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June 2, 2006

Agriculture and Disbelief

The more you stumble about trying to follow some threads through the deep past, the more you realize the importance of agriculture. That's why the new report in Science on discovery of what may be humankind's earliest effort to domesticate a plant -- fig trees -- is so interesting. (A discovery made not in the Fertile Crescent but in the West Bank.)

Fig tree shoots jammed in the ground might have encouraged our peripatetic ancestors to settle down, and people living and working with larger numbers of other people in settlements require different, stricter moralities than hunter-gatherers. When you're living in a town, rather than in a band, you can't very well be killing the strangers you happen to encounter. Hence, the Thou-Shall-Not religions -- a change in human beliefs.

But Ofer Bar-Yosef, a co-author of the Science report, argues that there is also a connection between agriculture and disbelief. He is quoted in the New York Times:

"Eleven thousand years ago, there was a critical switch in the human mind -- from exploiting the earth as it is, to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Dr. Bar-Yosef said in a statement from Harvard. "People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods."

Hence, possibly, There-Are-No-Gods irreligion?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 2, 2006 11:31 AM


I find that interpretation a bit...off. It's certainly true that, generally speaking, we see a switch -- worldwide, in fact -- to more broad spectrum subsistence patterns at that time. But here's the problem with his interpretation -- the hunter-gatherers were every bit as sophisticated at manipulation of environment, and had been for a long time. Humans have been altering their environments in highly complex ways for a long time, even before agriculture. Agriculture, really, is just a more extreme form of certain hunter-gatherer processes that had been used for a long, long time already.

My biggest problem, though, is that I can't help but think that agriculture may have actually increased religiosity. Certainly it helped create "leisure" classes, who didn't have to directly work on subsistence, and who formed new artisan classes, ruling classes, and -- priests. Take Mesopotamia -- the whole process of centralization seems to have been controlled by the temples. Same in Egypt, though there the temples seem to have had more competition from "secular" rulers. One possibility here relates to the dirty secret of agriculture -- it sucked in many ways as a lifestyle. The possible rewards were great -- like that ability to have some people not working on subsistence -- but the risks were also greater. Disease, crashes in the food supply, a huge hit in the quality of diet. It may well have increased superstitious thinking as people tried to get any advantage they could in the chancy game of farming.

Posted by: Gregory at June 2, 2006 3:52 PM

Very interesting stuff here to contemplate as we witness the increasing ease with which people turn a blind eye to the ways in which their food is manufactured for them and, simultaneously, the further severance of people from the land and environment that are what truly sustain us.

Highly recommend Michael Pollan's book, _The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World_ (Random House, 2001). This from the intro:

"The four plants whose stories this book tells [apple, tulip, cannibis, potato] are what we call 'domesticated species,' a rather one-sided term ... that leaves the erroneous impression that we're in charge. We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature's greatest success stories."

Posted by: JM at June 3, 2006 12:54 PM

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