Jared Diamond: World's Worst Mistake?

Just reread parts of Jared Diamond’s essay - Agriculture: World’s Worst Mistake. I was impressed with this essay when I was younger, but now that I’m older, I’m starting to wonder if it is seriously misleading. Jared Diamond does admit that it isn’t solely just agriculture that is the problem, it is the human propensity toward population growth that brings about a need for agriculture. Diamond himself writes:

“Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

So is it right to conclude that just because we couldn’t control our reproductive instincts that agriculture is to blame for that? Agriculture arguably permitted less warfare, because by being able to feed more people, there was less of a reason to go to war. Steven Pinker covers the subject of violence in his TED talk, A brief History of Violence. His argument is that the hunter gatherer mode of existence was equally if not more prone to violence due to the much larger land space required to support a small tribe, so when there was any kind of population pressure or if there was a need to migrate due to change in environment, there was a reason to go to war with neighboring tribes.

Here’s an interesting and relevant clip:

General Miles Blows off American Indian Myths

Now, that clip is from a movie, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt, but it is a compelling and intuitive point of view.

Here is the graph Steven Pinker uses in his TED talk on warefare among hunter gathers:

Now, this is suddenly a dramatically flattering view of agriculture. Pinker and Diamond are amazingly opposed ideologically, so one of them is being very dishonest or deluded.

Now, I acknowledge that the graph just links to a standalone image - no website with text to explain the graph. As for the graph itself, it’s a bit suspicious and I will go onto the official TED site to see if I can find any citations that support Pinker’s graph. Also to note, is that there are thousands of tribes in the world, but it shows eight specific (and perhaps obscure) tribes. It doesn’t show overall averages across tribal societies in general, so there’s no indication that these eight tribes are representative of tribal societies in general. So these examples could be cherrypicked.

Diamond refers more than a couple times to the Kalahari bushmen, who he seems to see as a model for sustainable living. I wonder how often the Kalahari go to war? Why don’t their populations start to spill out into other areas causing conflict? These are questions I plan on researching over the next month or to, I just thought some of you may find this interesting, or perhaps you have an insight into these issues you might share.

Hi Cory,

I’ve read Jared’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and remember agreeing with it quite fanatically after the first read, and perhaps less so on the second. I also agree with your graph and the supposition that hunter-gatherers do not exist in some state of noble savagery compared to societies based around agriculture.

Sure, run out of space/food = time to go and knock some heads together. Always. However - with the graph and the x scale of “% of male deaths” - okay - so data, when displayed that way, paints a dim view of tribalism - my bone to pick though would be when you changed the scale to “number of actual deaths”. Hunter-gatherer societies, presumably still governed with respect to population size by the rule of the monkeysphere - Dunbar’s predictions from brain size equating with a natural group cap of around 150-200 people, and observations bearing this out of [modern] groups of religious sects like quakers etc, all seeming to naturally split after that number has been exceeded…

…What I mean is, intergroup conflicts on the hunter-gatherer scale do not result in all that many actual deaths.

But, once you scale that number up to agriculture-based societies, whose population size may far exceed the monkyspherical 150-200 limit, sometimes by factors of a thousand, a million, then when those societies go to war… The actual bodies-in-graves count goes through the roof. WWI - around 16 million - WWII - somewhere between 50 and 70 million.

Okay, perhaps hunter-gatherer troops are more casually violent, but agriculture-based societies are massively more deadly when they do come to blows.

I too read Guns, Germs and Steel, and this article says nothing fundamentally different from that except to put a prescriptive spin on agriculture. It reminds me of another essay called “IT Doesn’t Matter” in which a Harvard Business professor said that in today’s age Information Technology is now but a utility akin to electricity and water; just like electricity and water don’t serve as a means to strategically advance a business, neither does IT at this stage in the game. What is similar about an anthropological essay and and essay on Business Administration? I think both elucidate the core subject matter but deliberately chose a controversial title to catch attention.

Jared puts great emphasis on agriculture as the foundation for civilization as we know it, and I tend to agree. But that also undermines his prescriptive argument. Agriculture is so fundamental to what we define as “humanity” that to give it a grade is rather pointless - we can only speculate on the alternative and there’s no way we can revert to it. Can an Earth full of nothing but hunter-gatherers with their small numbers on the earth survive ecological disasters? Could they develop the tools to ensure group survival? If you look at the history of the genome and current thinking on prehistoric events, we came pretty close a number of times to being nearly wiped out due to small numbers.

People who decry agriculture are like those who are hostile to religion because it has created so much evil in the world. Yes, agriculture has fomented disease and I think (agreeing with Tab) even deadlier war than a hunter-gatherer society, but it allows for more people to thrive and gives time for art, literature, and philosophy. Yes, religion has given twisted justification for a lot of rotten things, but it has also helped people treat others with charity, give help to the less fortunate, and make people realize that there is more than just feeding urges. To give either a grade is as laughably nonsensical as trying to grade the moral value of humanity as a whole. At this stage in the game, the three are inseparable, like it or not.

At least Jared has done some of “walking the walk”. I think he’s spent some time living as a hunter-gatherer with a community in New Guinea.

We’ve had some interesting debates along these lines. The first one I thought of was when Cyrene argued in favor of the sort of thesis you are presenting here, that modern society is all-in-all worth it:


In Cyrene’s opening salvo, he provides the same figure along with a source, Helena Valero “Living among the Yanomami”.

Another thing you might want to consider is Zerzan’s “Future Primitive”. It argues along the Diamond line (I’d be shocked if Diamond wasn’t influenced by Zerzan, frankly) and it is worth a read.


Zerzan’s anarchism also heavily influences his views, so seeing where he is coming from philosophically is probably a good call:


Zerzan’s view on civilization is especially important as it relates to Diamond and his “civilization begins with agriculture” thesis.

Another thing to keep in mind is how . . .

Hmmm, I just checked the dates, it would seem that Zerzan was likely influenced by Diamond and not the other way 'round, though there is likely to be a certain amount of back-scratching between the two as they developed.


The point I was going to make is that the Agriculture essay is also very old. Anthropology really has come a long way since 1987. While you can point to the percentage of males dead in various societies, in 1987 most people were more concerned with the threat of nuclear annihilation. While there may be a high percentage of death amongst modern tribes living a primitive lifestyle (which Diamond may have been unaware of at the time, I’m not sure when the research regarding the tribes was done and how widespread it was, I do know that the notion of the Noble Savage took a looong time to die and is still partially with us), they sure can’t kill humanity in its entirety.

Also, Diamond seems to have changed his view in light of his studies. Essays like “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” published in the New Yorker hardly present a favorable view of primitive societies.

newyorker.com/reporting/2008 … ct_diamond

So, he was probably just misinformed and angry when he wrote the original essay, or rather, was lacking critical information which caused him to reach an untrue conclusion.

Biologists who think in black and white say the darndest things when they venture into the humanities.

There are too many problems throughout that essay to make his point worthy of discourse.

The human propensity causes problems, but agriculture isn’t a mistake for supporting it, any more than guns are a mistake or cars are a mistake. They’re tools to achieve ends; mistake seems the wrong word. Birthrates: Mankind’s Biggest Problem might be a more apt title.

I’m pretty sure that male deaths tend towards 100% in all societies. Is this deaths due to violence, or by a certain age?

It’s maybe sustainable, not for so long as we’re used to, though:
kalahari-meerkats.com/filead … _light.pdf
“Bushmen health, in general, is not good though: 50% of children die before the age of 15; 20% die within their first
year (mostly of gastrointestinal infections). Average life expectancy is about 45-50 years; respiratory infections and
malaria are the major reasons for death in adults. Only 10% become older than 60 years.”
A lower birthrate with better survival rates should also be sustainable. That requires technology, which the bushmen don’t have the resources or infrastructure to support.

If the population is sustainable, it shouldn’t ‘spill out’ and cause conflict. That’s a result of an unsustainable situation.