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Human evolution: Agriculture’s first steps were painful and profitless. So why did we really do it?

Greek agricultural gods (440-430 BC)/Napoleon Vier

At MSNBC’s Cosmic Log, we learn that “growing crops made us smaller” (June 20, 2011), John Roach tells us that the beginnings of agriculture were not obviously successful for our ancestors, as is often assumed:

People got shorter and sicker everywhere in the world when they started to farm about 10,000 years ago, according to a recent study that suggests the transition to an agricultural lifestyle came at a biological cost.

[ … ]

As people gave up the diverse diet of foraged foods and settled on eating a few staple food crops they “experienced nutritional deficiencies and had a harder time adapting to stress,” Amanda Mummert, an anthropology graduate student at Emory University, said in a news release.

Compounding the problem, growth in population density spurred by agricultural settlements led to an increase in unsanitary conditions ripe for spreading infectious diseases and the transmission of novel viruses from livestock to humans, she added.

Some would add that the earliest crop plants were probably just pampered weeds, from the modern farmer’s perspective. The precious seed stock for food grains that are well suited to human stomachs must have been a work of centuries, done with only the knowledge of plant genetics that one might gain from observation and experience. It’s doubtful our ancestors would have persisted without some multi-generational vision, possibly religious. Something that would cause them to persist in – outwardly profitless – activities.

Some such spirit is certainly captured for us at Gobekli Tepe (11 500 years ago), where,

We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.

In fact, so much did religion penetrate agriculture in early times that ancient religious reformers (Moses comes to mind) found the fertility cults to be their biggest problem! Hence the many “thou shalt nots,” captured in the Bible for us today, that cover just about everything to do with them.

O’Leary’s subtractive principle, invoked: If these researchers are right,  all “evolutionary psychology” tales about how agriculture resulted in more fitness and more passing on of selfish genes, and therefore … are false. For too long, advocates of one theory or another of human evolution have been allowed to get away with a multitude of conflicting claims, every one of which is equally valid as long as it supports Darwinian evolution.  At Uncommon Descent,  the most we can allow for such claims is to say:  They are equally true.

Do we really have enough data in hand about human evolution to make these inferences?Mung
June 21, 2011
10:35 AM

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