worst mistake.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#13  Postby Tyrannical » Nov 06, 2010 2:58 am

Ah yes, he is the writer of that overly simplistic Guns, Germs, and Steal.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#14  Postby Galaxian » Jun 19, 2011 2:00 pm

Tyrannical wrote:Ah yes, he is the writer of that overly simplistic Guns, Germs, and Steal.

:clap: :cheers: Yes, so long as Jared is not a member of RatSkep, he's a hypocritical fuckwit in my eyes! :coffee:
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#15  Postby Arcanyn » Jun 19, 2011 3:14 pm

As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the flowering of art by providing us with leisure time, modern hunter-gatherers have at least as much free time as do farmers.


This misses the point. Even if this is true, in an agricultural society not everybody is a farmer whereas nearly everybody has to be involved in the gathering of food in a hunter-gatherer society. Agriculture allows for the existence large numbers of people who do not need to be directly involved in the aquisition of their food, and can therefore dedicate their time to other pursuits. This also allows for the existence of a significant economy; farmers can produce food greatly surplus to their own personal needs and trade it for goods and services - eg. they might trade food for tools made by a specialised tool-maker that allow them to farm more efficiently. Others might create various luxury items which might be exchanged for food, etc.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#16  Postby Steve » Jun 19, 2011 4:15 pm

Explain to me how evolution is a cause and effect process. Evolution is more opportunistic and agriculture is an evolutionary phenomenon. These things are emergent - they emerge rather than are caused. To talk about a "mistake" seems to say it was "caused" plus it seems anthropomorphic - assigning mentality where it doesn't belong.
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#17  Postby Marios Richards » Jun 21, 2011 10:56 pm

Rome Existed wrote:It wasn't unusual it seems back in say ancient days (just a couple of thousand years ago :D ) that when two armies fought that one would be pretty much be wiped out in just a day or 2 of fighting.I've read of Roman battles where they lost something like 50 000 dead in 1 day, which give much smaller population numbers, is a huge number of soldiers to lose, not that it wouldn't be a huge number today.


You're thinking of the Battle of Cannae and that was *very* unusual. Unusual for Romans - and their military innovation was to fight unusually lethal battles (i.e. when greek hoplite armies fought, the winner would expect to take something ~10% casualties - when Romans fought, the winner could expect to take something like ~40% casualties). Rome was the 'Russia' of the Hellenic world (terrifying willingness/capacity to fling tens of thousands of lives at a conflict).

Rome Existed wrote:Name a modern war where that happened.


The Battle of the Somme (Cannae was very unusual - I don't think there's any record of so many people dying so quickly until the Battle of the Somme - and I don't think the Battle of the Somme is unique in 20th century warfare (I'm not so hot on 20th century warfare, but I would expect to see higher casualties in Russia).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ba ... casualties

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wa ... death_toll

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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#18  Postby Marios Richards » Jun 21, 2011 10:57 pm

Rome Existed wrote:Most wounded back then would die though. Most wounded today survive.


Source or speculation?
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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#19  Postby Marios Richards » Jun 21, 2011 11:09 pm

Cory Duchesne wrote:Now, I acknowledge that the graph just links to a standalone image - no website with text to explain the graph. As for the graph itself, it's a bit suspicious and I will go onto the official TED site to see if I can find any citations that support Pinker's graph. Also to note, is that there are thousands of tribes in the world, but it shows eight specific (and perhaps obscure) tribes. It doesn't show overall averages across tribal societies in general, so there's no indication that these eight tribes are representative of tribal societies in general. So these examples could be cherrypicked.


The issue of whether contemporary hunter-gatherers can be used as a proxy for pre-agricultural homo sapiens is something that's been debated for over a century without - as far as I know - any resolution.

Crucially, modern hunter-gatherers are don't live in a vacuum - generally, hunter-gatherers have only survived incursions from agriculturalists by living in places the agriculturalists couldn't or didn't want to get to.

Given that the usual hypothesis for how hunter-gatherers behave when there was a conflict/population pressure is that they would split and move to new territory, it may be that the high murder rate is, to some degree, an artifact of living on shitty land that agriculturalists can't be bothered to take off you and not being able to get move away when tempers rise because there's no new, decent land that doesn't have farmers sat on it.

Bear in mind that the only part of the thesis where they disagree seems to be violence - starvation and dramatically unequal resources distributions do seem to be features of common features of agriculture if you don't consider everyone involved (in the global economy that means you have to include poor African states as well as wealthy European states).

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Re: Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

#20  Postby Onyx8 » Jun 22, 2011 3:48 am

Marios Richards wrote:
Cory Duchesne wrote:Now, I acknowledge that the graph just links to a standalone image - no website with text to explain the graph. As for the graph itself, it's a bit suspicious and I will go onto the official TED site to see if I can find any citations that support Pinker's graph. Also to note, is that there are thousands of tribes in the world, but it shows eight specific (and perhaps obscure) tribes. It doesn't show overall averages across tribal societies in general, so there's no indication that these eight tribes are representative of tribal societies in general. So these examples could be cherrypicked.


The issue of whether contemporary hunter-gatherers can be used as a proxy for pre-agricultural homo sapiens is something that's been debated for over a century without - as far as I know - any resolution.

Crucially, modern hunter-gatherers are don't live in a vacuum - generally, hunter-gatherers have only survived incursions from agriculturalists by living in places the agriculturalists couldn't or didn't want to get to.

Given that the usual hypothesis for how hunter-gatherers behave when there was a conflict/population pressure is that they would split and move to new territory, it may be that the high murder rate is, to some degree, an artifact of living on shitty land that agriculturalists can't be bothered to take off you and not being able to get move away when tempers rise because there's no new, decent land that doesn't have farmers sat on it.

Bear in mind that the only part of the thesis where they disagree seems to be violence - starvation and dramatically unequal resources distributions do seem to be features of common features of agriculture if you don't consider everyone involved (in the global economy that means you have to include poor African states as well as wealthy European states).

Marios



Thanks for your thoughtful input.
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