The end of farming?

John Hawks observes that fewer people work in the agricultural sector than in services today. Around 1900 about half of Americans lived on family farms. Today around 2 percent do. If you look back two or three centuries the overwhelming majority of our ancestors would have been farmers of some sort. The fact that cities were population sinks until the 19th century also implies that the sons of the soil were the ones who inherited genetically. In A Farewell to Alms Greg Clark analyzes data which suggests that the wealthy farmer, in other words, the rural gentry, were the predominant demographic engine behind British population growth. I suspect that this is the case in many parts of the world.

What we are seeing all across the world over the last two centuries (starting in England, and now penetrating many Third World countries) is a cultural revolution. Customs, traditions and folkways which served our agricultural ancestors well now have less relevance. Many anthropologists have long claimed based on ethnographic and physical (e.g., fossil remains) grounds that the typical farmer lived more on the margins than their hunter-gatherer forebears (far less leisure time, far less protein, etc.) . In some ways today’s consumer world is a second dawn after the long night of the agricultural world. Only today are the average heights in much of the world bouncing back to the norms of 10,000 years ago. In many ways I believe moderns are more like hunter-gatherers in their outlooks than agriculturalists. Institutions which arose during the period of the mass agricultural society, from our organized religions to our marriage customs (e.g., arranged marriage), have to adapt to changed times. Greg Clark reports that most of the gains in income due to increased economic efficiency have gone to unskilled laborers over the past few centuries; we live in a relatively egalitarian age in many ways. The difference in height between the poor and the rich is minimal because of a basic level of nutritional intake. Many facets of our lives, from smaller families and more transient mating patterns, also resemble the typical existence of the hunter-gatherer. During the Neolithic our species developed a number of social strategies to siphon our basic urges into forms which could result in a perpetuation of particular cultural patterns. Today the stresses and tensions (e.g., the inevitable imbalances between haves and have-nots) which gave rise to “traditional” Old World societies are less salient; but we still have a strong sentimental attachment toward these older forms (e.g., caste amongst Indian professionals) generating a new tension between the reality of free choice and the history of constraint and control.

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