The vast majority of humans alive today take for granted the progress of Homo Sapiens as a species. No other animal has achievements remotely close to those of ours. Excelling in nearly every area we have become masters of technology, champions of art, expanding to and exploring every last corner of the globe. Our efforts culminated in a transformation from bands of hunter gatherers, to the most dominant and successful animal in the history of earth. However, our first big step may have been a bad one.
Happiness has become a priority in an increasing amount of human cultures. Psychologists research the happiness of people all over the world, using subjective-well being as a measure for how they evaluate and experience their lives. Some even advocate for transitioning away from GDP as a measurement for the economic position of a nation, citing happiness indexes as a worthy replacement. The development of accounts such as the World Happiness Report have caused both everyday people and world leaders to take greater notice of their own happiness and make decisions to lead themselves and their nations towards more fulfilling lives. Happiness, and the pursuit of it, are intrinsically individualistic values, so it makes sense that individualistic countries dominate the top of happiness rankings. Americans look to adopt Norwegian cultural practices such as Hygee, the U.N. has declared a World Happiness Day, and school systems in India are adding happiness to their curriculums. It’s a happiness revolution.
For most of us, the modern age is one full of comfort and security, supplying us with higher life expectancy, electricity, antibiotics, literature, automobiles, etc. But many of these benefits are very, very recent additions to the human story. It wasn’t until the mid nineteenth century that the benefits of improved medicine really started making a difference, and some of the biggest additions, like computers, didn’t really become available until a few decades ago. So in this between period that characterizes the efforts of humans from when they first picked up the plow to when they clicked on the tv, it’s much harder to presume the happiness of post neolithic Homo Sapiens. Of course, there are trade-offs. Climate change and the potential destruction of earth supply an obvious downfall. But as a potential result of the hyper attention to happiness, historians and scientists are increasingly asking the question of well-being; are we truly happier now than we were then?
What is then? A traditional view, sometimes called the Whig view, sees human history as what Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, calls a “Triumphal march of progress.” From this perspective, each growth in human power should have witnessed a proportional growth in happiness. With each new age and its inventions, humans should have gotten happier. This would leave, say, hunter-gatherers at the bottom, medieval people in the middle, and modern people at top of the happiness totem pole. However, this may very well not be the case. While the comparative well-being of humans today is up for debate, as Harari asserts, it is clear that every increase in human power has not been accompanied by an equal rise in human happiness.
The largest chunk of humans’ time on earth has been as hunter-gatherers, it’s not even close. More than 99% of human history was spent roaming in a group of only a few dozen, searching for nuts and wild plants. Jared Diamond, historian and author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, puts it into manageable terms using the idea of a 24 hour clock.
“Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited us from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p.m., we adopted agriculture.”
For millions of years human bodies adapted to climb trees and chase games. Life after the agricultural revolution offered a stark contrast. Sure, it was a relatively volatile lifestyle, moving about with no stored food or permanent shelter, but painstakingly difficult farm labor sunup to sundown isn’t exactly glorious. Homo Sapiens bodies were not fit for the backbreaking business of “agricultural drudgery”. Human health suffered, and as a result, human happiness may have as well. The once clear view of the agricultural revolution as a huge positive for human happiness has been muddied. In reality, this massive shift in lifestyle and societal structure, came with some massive tradeoffs.
In a paper titled, The Worst Mistake In Human History, Diamond lays out specific reasons as to why humans’ transition to agriculture was “bad for health” and therefore bad for happiness. First and foremost, much of the rhetoric in support of the claim of the Neolithic revolution as beneficial for humans focuses on how the lives of hunter-gatherers were ‘unstable’ and contained no store food. Oftentimes the idea that each day would have been a renewed struggle for survival is thrown around. However, agricultural societies very quickly demonstrated their own detrimental dependencies as well. Many agrarian societies featured a very limited number of crops, one to a few starchy crops accounted for nearly all their daily caloric intake. A recipe for disaster, as the risk of starvation is very high if just one crop failed.
As a result of this homogeneous diet, farmers of these agrarian societies suffered poor nutrition. Comparatively, hunter-gatherers had a rich diet. For all their risky foraging, they enjoyed a varied and nutritious diet. So although agrarian societies were able to produce more food, the quality of intake decreased, and the labor may have been harder. With this increased production of food human populations grew exponentially and concentrated into small areas. Crowded societies facilitated the spread of parasites and infectious diseases. Epidemics occurred that could never have happened in the mobile, and small hunter-gatherer bands. Again, human health suffered and human happiness may very well have diminished along with it.
Another talking point for those of the traditional view of progressive human history is the accreditation of agriculture and agrarian societies with art, music, and literature as we know it today. The belief goes as follows: “Since crops can be stored, and since it takes less time to pick food from a garden than to find it in the wild, agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B minor Mass.” Once again, this is not exactly the case. Diamond points out that we can see in hunter-gatherer societies around today and in recent centuries that they enjoy much of the same leisure time that permitted the growth of art. Diamond concedes that agricultural technological advances made possible the preservation of art and development of new art forms, but acknowledges that hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture, were crafting paintings and sculptures. Going as far to call the leisure time argument “misguided”, settling on the idea that it may just not have been a priority for hunter-gatherer societies, “Gorillas have had ample free time to build their own Parthenon, had they wanted to.”
But the neolithic revolution certainly enabled one development, that being the construction of deep class divisions. Similar to many complex systems in nature, hunter-gatherer societies overwhelmingly self-organized themselves into a hierarchy. But since there was little to no stored food, and finding food was a task for each new day, there could be no one to rule the concentration of resources as a king. Agricultural societies produced a new elite class that were typically better fed and healthier than the rest, experiencing less disease and malnutrition than those below them. This class division carried into every agricultural based society since, through ancient Egypt, medieval China, and all the way to 20th century America.
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