Agriculture: Humanity’s Best, Worst Invention

Imagine this.

You wake up in a beautiful meadow after a long, restful sleep. You watch the sunrise sparkle through the morning dew as you pick a hearty breakfast of nuts, berries and mushrooms. Seeing storm clouds on the horizon, you head back to camp and find your family already packing. Together you push your hand-carved canoes into the river and make your way downstream past mountains and valleys teeming with life. The river is so full of pink salmon that for dinner you simply snatch one from the water. At night, you sit around a fire. You’ve been rowing all day, but you’re not exhausted, so you dance, kiss, hug and tell each other stories as the warmth of the flames envelops you. When the stories end, you fall to the ground, hold your partner and stare up at the sky, the Milky Way filling you with awe, until you close your eyes for the night. 

This was once the average day in the life of a human being. 

For nearly 300,000 years, we went where we pleased, whenever we pleased. We stayed fit. We explored a world mostly untouched by human hands. We ate a wide variety of rich, healthy, fresh-picked food. And without work to tie us down, we spent almost all our time with the people we loved the most. But then things changed. In the Middle East, around 10,000 BCE, a few bands of hunter-gatherers started planting seeds rather than eating them. Grains,like barley and emmer. Other bands in China, Africa and Central America would soon do the same, all independently of each other. And we can only guess why. Maybe they grew tired of living in uncertainty? As hunter-gatherers, food was abundant, but not infinite. And if they ran out, they went hungry. They could travel, of course, but venturing into new territory is always a gamble. Without networks of communication or trade, it’s impossible to know what lies on the other side of a mountain. There might be new, dangerous predators or rival tribes ready to protect their land by force. You wouldn’t know. You couldn’t know. 

The simple act of putting a seed in the ground freed humanity from that fate. It promised us stability and control. If you can make your own food supply, you can make sure you’ll never go hungry. You can set down roots, rather than stray into the unknown. You can control the world, rather than be controlled by it. This was the beginning of human civilization. The simple act that set the modern world in motion. But when it comes to human happiness and well-being, some argue that planting seeds was our greatest mistake.

Imagine this.

You wake up before dawn and eat two handfuls of wheat. On your walk outside, you pick stray oats from your rotting teeth. You spend the entire day beneath the harsh Sun, as the fields of grain offer no shade to shelter you. By midday, your back already aches from bending over again and again to water plants, pull weeds from the ground and shoo away pests. When you finally return to the comfort of your home for another serving of wheat, you learn that your child is sick. They collapsed, falling under the sway of some kind of curse. The village shaman feeds them a poppy flower to soothe their suffering, but he can’t stop the curse itself. It’s an illness, passed to them through the goats they kept.

Viral diseases were rare among hunter-gatherers, but forcing other animals to live alongside us changed that. When you go next door to ask for support and advice from your friend, you pass it to him, and he passes it to his family. As humans now live together in enclosed spaces, even those who don’t know you soon fall ill. By the end of summer, half the village is dead. And when a blight hits your fields just before harvest time, killing off the one genetically identical crop you chose to grow, those few who remain soon starve. This is, admittedly, a worst-case scenario. While we could imagine a similar horrible year in the life of a hunter-gatherer, one where your brother gets eaten by a lion and your grandmother dies of exposure, the day-to-day lives of agriculturalists were unambiguously worse than those of their ancestors. 

Farmers worked much longer, had fewer new and exciting experiences and were more vulnerable to illness and, ironically, famine. While they ate plenty when food was available, because they could only plant a few simple crops, whenever the weather became unsuitable, they went from having plenty to having nothing at all. It’s no wonder then that archaeological evidence shows that after transitioning to cereal-based agriculture, humans began to live far shorter lives than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Due to malnutrition, children grew slower, died easily and by adulthood were literally five inches shorter. It took until the 20th century for the average human height to return to Paleolithic levels. Why then did we do it? Why did we continue to follow the path of agriculture, even though it made our lives considerably worse, at least at the beginning? 

There are two possible answers.

One is that this change happened over many thousands of years, and it’s only through the miracle of hindsight that we can truly see how bad it was. The person who planted that first seed could never imagine a garden. The gardener couldn’t imagine a field. And once people came to rely entirely on farming, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was already in the distant past. If you asked an ancient farmer how they’d solve the problem of starvation, they would have probably just said, “Plant another field.” Because you can’t return to something you’ve never known. The second explanation as to why we stuck with agriculture has to do with population growth. 

Nearly eight billion people live on Earth today. But for most of history, we could barely reach 10 million. That’s all our environment could support, and all our lifestyle would allow. When you’re always on the move, you can’t afford to keep more than a few children around. Farming changed that. For the first time, we could stay in one place. We could change our environment to make as much food as we wanted. Extra food and a place to call home meant we could support more kids. And more kids meant more help in the fields, which meant more food. And so the cycle kept going. Eventually, there was so much food that not everyone needed to be a farmer. Some could dedicate all their time to other pursuits, like building better shelter, better pots and better ways of processing grain.

In a blip of time, societies that embraced planting outpaced and outnumbered the hunter-gatherers. And a single healthy hunter-gatherer doesn’t stand a chance against 50 farmers, however miserable and malnourished they are. Even if, at that moment, every one of those farmers put down their pitchforks and returned to the woods, the odds are that someone somewhere would have just planted another seed. They’d have a family. And while it might take another millennia or two, they’d win out over the hunter-gathers, because the math would always be in their favor. Yet, looking at the state of humanity today, it begs the question: Was agriculture truly our greatest mistake? 

In the modern era, it’s easy to say it was all worth it. A necessary sacrifice. Ten thousand years of pain and malnutrition are unfortunate, but we’ve come out the other side much stronger and better. Global trade ensures our diets are as varied as we want them to be. Modern medicine lets us live better and longer lives than our hunter-gatherer ancestors ever did. We can cure disease. We can even drive viruses into extinction. 

In the 1970s, widespread use of vaccines eliminated smallpox, one of the most devastating and disfiguring illnesses in the history of our species. It’s gone, forever. Humans did that. Agriculture allowed those illnesses to spread to us in the first place, but by doubling down, and continuing to specialize, we found a solution. If the COVID-19 pandemic came along a thousand or even a hundred years ago, it’s very possible you and I wouldn’t be alive right now. Instead, many of us were privileged enough to wait out the pandemic indoors. Our quarantines played out inside air-conditioned palaces that the kings, queens and emperors of past centuries could only dream of. At night, we can flip a switch and fill our homes with artificial sunlight. We can summon fresh, clean water at a whim, as hot or as cold as we please. Over time, some very smart people, freed from gathering berries and throwing spears, worked together to achieve miracles. 

Whatever issues agriculture caused, we’re free from them now. Right? Sadly, the truth is a lot more complicated. The new field of evolutionary psychology argues that while the physical conditions of our lives have improved, these changes have actually caused our mental lives to suffer. When we think about it, the first human civilizations of the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent seem far in the distant past on an evolutionary timescale, but the truth is they’re actually incredibly recent. If we were to represent the entire history of humanity as a single day, with the present moment as midnight, agriculture only came along about four minutes ago. For the entire day, we were hunter-gatherers. That’s who we are on a biological level, what evolution conditioned us to be. 

We experience so much mental illness in the modern world, not just because we’re better at seeing it, but because our minds are unsuited to the world we live in. Imagine this. I don’t think you’ll find it very hard. You wake up groggy to the sound of an alarm. You were in the middle of a dream, in a deep sleep, but your boss doesn’t care about that. He scheduled you for an early shift, and expects you to clock in before the Sun even rises. To your body’s circadian rhythms, it’s still nighttime. You should be in bed. But you fight against it, turning your phone’s brightness up to the maximum and shining it right in your face to help jolt you awake. 

At work, you spend the entire day behind a cash register. You flash fake smiles at an unending chain of people you don’t know and probably won’t ever see again. To the humans of long ago, strangers were almost always dangerous. But the world doesn’t function like that anymore. You need to navigate public spaces to fulfill even your most basic needs. You learned to accept nameless grocery clerks and bus drivers as normal. You receive food from strangers, enter their cars and even live in their homes. But you still compare yourself to them, or wonder deep down if they’re a threat. A low-level unease saturates your brain with cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. It’s not terrible, but it persists throughout your daily routine. 

All through your shift you’ve been eyeing the chocolate bars behind the register. Sugar was once rare in nature. If you found fruit, you ate it fast before it rotted or anyone else could get it. But now sugar is everywhere, in the cheapest things, and eating healthy is the more expensive option. You compromise by buying yogurt, bread and a hazelnut spread. But food manufacturers have filled these with sugar, too. At night, you return home and fall into the arms of your partner. Your brain floods with oxytocin, the feel-good hormone you’ve been deprived of all day. Now, you can finally relax. You can finally take some time for yourself.

So you pull out your phone and scroll through Twitter and TikTok. The 280-character tweets and bite-sized videos trigger your reward system, filling you with an instant sense of gratification. You keep scrolling and scrolling, following those feelings as far as they’ll take you. You think about taking out your latest knitting project, a scarf for your partner, but it’s becoming harder and harder to keep your attention on it. It takes so long to get anywhere. So instead you put the phone away and close your eyes. You should get a good night’s sleep, you think. But the blue light still burns in your eyes. It has successfully tricked your brain into thinking it’s still daytime, depriving you of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Now you’re stuck tossing and turning, dreading the 5 A.M. alarm you set, of having to wake up just to do it all over again. 

The modern world is one of wonders. But our hunter-gatherer brains are unequipped to deal with these wonders, and corporations take advantage of that. The same systems that connect us to others also enslave us to them. The same global food trade that solved malnutrition exploits those nutritional needs so we happily buy more than we need. We have not escaped the consequences of agriculture, because agriculture says that abundance is worth the cost of our health and well-being, and this same mentality governs our world today. Corporations dam rivers, clear-cut forests and pollute the Earth in an effort to expand human power, just as the first agriculturalists did. And like them, we will reap what we sow. What’s the solution? Do we tear apart modern society, let our population drop and return to the state of nature? 

Obviously, that’s not possible. Even if it was, we now know that humans would somehow always find their way back to seeds. So a half-measure, then. Maybe we outlaw social media, sugar and artificial lights? Groups like the Amish and Mennonites do exactly that, rejecting the modern world in favor of a simpler lifestyle. Utopian communes all across the United States do more or less the same. But they all still rely on agriculture for food. It’s hard to live as our ancestors did, though people do try. 

Followers of the paleo diet use evolutionary psychology to support their belief that we should swear off protein powder and nutritional shakes, and only eat the unprocessed foods that would have been available to paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Think fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, or lean meats like fish. But in a way, even those are processed, as we’ve spent thousands of years selectively breeding plants and animals to be fatter and juicier than they would’ve ever been in nature. Ultimately, there’s a balance to be struck, and the answer isn’t clear. But understanding our ancestors offers us a window into understanding ourselves. 

What we need, and what we should aspire toward.