The Challenges of Staying Still

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When we were hunter gatherers, if the geography of a place didn’t suit us we would move on to find one that did. Then, with the advent of agriculture and irrigation it wasn’t all beer and skittles and spare time. When we decided to stop moving and settle an area there were some major challenges to overcome. But overcome them we did…

Early Agriculture
Of the four species of humans that existed in the Paleolithic era, only one made it to the Neolithic: Homo sapiens sapiens. The transfer from hunter gatherers to agricultural societies is generally agreed to be sporadic and potentially undesirable in the early stages with some attempts being abandoned.

It was surprising to learn that the average height of the hunter gatherer population was 178cm for men and 168cm for women. After the advent of agriculture the average height dropped to 165cm for men and 155cm for women. We did not regain the average human height until the 1900’s.

As the advent of agriculture is sporadic it is difficult to make a clear and unambiguous distinction between changes in lifestyle post agriculture and pre irrigation.

Perhaps one lifestyle change that could be said to have greatly accelerated in the time of early agriculture is the practice of clearing land for domestic plants and animals. The birth of slash and burn agriculture was an important development and change in lifestyle as it could be argued that it is one of the earliest examples of humans taking large coordinated action to control our environment.

Up until that point humans were largely at the mercy of their environment. If the geography of a place did not suit us we would have moved on to one that did. By slashing and burning we took control of mother nature and created an environment that did suit us in areas that might not have initially been attractive. After clearing an area it would increase the liklihood that we would stay still and settle an area.

The practice of changing our environment to better suit us developed into building and architecture. This has been a double edge sword throughout history as we have struggled to manage the balance between an improvement in lifestyles and dealing with the consequences of our actions. A struggle that continues to this day and is reaching unprecedented proportions.

Perhaps there is even a government grant in determining the link between the recognition of our ability to control the environment through slash and burn agriculture and a shift in the balance in the nature vs. nurture debate.

Post Irrigation
The next step in the expansion of our ability to control our environment is the development of irrigation. This is believed to have been first practiced by the Nubians and the Egyptians around 2,000 – 1,800 BCE. Terraced irrigation was first seen in China, South America and India around 600 BCE.

Irrigation increased the certainty of crops and a surplus of food and time. This led to increased numbers of people being able to share the same space and the move from a village sized population to a city sized population. This resulted in a massive lifestyle change.

The advent of cities meant many major changes in our lifestyle. These include:

Institutions of government, law and administration.
As population density increased around irrigated farmland people had to learn to live with each other in a way that suited most people. This led to the concept of property and the need for laws and institutions. It would have also led to the need for taxation and treasury to pay for roads, walls, graineries and other communal developments.

This led to another spiral that continues to this day. An increase in the complexity of our living arrangements leads to an increase for the need for people to specialise in certain areas which then in turn increases the complexity of living arrangements.

Sharing of ideas and specialisation.
The advent of cities and increased population density also led to an increased ability to share ideas and specialise. This theory is discussed in detail in Matt Ridley’s book ‘The Rational Optimist.’

Many of Matt Ridley’s earlier books are written about genetics and evolution. So it is with this background that he tackles the idea of human prosperity. In this theory, Ridley suggests that the sharing of ideas, labor and specialisation allowed for exponential growth in diversification, invention, technology and complexity. We learned to use the tools of evolution itself and apply them to our environment. This also led to an increasing spiral of complexity.

This recurring idea of increasing complexity reminds me of an idea discussed by Mark Roeder. He uses Newtons law of momentum (Momentum = Mass x Velocity) and suggests that the mass of the human race has increased (population, resource usage, footprint etc) and the velocity of the human race has also increased (communications, transport etc). This has led to a very high momentum. While momentum has its benefits, it is also what kills you in a car accident.