Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Agriculture: Burning the Bridge to our Past

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The advent of agriculture had a greater impact on humanity than any other event in our history. It created surpluses and intensifications leading to competition for limited resources and the formation of more complex social structures. It ended the genetic evolution of humanity as it existed for millions of years, and finally completed the transition of power over human action from the gene to the meme. It laid the foundation for what we recognize today as civilization. Agriculture, widely recognized as a great leap forward in human history, has in actuality done more than anything else to subjugate our daily lives to the control of a selfish culture.

Agriculture and the meme enjoyed a great period of symbiotic development. Evidence, however, demonstrates that symbolic memes preceded agriculture by thousands of years.[1] These did not appear, initially, as parallel developments—while agriculture led to the intensification of symbolic thought, the symbol first plowed the way for the farmer. Symbolic fluency permitted the development of structures within human society that proved essential to the adoption and intensification of agriculture. One such structure, the abstract concept of land ownership, proved manageable through symbolic representation of territory. One cannot literally pick up land and exchange it, but one can represent land symbolically—in the form of a deed, for example. As long as all parties accept the symbolic representation of land, then it becomes possible to own, exchange or sell the symbol. The process of intensification—the catalyst for all future economic, political and cultural evolution—began with the meme’s ability to incorporate this concept of ownership into its complex of power-relationships.

The process of intensification, from an anthropologist’s viewpoint, defines agricultural societies.[2] Intensification is the process through which self-replicating structures become increasingly more complex, interconnected and hierarchal. Intensification forms a positive feedback loop in the competition for one or more resources critical to the survival of a society. If several competing groups all strive to achieve competitive advantage through intensification, then they must each attempt to intensify faster than the other. Agricultural societies entered into inevitable conflict over limited resources because their means of production required the power to the exclusive use of a limited amount of arable land. Conflicts over land use supported further intensification as larger populations and greater surpluses acted as an evolutionarily successful means to victory. The competition for limited resources among several intensifying competitors caused an increase in the pace of intensification. Those cultures that intensified faster, that developed better means to control larger populations, out-competed their simpler rivals. Intensification demanded parallel improvements in both agricultural methods and political and economic structures—the efforts of ever-larger groups of agriculturalists required efficient management and direction. The concept of ownership played the critical role of connecting agricultural efficiency with political organization: power to control access to arable land translated to power to control societies dependent on the products of that land.

Agriculture did one thing that no previous complex of memes could: it trapped the population into continuing the present mode of production.[3] Agriculture controlled the individual by regulating access to the food supply. Individuals need food to live, and now, with agriculture and land-ownership, they needed their culture to get food. In the preceding hunter-gatherer economic mode all but the very young or infirm had open access to food, no strings attached. With agriculture, due to the need to access farming land (controlled by the cultural power structure) to get food, the individual became indentured to the local cultural power-complex. After a few generations, individuals in primarily agricultural systems had lost the knowledge (the power) to return to the hunter-gatherer mode. Even more decisively, the increase in population facilitated by agriculture made a return of large portions of the population to hunting and gathering impossible.[4] Such a population density required the use of agriculture. The culture now controlled the food, and therefore the individual. This no longer represented a power-relationship of highly suggestive neurochemical influences. This relationship demanded compliance or starvation.

Additionally, agriculture virtually ended biological evolution for humans. There remain a few, very minor exceptions, such as the improved lactose tolerance of Northern Europeans that probably developed alongside pastoralism and agriculture, but evolution in general has switched from individual selection to group selection. While, in agricultural societies, some individuals would not live to reproduce, this resulted increasingly less often from lower individual fitness. Instead, if the group prospered, far more members survived, regardless of individual fitness. With the end of biological evolution, the makeup of our genome froze in the Pleistocene era of hunter-gatherers.[5] Cultural evolution remained the only game in town, but it still relied on a human host. The need for rapidly advancing culture to remain compatible with a structure frozen in the time of hunter-gatherers will prove a defining theme when we consider our present situation in Chapter VIII.

With the end of human evolution based on natural selection, evidence continues to surface that the development of humanity seems to follow ever closer to the path of selective breeding. In modern, industrial society, humans tend to choose partners of similar intellectual capability, providing a selection mechanism to ‘breed’ our species into ever more divergent groups. This frightening theory suggests that culturally applied influence in the selection of mates may force humanity to diverge into multiple species, providing economic stratification of the workforce. Like the Eloi and Morlocks of H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine”, or the division of bees in a hive, one human species could specialize as the droning laborers and another as the organizer, innovator and leader. Stratification of the species may also prove evolutionarily viable as it could provide specialized hosts capable of accommodating even more demanding memes. For example, a caste of bred laborers may develop an increased ability to tolerate memes that demand increasingly mechanized and monotonous daily routines, without the side effects of depression or rebellion. Such an extreme scenario could manifest in a relatively short time, as breeding can produce new species orders of magnitude faster than classical evolution.

Agriculture represents one of the seminal developments in human history. Its two primary impacts—the end of human biological evolution and the enslavement of the agriculturalist to his culture—have influenced all subsequent events. Agriculture set the stage for the rise of culture, for the meme to dominate the gene. We will see the effects of memetic domination in our exploration of the development of economics, politics and technology.


[1] Fully developed symbolic manipulation and creation is at least as old as the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain. The charcoal pigment in the paintings has been radiocarbon dated to 12,000 years before present, +/- 400 years (Nature magazine, issue 68, pgs 68-70). However, recent findings suggest that the Aterian groups of Northern Africa utilized art and symbolic processes as long as 90,000 years ago (see “What is Aterian” by Maxine Kleindienst in “Oasis Papers: Proceedings of the First International Symposium of the Dahkleh Oasis Project”, 2001). The earliest confirmed agricultural community, the settlement of Catal Huyuk, in modern-day Turkey, dates back possibly as far as 11,000 years before present (exact dating, specifically confirming the city’s use of agriculture, still requires refinement. See “Bayesian Statistics and the Dating of Çatalhöyük East” by C. Cessford, 2002).
[2] For an excellent treatment of the role of intensification in the development of human society, see “On the Road of the Winds” by Patrick Kirch or “Bronze Age Economics” by Timothy Earle.
[3] “Beyond Civilization” Daniel Quinn.
[4] There is some evidence of hierarchal civilizations being abandoned and their populations returning to tribal hunting and gathering, specifically the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. See “Beyond Civilization” by Daniel Quinn.
[5] The Pleistocene era runs from 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago. It comprised the critical stage in the genetic development of humanity culminating in Homo Sapiens Sapiens, our current form.


Anonymous said...

what a great site - very sophisticated for us anthros.

Anonymous said...

Lately I use two mantras to aid in achieving lucidity:

1. Plants domesticated humans
2. Poverty is an invention

Brother Billy said...

What evidence can you cite for the notion that cultural selective breeding is working in the direction of creating divergent species?

No connections between intellectual capabilities and class/occupation/education appear to have been established.

The overriding phenomenon appears to me to be the interbreeding between formerly separate populations. Less, rather than more, divergence results from that.

Brother Billy said...

If you haven't already read it, Jared Diamond's
article on agriculture, "The worst mistake in the history of the human race" is a treatment of the origin and spread of agriculture that you might like and find useful.

Diamond briefly sketches the environmental and populational context for the natural selection of the agricultural memes.