Rachel Laudan

Against the Grain 1. Better to Be a Hunter or Pastoralist than a Farmer?

Egyptians Harvesting Grain. Scene from the vestibule of the tomb of Petosiris, Tuna el-Gebel, Egypt. Roland Unger, CC 3.O


It’s time to “demolish the narrative of progress, of civilization and public order, and of increasing health and leisure” embodied in  the standard story of the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, cities, and states.

That, at least, is the argument that James Scott, political scientist and anthropologist, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale (and owner of a small farm), makes in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, published in 2017.

The demolition hinges on what Scott calls “the grain hypothesis.” Now grains are one of my favorite topics. Indeed my book Cuisine and Empire (2013) might as well have been called Grains and Empire. I am fascinated by the intersection of food and politics, which again is a major theme in Cuisine and Empire. I have spent years kicking around the question of progress, particularly in the sciences. I admired Scott’s earlier work. So Against the Grain was a must-read.

Much of Scott’s story I agreed with. Indeed, it’s not even clear that a demolition story is needed. Anthropologists have been talking up the good life of hunter gatherers for years, often wrongly in my opinion. The historian, Yuval Noah Harari, covers similar ground in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity (2015).  Even high school students following the Advanced Placement World History syllabus (p. 45) and studying the practice exam questions (p.188) encounter these ideas minus the voiceover about progress.

Other parts of Scott’s story made me go “Whoa. That not right. Why does he ignore other evidence?”

I will discuss the “whoas” in future posts. For now, a bit of background on Scott and an outline of his story.

Background to Against the Grain

Scott’s is a name to conjure with. His pioneering field work on Southeast Asian peasant societies showed how they resisted the power of the state. Over the course of his career, his sparkling books and articles sympathetic to the oppressed and to anarchism spread his reputation from political science to the other social sciences and the humanities. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), in which Scott used intriguing historical examples such as the spread of German forestry techniques in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to denounce the central state planning, spread his reputation well beyond the academy. Back in the universities, it’s become standard reading as I learned when every time I managed to borrow a copy from the University of Texas at Austin Library, it was promptly recalled.

To have such a figure write an engaging, revisionist account of the “agricultural revolution” has rightly been welcomed. Against the Grain has been widely, and generally favorably reviewed in the press, often by distinguished  scholars. In the Guardian, the eminent archaeologist Barry Cunliffe called it “well founded and highly provocative,” in the New Yorker, John Lanchester hailed it as “the case against civilization,” and in the London Review of Books, Steven Mithen, another distinguished archaeologist pronounced it “fascinating.”

The Story of Against the Grain

Scott’s story, like any good tragedy, comes in five acts.

In the first, he argues that humans came to live within ever smaller areas thanks to four domestications that took place over millions of year. The domestication of fire, he says following Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire (2009) made previously undigestible plants nutritious and enabled us to resculpt the landscape. The domestication of plants and animals further concentrated the food supply and, in turn, brought about the fourth domestication, that of humans. Then in biodiverse wetlands the first settlements took hold.

In the second act, here indebted to the New Zealand anthropologist, Helen Leach, he extends the notion of domus, of household to the creation of an entire culturally modified, artificial environment.

The third talks about the burdens that accompanied domestication and farming. Daily life for many became drudgery, parasites multiplied and diseases went back and forth between animals and humans, and taxes were extracted by the state as they have been ever since.

The fourth introduces the grain hypothesis, namely that only grains could support the classical states. Since grains mature at the same time, can be easily viewed since the seed heads are above ground, and can be readily measured and transported, they could easily be seized, providing the wealth undergirding the first states in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China.

Finally, the early states were constantly on the brink of failure. Their unfree labor wanted to escape their walls, disease and ecological disaster constantly threatened. In short, farming was regress not progress.  Far from being a step forward for humanity, made for lives that were worse, not better, than those of the hunter gatherers.

So Stay Posted for the “Whoas.”




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5 thoughts on “Against the Grain 1. Better to Be a Hunter or Pastoralist than a Farmer?

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    Many years ago I read a book by … Quinn? which had to be one of the first salvos in the “agriculture was a big mistake” arguments. It seemed kind of wacky at the time, but elements of the argument seem to be common enough ideas in early civilizational studies. There are still elements of it that seem like a kind of perverse “just so” story based on premises that would be hard to sustain, intellectually.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Found it. Daniel Quinn. My Ishmael. I find it hard to believe that there is anyone left who has not heard this story by now. At a meta level, it is interesting to speculate on the cultural assumptions that are at work.

  2. Heteromeles

    I keep meaning to finish reading Scott’s book. I loved Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. This one… I read the prologue, went (I’m not an academician, merely a PhD), “dude, wait a minute, the best example we have for primary state formation is Hawai’i, and that wasn’t a grain based culture. Nor could the Hawaiians easily go nomad if they disliked their local autocrat.” Since civilization did not develop from the Polynesians conquering the rest of the world, I really should read the rest of the book to see where he went with that. Thanks for the reminder.

    I should point out that foraging isn’t necessarily easier than farming, and not just because food prep time is ignored. There’s Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu telling us that the California and Australian aborigines, to name two of who knows how many examples, put tremendous effort into tending the plants and sometimes animals they needed for sustenance. The reason they did (and to some degree still do) what they do rather than farming is that California and Australia have notoriously unpredictable climates (note 2017 in California–started with above-average rains, ended with massive heat and fire. Despite climate change, this is NOT unheard-of weather). As a result, it makes little sense to depend on a few symbionts* tended the same way year after year. Rather, in an unpredictable climate, it makes more sense to tend as many useful species as possible. In California, some years the acorns will come through, in some years it will be the geophyte bulbs, while in other years it’s the pine nuts, or the grass seeds, or the yucca hearts, . Farming all of these doesn’t work, but tending them does. The problem is, of course, you’ve got to put energy into tending the wild too.

    * Excuse me, domesticates. I’m an ecologist, and I get confused about the terms, thanks to John Thompson’s work on coevolution. It would be nice to have a unified terminology so that we stopped thinking about human domestication as special and different, but I know that’s a lot to ask for.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this long and thoughtful comment. Having lived in and written about Hawaii, I too thought of it as an exception. Scott presumably would not because insofar as he defines a state, it includes cities, something pre-contact Hawaii lacked.

      I had not run across the the argument that foraging made sense in unpredictable climates. I look forward to reading up on that. I could not agree more that tending and cultivating form a continuum and that the effort of tending is often intense. A good bit of tending also went on in the modern English farm I grew up on.

      Also looking forward to reading John Thompson’s work on co-evolution.

      1. Heteromeles

        Oops, that was a nasty thing I did, not giving you enough information. John Thompson is a really good evolutionary biologist, and his Relentless Evolution is (in my opinion) his most accessible book. Trouble is, I have a bit of academic background in this, so my idea of “accessible” may not match yours. Also, if you read only his book, it might be a little tricky to see how his discussion of coevolution might apply to everything from apples to wheat to toy poodles (the last being, arguably, social parasites, if we were talking about something like ants and caterpillars, rather than humans and adorable puppies).

        Here are some other references that might be useful.
        –I discussed Thompson’s work and its implications for humans in the latter chapters of my book Hot Earth Dreams: what if severe climate change happens and humans survive (and I apologize for tooting my own horn on your blog, it’s just a way to find all the ideas in a single place). My basic notion is that humans are just weird animals with the unique trait (per Wrangham) that we’ve evolved to depend on fire. That aside, we have many similarities with other animals, especially ants, so if you want to take some guesses about how humans and human cultures will adapt going into the deep future, you can do worse than to look at what the ants have done for the last 50 million-odd years.
        –Books you might explore to learn more about ants: Holldobler and Wilson’s Journey to the Ants, The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct, and, if you want to understand the breadth of ant symbioses, The Ants. Of these, the first is the most fun and the last is the most magisterial.

        I’d suggest that Thompson’s take on coevolutionary landscapes might be really good (alternative) way to analyze how humans interact with crops, especially with crop varieties. It also potentially gives biologists and food historians a common language to discuss farming, domestication, pets, and so forth, using the terminology of symbioses. If you want analogies for human domestication patterns in very non-human species, ants are a useful if imperfect model, and they do point toward potential futures that most people don’t think about all that often.

        Hope this helps.

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