“The Worst Mistake Of The Human Race”

This essay by Jared Diamond is a quarter of a century old, but it’s still worth pondering, particularly as we now know much more about just how bad for our health grains are. I think, though, that he misses a key benefit of agriculture — the fact that it has allowed us to produce billions of people. Minds are a resource, even if we poorly utilize most of them. The more people we have, the likelier we are to come up with new true advances. I’m pretty sure that absent agriculture, technology would not have advanced much, and we’d be nowhere near the position we’re in now — about to finally expand off the planet, and attain the capability of preventing a species-destroying event.

15 thoughts on ““The Worst Mistake Of The Human Race””

  1. “preventing a species-destroying event.”

    Preventing -planet-scale- species-destroying events.

  2. So the key part is this: to keep the H-G lifestyle, humans must space children at least 4 years apart. And to do that, H-G bands “practiced infanticide and other means”. Exclude me out of THAT paradise, please.

    Oh, and “life expectancy at birth was 26 years”. That is the very definition of “nasty, brutish, and short”

      1. Except that you can’t exclude violence from the life of hunter-gatherers. It’s pretty much baked into that cake. And the violence is pretty ferocious – I haven’t looked at the numbers recently, but wasn’t it north of 1/3 deaths by violence?

        Jared Diamond is and was a malignant loon. I had a former friend who used to gas on about how agriculture was the great fall, the original sin. Note that he’s a former friend, as I eventually got tired of his paleolithic horse-swaggle. Paleolithic man wasn’t even an apex predator in most environments.

        1. Another small yet incredibly important facet of Hunter Gathering being tough is that there were no trails,roads,paths to travel so finding your game was an exercise in exceedingly difficult terrain navigation. Whether you are in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the everglades, or the forests of Eastern North America or Europe, it was damn tough going. I have done enough off trail hiking and backpacking to know that it would be a major pain in the rear as well as dangerous work just to do that every single day.

  3. I’m with Mitch H above. I have never found much that to admire in Jared Diamond’s just-so stories and cherry-picking ‘scholarship’.

  4. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter.

    Leaving aside the fact that there is still no scientific consensus about whether or not we were mostly scavengers, as opposed to hunters, the idea there was any “choosing” going on is silliness on stilts.

    It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.

    In what alternate universe does he propose that “sensibility” had anything to do with it. Hand-to-mouth Ugga was more sensible than farmer Ushmo? What. ever.

    Trying to unwind that mess would require more time than I wish to commit to it.

  5. History has a show called Mountain Men if you want to see modern day hunter gatherers. They live a hard life and this is with guns, snowmobiles, and other modern technologies.

  6. This guy is all about using things like the printing press and the internet while sitting in his air conditioned university office drinking coffee grown half way around the world, to tell us all how bad technology is and how human ingenuity is actually a mix of misguided frailty and luck. His writing happens to be good prose, but he the closest thing we have nowadays to a Rousseau or Malthus.

  7. My favorite work by Diamond was when he wrote a paper wanting to compare African testicle sizes to Asian ones. If only he’d wandered into the African jungle asking to measure men’s balls….

  8. I’ve hunted, shot, packed out, butchered, cooked and ate my own game in the wilds of Alaska (Both deer and bear). Brutal, hard and unforgiving. While I 100% agree that the high carb diet is a problem in the U.S. and Paleo diet is the way to go, I’m not a fan of being a hunter gatherer.

    With a lower population density it might have been easier, but I think that having motorized transport to get you to the point where the hunt starts more than make up for that. My experience was in south east Alaska, some of the most abundant game on the planet.

    1. Some of the comments I have heard regarding Paleo diets are also mostly wrong. Some propose people to have near-zero carb diets because that was how we did it but even hunter gatherers eat carbs (that would be the gathering part). Even in that Jared Diamond text the actual HG said there are still plenty of *nuts* to eat. Well nuts are hydrocarbon and vegetable oil rich foods. Besides nuts a lot of foragers collect edible roots (carrots were supposedly based on one of those).

      We are over reliant on bread for economic reasons but humans are omnivorous not carnivores.

  9. Luddism at its self-important worst. Mr. Diamond probably didn’t chisel that essay onto a clay tablet on the Serengeti Plains, but he almost certainly sat in a climate-controlled office and typed it on a keyboard. (Probably a typewriter, maybe even one of those then-newfangled Word Processors.) Tens of thousands of technological innovations that he casually, contemptuously dismisses, and all of them made possible by what he calls the worst mistake of the human race.

    Somehow, I doubt that Mr. Diamond would last very long as a hunter-gatherer. He spent his life suckling at the bosom of advanced, technological, Western Civilization that practices agriculture to sustain itself. I’ve also spent my life suckling at that same bosom, but (A) I like high-tech Western Civilization and make no apologies for it, and (B) I like bosoms.

    It is at times like this that I remember John Cleese as the frustrated revolutionary Reg in “Life of Brian”: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? ” In short, dead parrots don’t pine for the fjords, and rational, civilized people don’t pine for the Stone Age.

    1. Actually without agriculture there would be no written language to use to chisel such thoughts into stone. Writing (along with mathematics) was basically invented to keep track of who owned the wealth and assets produced by agriculture. Cave folks, not having any wealth to fight over had no need of it, except for an occasional painting of the animals hunted for religious and/or training purposes…

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