Friday, March 25, 2011

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race?

Almost twenty-five years ago, Pulitzer Prize- and National Medal of Science-winner Jared Diamond denounced agriculture as humanity's worst mistake ever:
There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. 
First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early fanners obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition, (today just three high-carbohydrate plants -- wheat, rice, and corn -- provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) 
Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. 
Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.)
Even without reference to the evils of gluten, Diamond hit a bullseye. As he put it, "[h]unter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we're still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it's unclear whether we can solve it."