Humanity’s worst mistake?

A great place to browse for intriguing ideas about economic history is the blog for UC Berkeley’s Introduction to Economic History course taught by Professors Jan deVries and Brad DeLong.

Although there is no podcast to go along with this blog, the website includes a lot of commentary by the professors, along with links to very interesting and provocative articles such as this piece by Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.

What is the worst mistake? Jared Diamond writes:

…recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

It’s a daring claim and probably makes for a great classroom discussion. However, I don’t think he proves his case. True, he presents archaeological evidence that shows that hunter gatherers were healthier and better nourished than the farmers who came after them. But this is a far cry from concluding that agriculture was also responsible for “starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

Anthropological research, such as Napoleon Chagnon’s work with the Yanomamo of Brazil and Venezuela, has pretty conclusively demolished the myth of the noble savage, and shown that hunter gatherer peoples experienced plenty of warfare and tyranny. We didn’t need the development of agriculture for that.

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