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Chapter Six


The farmer takes a wife, the farmer takes a wife...          —From the nursery song "The Farmer in the Dell"


A favorite pastime of archaeologists is to invent competing explanations for the domestication of plants and animals, which first happened around 10,000 years ago. Perhaps, one theory has it, a hotter climate, by drying up once-fertile lands, made the hunter-gatherer lifestyle suddenly precarious, and people groped for a new livelihood. Or maybe the extinction of giant elk, woolly mammoth, and other big game had the same effect. Or, on the other hand, maybe the key was a more benign environment, a climate which happened to nourish certain plants that were good candidates for domestication.

And then there is a simpler theory: Farming was just a good idea. It was a good idea in the same sense that the various tools and techniques constituting the hunter-gatherer lifestyle had been good ideas, and thus had been added to the human repertoire.

This was the radical position taken in 1960 by the University of Chicago archaeologist Robert Braidwood. Reviewing his own fieldwork in the Middle East, where farming first appeared, he depicted agriculture's advent as merely "the culmination of an ever increasing cultural differentiation and specialization of human communities." So far as he could tell, "there is no reason to complicate the story with extraneous 'causes.' "

Braidwood is considered the founder of the modern study of agriculture's origins, but this particular opinion wasn't destined for veneration. Notwithstanding his injunction against complicating the story, archaeologists have continued to complicate the story. The above cited "causes," and others, still jockey for preeminence. More than two decades after Braidwood insisted that agriculture needs no special explanation, an archaeologist, summarizing the consensus, declared that agriculture is "not yet satisfactorily explained." The search for causes continues. An air of mystery still surrounds the origins of agriculture.

Indeed, if anything, the air thickens. Some scholars now say that, paradoxically, early farmers would actually have had to work longer and harder to grow food than to just get it the old-fashioned way, by hunting and gathering. Thus the logic behind the origins of agriculture, we are told, is much less straightforward than it seemed back in Braidwood's day.

This view poses a problem for cultural evolutionists—or, at least, for hard-core cultural evolutionists, such as me. After all, if farming was such an unappetizing prospect, how could humanity have been virtually certain to take it up eventually? Shouldn't passage through this threshold be counted as a lucky break, a chance venture that could just as easily have been the road not taken? And, if so, doesn't that make all that followed farming—ancient civilizations, less ancient civilizations, and so on—look far from inevitable?

Plainly, before we can get on with the rest of this book we must dispel some of the mystery surrounding agriculture's origins and deflate the ongoing search for "causes." Conveniently, that will give us a chance to dispel some misconceptions that persist to varying degrees within the social sciences and in various ways sap enthusiasm for hard-core cultural evolutionism.


The case against agriculture's being a natural cultural advance began to gather momentum with the surprising discovery that hunting and gathering isn't such a bad way to make a living. The !Kung San, Richard Lee found in the 1960s, work just a few hours a day—hunting, digging roots, harvesting mongongo trees—and then it's Miller time. In 1972, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (a former cultural evolutionist turned skeptic of cultural evolutionism) dubbed hunter-gatherers "the original affluent society" on grounds that "all the people's material wants are easily satisfied."

And the problem isn't just that primitive agriculture may have been a regression in terms of sheer efficiency…



Could something as ephemeral as status really entice people into becoming agricultural innovators even when they face no regular shortage of food? The answer comes from looking at the top of the pecking order—at the Big Man or "Head Man," a version of which is found among the Yanomamo and horticultural societies generally. Big Men tend to have not just big gardens, but big numbers of choice wives.

The idea here isn't that aspiring Big Men necessarily sketch out a systematic plan for acquiring multiple wives. During the biological evolution of our species, one of the benefits of male status was easier access to sex. (So too with our nearest relatives—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas.) Because of this correlation between status and fecundity, genes imbuing males with a thirst for status have fared well by natural selection. The resulting drive to impress people needn't bring conscious awareness of its reason for being—any more than hunger entails a knowledge of nutrition. Status just feels gratifying; it seems to be its own reward, even if its ultimate evolutionary purpose was genetic proliferation.

On the other hand, conscious awareness of the sexual payoff for farming is, if not necessary, hardly out of the question. When Soni of the Solomon Islands (three chapters ago) was preparing those thirty two succulent pigs that he wasn't going to get to eat, he no doubt knew that the more adroit Solomon Islands feast givers—that is, Big Men—got as many as five wives. Indeed, sometimes the link between amassing food and amassing wives is explicit. Among the Northwest Coast Indians and some other polygamous peoples, loads of garden-grown food could be part of the "brideprice" paid for a wife.

Archaeologists, faced with the observed correlation between a farmer's status and wealth on the one hand, and his number of wives and offspring on the other, have tended to get things backward. Big Men are said to seek multiple wives "since many wives produce more food than one wife" and to have many children "since many children produce more food than few children." To be sure, Big Men may value the labor provided by a large family. But, in terms of the ultimate logic of their quest—the Darwinian logic that selected the genes that fuel the quest—they are amassing food to amass wives, not the other way around. If the food pays off nutritionally, that's great, but even if it doesn't, it is valuable, because it raises their status relative to competing males. Among the Trobriand Islanders, one anthropologist reports, farmers aimed to "accumulate so many yams that they may rot in storehouses and stimulate the envy of rivals."...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.