A taboo and a talisman

To start, just a quick summary of this site’s comment policy, which I’ve now added to the About page. No personally abusive comments directed towards me or other commenters, please. And no content of a racist, misogynist or otherwise prejudiced character, even if wrapped in a cloak of researcherly authenticity. Comments of this nature will be removed, and individuals with repeat infractions will be permanently barred. Final decision on the rules rests with me, with no discussion entered into. Well, at least there’s somewhere where I have sweeping executive powers. Though I’m hoping for political office along those lines in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex when it gets going. OK, enough said.

So now let’s get down to today’s business with a quiz question: Charles Darwin wrote “fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement X”. The work in question had a profound influence on Darwin’s thought: “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…” But what is X?

X was equally influential on Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who wrote: “But perhaps the most important book I read was X….It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology…and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.”

Darwin, and to a lesser extent Wallace, would surely be up there on many lists of the most influential scientists of all time. So you might expect the author of the mysterious X to be similarly feted. But that’s hardly the case. Karl Marx wrote of Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population, for that book is indeed the X in question, that it is “the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development”. There are plenty of people around today who’d say much the same of Marx, but that doesn’t seem to have helped rehabilitate Malthus. Things have moved on in the realm of ‘philosophical biology’, so I doubt contemporary evolutionary scientists find much need to read him. But every generation of social and political scientists seems to feel the obligation to disinter his remains, give them a good kicking, and then pronounce him buried once and for all.

Darwin’s thinking itself fell into eclipse in the early part of the twentieth century, prompting zoologist H.J. Muller to grumble “one hundred years without Darwinism are enough”. Which leads me to offer the following provocation: two hundred and nineteen years without Malthus are enough.

Let me explain why. First of all, it’s worth saying that while Malthus’s writing on population is virtually the only part of his work that gets discussed today, he was also a pioneering economist who was among the first to write about economic booms and busts, and the relative merits of protecting local markets or opening them up to wider competition – topics he debated lengthily with another founding father, David Ricardo. It was, in a sense, the original debate about localism and globalism, and it was one that Malthus lost both intellectually and politically. But with the economics of 2008 and the politics of 2016 ringing in our ears today, it seems to me that Malthus’s key economic concerns, if not necessarily his actual economics, are up for grabs again. Are open private markets, with their boom-bust cycles and their vast global flows of people and goods, the best way of securing human wellbeing? The number of people who think so in the world today seems to be diminishing.

Well, perhaps I’ll come back to Malthus’s economics in a later post. For now, let me follow the crowds and say a few words about his thinking on population.

The basics of the issue are simply stated. Malthus postulated that if otherwise unchecked the natural increase in the population of a species tends to outrun the resource base it needs to support itself, leading to misery and famine – a cruel way indeed for population and resources to return to equilibrium. It’s easy to see why this excited the interest of Darwin and Wallace. Overpopulation was a natural felling mechanism, selecting those individuals best able to cope with contemporary conditions. Played out over deep time, the result is evolution from one species to another.

But, the objection routinely goes, people aren’t just natural creatures subject to natural selection. We’re social creatures, and we make our own reality. So if the food supply starts diminishing we figure out ways to increase it, like inventing agriculture. Agriculture, however, can readily be assimilated to the ‘natural’, as part of humanity’s extended phenotype. So those who claim that Malthusian limits don’t apply to humans are effectively assigning our species the status of permanent evolutionary winners. Hmmm, well our species is still a latecomer in the evolutionary parade. And Malthus himself was writing only three lifetimes ago, not even an eye-blink in evolutionary time. Has humanity beaten evolution, and proven Malthus wrong? It’s far too soon to tell.

Henry George was a relatively early objector to Malthus along these lines of self-creating human exceptionalism:

“Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”

Much latter-day anti-Malthusianism scarcely advances beyond George’s comment, while usually falling short of his aphoristic brio. But there’s a problem with it. George should have written “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens, though the fewer jayhawks”. In other words, humanity doesn’t just conjure extra chickens out of nowhere with a snap of its high-tech fingers. It does it mostly by drawing down on extra resources at the expense of the biota as a whole, and perhaps ultimately at its own expense. It’s not a completely zero-sum game. It’s possible to imagine ways that people might raise more chickens without significant extra detriment to the rest of the biota. But not many. If you look at biotic relationships holistically instead of dyadically as George did, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that humanity (well, some of humanity anyway) has escaped the Malthusian crunch by passing the buck on to other species, creating ‘overpopulation’ crises among them from exogenous habitat loss. Kind of a ‘referred’ Malthusian crisis that hasn’t affected its progenitors – yet.

Maybe as a result of falling human fertility rates and further technical developments, we’ll continue to evade the crunch. In that circumstance, how many other species we might carry through with us is pretty unclear, and its implications dependent on how dark green or biocentric you like your environmental philosophy. Mine, I have to confess, is quite light in hue, and I don’t especially hanker after a world undisturbed by the hand of humanity. Even so, I can’t help feeling that something must be philosophically and indeed spiritually wrong when our modern lives seem to be causing a mass extinction event on a geological scale. Nor does it seem wholly plausible to me that we will ultimately evade the evolutionary cliff that we’re so busy shepherding our fellow creatures over.

But are we facing a human Malthusian crisis right now? For the most part, the answer seems to be ‘no’. I’ve shown, for example, in my various recent projections of food production in a more populous future UK that it’s relatively easy to grow a lot of food for a lot of people using simple farming techniques – though the figures are a little too close for comfort to my liking, and it wouldn’t take much of a disturbance, perhaps just a small climate change tipping point for example, to pitch us into a crisis.

Well, it’s impossible to say whether a date with Malthus looms in the future (and what a truly unappealing prospect such an evening would be). What interests me more in the here and now is the way that members of my own particular tribe, the social scientists, seek to banish the very possibility of a future Malthusian crisis through what strikes me as an essentially superstitious practice, a touching of the talisman, which if it were observed by an anthropologist from another planet might well give them pause to wonder why Homo academicus var. social scientiensis goes to such irrational lengths to avoid the taboo of Malthusian constraint.

The talisman invoked by the social scientists to steer clear of the Malthusian taboo has the structure of a three-card trick. First up are the economists, who argue that as resource constraints loom, input prices increase, and this stimulates people to find lower cost substitutes. I won’t dwell on the problems with this line of reasoning. But I like this comment from David Fleming: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it”1.

The second card is the strongest in the hand, and it belongs variously to the historians, sociologists and political economists. Humans, they point out, are social creatures, so the trajectory of Malthusian crisis is never experienced simply as ineluctable natural constraint, but always as some kind of human conflict whose details can’t just be read off from the resource constraint itself. This is undoubtedly true. But social scientists being social scientists, they do like to push the logic of that argument a long way towards an emphasis on the social basis of resource constraint – to the extent of arguing, for example, that the whole idea of ‘scarcity’ is something of a fiction worked on the unsuspecting masses by the ideology of capitalism2. Well, I think there’s some truth in that (I am, after all, a social scientist), but only some truth. Ultimately, on a small planet with upwards of 7 billion large, hungry, human omnivores, some things are probably going to have to give whatever the economic ideology.

The third card belongs mostly to the anthropologists. Now, I have a soft spot for anthropologists, having at one point been kinda sorta one myself. The great thing about anthropologists is that they study people up close and in detail, which helps them avoid airy generalities. But the problem is that sometimes a bit of generalising isn’t such a bad idea, if you’ll excuse the generality. Take, for example, the anthropologist Christopher Taylor’s critique of Jared Diamond’s thesis in the latter’s book Collapse3, that population pressure on agricultural land was one of the factors underlying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Taylor begins by acknowledging that such Malthusian pressure is indeed intense, but it can’t explain why the genocide erupted in 1994 specifically, when land pressure long predated it, nor can it explain why many of the génocidaires weren’t land hungry peasants. He lays out an alternative explanation in relation to contemporary geopolitics, colonial history and a specific local political culture history.

Now, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of Diamond’s writing, and I find many of the criticisms levelled at him by social scientists plausible. But he did take pains to suggest that population pressure was only one of several factors behind the genocide, and provided evidence that was at least suggestive of the possibility. Taylor’s response merely sidesteps the point. He concludes “Rwandans think about their leaders, their social system, and their place in this world in their own terms, not as Westerners, who try to find “scientific” reasons for cultural catastrophes”4. But it’s not especially controversial in social science to adduce reasons for the occurrence of human events which aren’t explicitly articulated by the humans involved themselves. If there was population pressure in Rwanda, it might have manifested in the form of generalised stress which found specific expression through pre-existing cultural, historical and political identities that had little to do with economic status per se. Is Malthus so beyond the pale that an explanation relating the genocide only partly to population pressure on land can’t even be entertained? And if so, consider the implications. First, that the catastrophe of the genocide must be explicable only in terms of local cultural responses to circumstances – which is surely as troubling a position politically as Diamond’s putatively ethnocentric universalism, implying as it does that Rwandans have a cultural predilection for genocide. Goodness knows where that kind of thinking can lead – maybe to incoherently racist quasi-academic theories about the character of ‘African culture’ which find their way onto the blogs of innocent small-scale farmers. And second, that if people are eminently capable of genocidal violence in the absence of any kind of Malthusian pressure, then just think what horrors await if such pressures do occur.

One of the main objections to Malthus indeed is his unsavoury politics, though a theory of ‘philosophical biology’ surely stands or falls on its own terms, rather than on the politics of its progenitor. After all, Darwin himself wrote a few things about the people he met on his travels around the world that sound a bit queasy to the modern ear, but nobody suggests that this somehow undermines his evolutionary theories. It’s not that I particularly want to defend Malthus’s pro-property and anti-poor views. Though I’ve read one or two quotations from his work supposedly demonstrating his incorrigible elitism that strike me as at least ambiguous. In some passages, his point rather seems to be that it’s a good idea to have a plan in order to avoid a resource crisis, and the poor are best off organising politically and using their labour as a weapon in order to improve their lot. Sounds like good advice to me. I don’t doubt there are other parts of his oeuvre that I’d find indefensible. Still, I do wonder if the opprobrium heaped on Malthus might have something to do with truths that strike a little too close to home. A recent blog commenter wrote of Malthus “It’s a bit crazy that we are, in the 21st century, still using concepts devised at the end of the 18th, to discuss our problems”. Well, maybe so – but if you’re going to bid Malthus on this one, then I’ll raise you Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Notes

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, Chelsea Green, p.123.
  1. Panayotakis, C. 2011. Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, Pluto.
  1. Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin.
  1. Taylor, C. 2010. ‘Rwandan genocide: towards an explanation in which history and culture matter’ in McAnany, P. & Yoffee, N. (eds) Questioning Collapse, Cambridge UP, p.267.

21 thoughts on “A taboo and a talisman

  1. Malthus was simply presenting the fact that every species, including our own, has a biotic potential that is always limited by the environment. There will occasionally be times when environmental resources are perfectly optimal for a species’ reproduction, but to think that such a time can last forever is a mistake, as humanity is about to find out. Arguing against Malthusian limits is like arguing against gravitational attraction; some things are just inescapably true, no matter old the concept is (as your “blog commenter”, Jess Owen, should understand).

  2. Very interesting, and nothing much to disagree with. I’ve recently been thinking through this kind of problem with the social sciences/humanities perspective (because it largely forms my own set of spectacles) and it seem to find its root with the problematic duality nature-culture. The distinction is often characterised as one between determinate phenomena that obey laws and human social phenomena that are fundamentally indeterminate because they are subject to free will.

    Of course neither side is acceptable as it stands because any given situation can be viewed from both sides, and no view appears complete without considering both sides. It seems to me that one problem with Malthus idea on population is that he presents as a natural law – not an unusual framing for the time, but not valid from a modern natural sciences view on what a law is.

    Malthus’ idea is logical, but it’s not a hypothesis that can be tested, ‘if this, then that’ (at least among human populations). The point is, I suppose, that nobody can ever demonstrate scientifically that a Malthusian crisis is inevitably going to occur as there are always possibilities by which it might be averted, even if these ‘refer’ the consequences elsewhere. The Malthusian idea is only useful as a way of talking about the nature of such possibilities.

    As I now see it, the ‘natural’ world (human beings and their ‘cultures’ included) is actually fundamentally indeterminate (at least in terms of any possibility of knowing exactly how it will develop) but at the same time it unfolds in ways that can be modelled, however partially. Malthus’ idea presents problems if it is used in a scientific narrative intended to demonstrate (i.e. prove) the need for political action, but as a dark fairy tale that should never be allowed to occur in reality, it perhaps has force in the ethical realm, informing notions of how we should behave.

  3. Thanks Joe & Andrew. I agree with both of your comments, even if arguably your points are slightly dissonant – so how does that work? I’m not sure how deep I’m willing or able to delve into the philosophy of the social and natural sciences, but maybe the issue turns on what we mean by a ‘law’. Andrew, I think your points about the untestability of Malthusianism and the dangers of inferring a politics from Malthusian ‘laws’ are very astute. At the same time, I think social scientists too readily dodge issues of population pressure and resource constraint. Joe’s invocation of gravity is interesting. I think it’s true that Malthus didn’t formulate a ‘law’ of human population dynamics in the sense that Newton formulated his laws of motion and gravity. But perhaps you could say same the same of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – it’s not a ‘law’ that can generate predictions, but it still organises and explains a vast amount about the way the natural world works, and it’s still true. And then of course Newton’s laws aren’t entirely provable with reference to empirical lived experience, aren’t entirely true (vis-a-vis Einstein’s corrections) but are effectively true, and also predictive. Hey,it’s all a bit too deep for me – maybe we should just focus on agreeing practical implications…don’t rule out population pressure on resources, but don’t make simplistic prescriptions on the basis of them about population policy?

    • Any species that reproduces to its biotic potential has an exponential population growth. Exponential growth can be a spectacular phenomenon. Unimpeded by environmental limits, a bacterium that reproduces every twenty minutes would cover the earth’s surface with a layer of bacteria a foot deep in a day.

      I do admit that humans are the only species that has the ability to reduce its biotic potential through control of reproductive fertility. In theory, humans could have been the only exception to the “law” that biotic potential is always limited by environmental resources.

      But so far, we have used that ability to reduce our biotic potential only when a local population has, temporarily, greatly exceeded a sustainable level of resource consumption. In fact, it has been our use of non-renewable resources that has allowed our world population to exceed (again temporarily) the maximum population possible without those non-renewable resources.

      I also think that all our methods of birth control have only been possible because of the complex technologies permitted by our use of non-renewable resources. When those resources are gone, birth control pills, IUDs, even condoms, will no longer exist. To think that we could control our rate of reproduction through sexual abstinence by sheer willpower is a fantasy (and an evolutionary dead-end).

      All in all, I’m still willing to say that humans are no exception to the Malthusian principle that population is always limited by environmental factors. Temporary population overshoot is a common event in the natural world. Human population overshoot has been very large, but it is also very temporary. When it ends, the die-off will be considerable, but entirely predictable.

      • Joe, I’m curious where you get your statistic for the volume displaced within a 24 hour day by an unimpeded bacteria reproducing every twenty minutes. A fairly large bacterial cell might be 3 cubic micrometers. The land surface area of the earth alone (discounting the 70+ % of water surface) is north of 57 million square miles.

        Granted, it needn’t take much longer – the exponential is pretty powerful. But by my reckoning a single day won’t do it. Did you work this one out yourself or quote someone else?

      • Easy now, Joe. I’ve just painstakingly charted my way to a qualified Malthusianism – no easy journey for a social scientist – and now you’re pushing for a no-holds-barred hard version. I’m not willing to go that far!

        It’s beyond dispute, I think, that humans along with all other organisms are ‘limited by environmental factors’. What I think is disputable is the notion that the total population of humans (or other organisms) will inevitably reproduce greatly beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. ‘The ability of the environment to sustain’ is a socio-political concept as well as a physical one (how much does anyone actually need?) Your definition of ‘biotic potential’ seems to refer to pure physical potentiality – which in the case of humans would be about 20-30 offspring per woman, no? In reality, food resources, predation and disease (ie. death rates) and cultural predilections (which must be included: culture must be assimilated to nature to make Malthusianism stick, as in my arguments above, so it’s only fair to cut the other way and assimilate nature to culture) also condition fertility. I think it feels like we’re in some kind of ineluctable exponential spiral because of the prodigious population growth in recent decades (from the year dot to 1960 to reach 3 billion, from 1960 to 1998 to reach 6 billion), but to a large extent that’s because of falling death rates and the natural increase associated with rising population in the short-run – population is probably destined to level out in the future even under business as usual assumptions. Of course, none of that disproves your presentiments that humanity may be in for some major shocks that will greatly trim our population, especially since as you rightly say we’ve built huge populations on the back of polluting and non-renewable resources with no easy transitions in sight. But I think I’m with Andrew on the notion that this isn’t some kind of natural law that’s foreordained. In the very long run, almost all species go extinct – but not necessarily through Malthusian mechanisms, except in the tautological sense that at the point of extinction you probably always find organisms lacking a resource base.

        • I just finished reading Fred Cottrell’s Energy and Society, which I read about somewhere. If it was here, from you or a commenter, thank you.

          It is worth reading for anyone who wants to understand the energy foundations of agriculture in both low-energy and high-energy societies and the relationships between those societies.

          His book was first published in 1955 and revised in the mid 1970s, but it is still considered to be very relevant by the likes of William Catton and others. I consider it a “must-read”, especially the first half.

          Toward the end of his book Cottrell discusses the views of Malthus versus Ricardo. Cottrell is a Malthusian and anyone who reads his energy analysis will most likely agree with him. After pointing out all the factors that allowed human populations to grow for so long, Cottrell noted, “Only now, even with the industrialization of agriculture, long-run fulfillments of the Malthusian doctrines begin to appear to be more or less inevitable”.

          • Thanks for the reference Joe. Another one for the in tray…

  4. How much does anyone need?

    Indeed. How much education, how much remunerable work, how much food, shelter, entertainment??

    If we find a resource that is irreversibly consumed – something such as cannot be substituted for – would there be some non-market method of allocation and how would we factor for future allocation? Would theoreticians begin to struggle with an end time forecast?

    Chemicals cycle through nature and are not consumed (in the sense they become used up and are no longer their original selves). Chemicals do, however, exist within an enormous ‘zero-sum’ balance sheet. The carbon in my body recycles over time, but on net there is a certain mass of carbon that I lay claim to until I die. By this reasoning then one could measure the whole carbon balance sheet and project an accounting such that some finite number of humans of similar mass could exist at one moment (also accounting for the mass of support biomass such as food plants and animals). In this manner then we can put an upper bound on the potential population of human kind. Reasonable?

    But carbon is likely not the defining resource. A similar exercise could be engaged for something more rare. What might that be? What must we absolutely have to hand, so substitution, no trade off? Time? Careful, this one only matters to the individual. For a species, time is far less significant. [by the way, Chris – above you suggest: Played out over deep time, the result is evolution from one species to another in regard to resource depletion – which can be one result but is not an absolute outcome… Homo sapiens has encountered several resource shocks in habitat space such as Ireland and has not been replaced by a different species, may our time has not been deep enough].

    Fresh water? – gotta have that one. Given our ability to foul fresh water it does seem this could do it. But then there are those darn value chains and innovators… the H2O molecule has not been used up, its been sullied. We can clean it. So Fresh water probably won’t get us.

    I think you’ve done a bang up job on the food question. I enjoy quibbling here and there on the matter, but your analyses demonstrating possibilities will not be overturned from this quarter.

    Energy. Wow, now there’s a moving target. What source, how tamed, how much required in the first place? Again though, I think you’ve made some progress on this front. Quibbles only from this keyboard.

    I guess my question comes down to – which resource exactly are we likely to run out of, be constrained by, in such a fashion that like the Jayhawk we will be pushed out of our own nest?

    I did want to complain about the Jayhawk concentration you alluded to above when complaining about Henry George’s brio-ish aphorism. You must really push the extent of habitat destruction in favor of chicken husbandry by man pretty hard to get to the point of displacing the theoretical Jayhawk.

    There is a certain balance suggested in your narrative. And I’ll not complain of its existence. If fact I find it rather reassuring. So perhaps a better question than ‘how much does anyone need?’, might be ‘how much does everyone need?’ where ‘everyone’ includes the mythical Jayhawks in the maths. [In Kansas, USA I understand Jayhawks are not theoretical or mythical… but they do surprisingly resemble other Homo sapiens, so there is that]

    • Some interesting points, Clem. On your issue of resource shocks and evolution, my point really was just to raise the influence of Malthus on Darwin & Wallace inasmuch as his thought was suggestive to them of one way in which natural selection might operate. So yes, who knows what effects the Irish famine will have had, and over what time period. The later Dutch famine has provided some interesting insights into epigenetics…

      On the issue of jayhawks, I agree it would be a stretch to lay the decline of jayhawks entirely at the door of chicken farmers. Actually, I have to confess that I don’t know what a jayhawk is and when I searched for it I could only find references to said Kansas sports teams. So I took it to be a metaphor and I intended my comment likewise – farming in general, not necessarily just chicken farming, tends to destroy the resource base of many other organisms (the precipitous decline of many bird populations in the UK over my lifetime is almost entirely due to agriculture and more specifically to changes in agricultural practice). Though I suppose I might add that the increase in global meat consumption, in which chicken is the leading product, must be driving an awful lot of arable farming, and my guess would be that this is having a bad effect on a number of metaphorical jayhawks.

      Perhaps your most important point is your question as to which resource we’re most likely to be constrained by such that we push ourselves out of our own nest. Before I answer it, I’d prefer to throw it open in case any other commenters would care to supply an answer – after all, I’ve been taken to task on here of late for being too optimistic about humanity’s future. But if I were pressed to name a single resource, I’d say sufficiently productive farmland. Of course, the road from civilizational resource stress to species extinction is a long one – I’d prefer to focus my concerns more around the former.

  5. Let a sociologist/anthropologist/vege farmer blog long enough about political futures in the realm of sustainable food production and the world will eventually come along to join the party. And so a team of scientists from Austria (Daniel Hausknost, Ernst Schriefl, Christian Lauk and Gerald Kalt have weighed in with a paper called:
    A Transition to Which Bioeconomy? An Exploration of Diverging Techno-Political Choices http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/9/4/669/htm
    (open access – follow the .pdf link at this link)

    I have only skimmed thus far, but will be disappointed if SFF is not acknowledged in some means or other (though it is a Eurocentric piece… so Brexit might have poisoned Chris’ chances 🙁 ).

    Anyway, more reading for the weary. Spoiler alert – Organic ag gets a nod 🙂

    • Interesting study at your link. The “Eco-Retreat” quadrant is where my sympathies lie. The main policy example in that quadrant was from an NGO. I wonder which NGO was the source of their information and who the woman from the NGO was? I couldn’t figure it out from looking over the references. I also saw no reference to SFF.

      The references cited by the study look very interesting, but far too many for the time I have available. I look forward to your detailed reviews of them.

      • Clem, my last sentence was supposed to be gentle humor, but, in re-reading it, it could be taken differently. Please accept my apology for not including a humor emoji or emoticon.

        • No worries. If I get past a cursory look and feel a need to really dig into it I’ll challenge Ruben to another dueling blog post. Then we’ll have the REAL analysis. 🙂 🙂

          OR, we can wait and see what Dr Smaje wants to do with it. Ruben and I take lessons from the master. [more and various emojis here]

  6. Been catching up. I was astonished to see the first paragraph… has there been a rush of racists and misogynists commenting while I have been away? Gasp.

    Really cool discussion on Malthus and Boserup. Still digesting, and hoping we’ll get back to it (while I am around! 🙂

    Boserup was one of the (many) proponents of the hypothesis that agriculture was invented in response to population pressure. She was proven wrong on that count, of course, but her other thoughts on intensification bear scrutiny.

    • Welcome back, Vera. Well, not exactly a rush…just a little local difficulty…

      I’m interested in your ‘Boserup proven wrong on invention of agriculture’ point – would you care to expand on that, and on the counter-proof?

      • (Sorry to hear it.)

        Boserup was quite right, as far as I can tell, regarding intensification, once the positive feedback loop gets underway. Important stuff.

        But she assumed, as did Childe, and many early anthros, that ag got going because of population pressure. There is no evidence (or wasn’t, last I looked). Colin Tudge is also a guy to go to for this. Basically, the Near East was full of food at that time… took about 2 weeks to collect enough wild grain for a family for a year, plus pistachios and almonds galore, and lot of game… and humans were not really THAT plentiful in relation.

        It kinda hangs with the early notions of the forager lifestyle having been at the edge of starvation, pushing people to invent something better… which has been debunked.

        Another argument is that people living on the edge of starvation are not in the position to be creative with food; it is people who are doing well that get creative and are in a position to experiment (the experimentation with maize took hundreds of years, for example).

        Intensification is key, of course, but in my view it comes initially from another quarter. In any case, I wrote about some of this here:
        https://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/agriculture-villain-or-boon-companion/

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