Episode 41 – Invention of Agriculture versus On Origin of Species

Today, we over to the Event bracket where we pit the invention of agriculture, an ancient event that transformed human existence from one of bands of hunter-gatherers to a species that would begin to mass together in cities, fed by foods grown through a process known as agriculture, against the publishing of one of the most controversial and earth-shattering books of humankind, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

Agricultural Revolution Map
Agricultural Revolution Map

The Invention of Agriculture is also known as the Neolithic Revolution, a period where humans went from being primarily hunter-gatherers to becoming an agrarian society beginning around 12,500 years ago. One little known fact is that the Agricultural Revolution does not just include farming, but also the domestication of animals. This part is crucial for the expansion of agriculture and the spread of humans around the world. The different animals available for domestication also influenced the success of the development as we shall learn shortly.

As for an exact date or approximation of when the Agricultural Revolution began is impossible because there are multiple dates. Each region of the world where it occurred, was different. It is generally accepted that the first occurrence of the domestication of plants began at the end of the Holocene glacial retreat, also known as the beginning of the Holocene period, the one we live in today. Simply put, it is the end of the last major Ice Age, occurring around 12,500 BCE. 

It is here that we encounter homo sapiens who were in the Stone Age, a period where stone tools were being made for daily use. About 9,500 BCE, we see a period of global warming which coincided with an explosion of agricultural domestication, with its first known place being in an area known as the Levant. Today we know this as the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Western Asia in an area which, if more narrowly defined, is modern-day Syria.

According to Dr. Craig G. Benjamin, in his online class from The Great Courses, The Big History of Civilizations, a class I highly recommend, he states the following about the world at the end of the last major ice age, “Over the next few thousand years, this so transformed landscapes that the large grazing animals—such as mammoths, that humans had hunted for tens of thousands of years—migrated northward, clearing the way for smaller animals, such as boar, deer, and rabbit to thrive, along with new root and seed plants.

These changes were especially notable in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of high ground that stretches north up the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, then east through the mountains of Turkey and northern Iraq, and south along the territory between Iraq and Iran.”

The city of Jericho was established way back then and is the oldest continuously inhabited city. Here the climate was ideal for the beginnings of the domestication of both animals and plants. Humans would begin to gather in larger and larger numbers in order to access the more readily available food and water in the region. The need for cities and the need for protection in the form of armies rose as well.

In my research, I have come across ten different theories about why humans began to domesticate food sources, and many have legitimate and interesting reasoning behind them, but that is more of a doctoral level discussion rather than something to discuss in a podcast. Suffice it to say that humans were driven to need to produce more food. The access also drove the ability to reproduce easily as giving birth to children in a nomadic lifestyle is far harder than in a city where you had a permanent residence.

So, what are the early plants, grains, and cereals that humans started with? In the Levant, there were two sets of seeds that began the revolution. First, we had emmer, einkorn, and barley and in the second wave, flax, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch and lentils. There is a lot of archaeological evidence that experimentation occurred with many seeds being abandoned as potentials for domestication because of numerous factors such as bitterness or taking a long time to germinate.

In Southeast Asia, we have a very similar start with the same seeds like emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, peas, chickpeas, flax, and lentils. This occurred around 9,000 years ago. In East Asia, and in particular around the Yellow River, we see a different set of seeds and grains. Millet and soybeans were the first crops followed a few thousand years later with the first fruits, oranges, and peaches.  

In another part of modern-day China, presumably around the Yangtze River basin, we have the appearance of the first rice patties. This was followed by the domestication of acorns, water chestnuts, foxnuts, and the first animal, pigs. Because of the climate in Asia being humid with strong rainy seasons, the cultivation of rice spread rapidly to the migrating humans.

In Africa, the emergence of coffee, khat, ensete, noog, teff and finger millet in the Ethiopian highlands, while in the Sahel region we have sorghum and pearl millet. The kola nut was first domesticated in West Africa. Other crops domesticated in West Africa include African rice, yams, and the oil palm. The domestication of these foodstuffs took a little longer to appear than in the Levant or Asia due to differences in climate.

Finally, in the Americas, we have the last wave of the introduction of domestication of agricultural products like squash, maize, potatoes, maniac, sunflower, sumpweed, and goosefoot around 4,000 BCE. The settling of villagers in an agrarian setting did not really gain traction in North America until two thousand years later, likely due to the incredible abundance of easily caught game animals and fish.

So, with the invention of agriculture spreading throughout the world, what did that do for humans as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, it caused us to gather together in bands, partly to spread the work around and in part to protect each other. Other theories of what the impact of agriculture and the domestication of animals is improved nutrition which improve our health and our lifespans. Life for a nomadic hunter-gatherer was fraught with all sorts of challenges, not least of which was an injury during the hunt. Farming is far less dangerous.

With farming and all of its benefits come the changes in culture and our sense of community. We begin to create a society where people protect all members, from the youngest to the elderly. We can feed the oldest people now so we stop abandoning them when they can no longer fend for themselves. 

With all the benefits come a few negatives. With larger communities and bigger populations, we come up with the greater possibility of conflict for the limited land and resources like water that will eventually come up. War becomes a way of life beginning with the advent of the agricultural revolution.

I could go on and on about the ramifications both positive and negative, but that may be for another time and place.

On Origin of Species
On Origin of Species

Time to move on to our second combatant, the publication of the book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Obviously, my primary source for this part of the podcast is the actual book itself. Its complete title in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Published on November 24, 1859, it would shake up the world, initially having its most significant impact on Great Britain.

The idea of evolution was being bandied about in scientific circles as well as arguments firmly against it, especially for those who followed the teachings of the Church. At the time, science was a branch of theology in many parts of Europe. By claiming that animal species evolved from other forms of animals was wholly in contraindication to the teachings of all many of the major religions of the time and was considered blasphemous.

The idea of evolution is not that a species came from a currently existing species, although there are many examples of this, but that animals that exist today have common ancestors. Humans do not come from the apes that roam the jungles of today, but we both have a common ancestor. Examples of evolution are all around us and have been seen for many thousands of years. I’d like to read a paragraph from Darwin’s book that illustrates this.

“It may be objected that the principle of selection has been reduced to methodical practice for scarcely more than three-quarters of a century; it has certainly been more attended to of late years, and many treatises have been published on the subject; and the result, I may add, has been, in a corresponding degree, rapid and important. But it is very far from true that the principle is a modern discovery. I could give several references to the full acknowledgment of the importance of the principle in works of antiquity. In rude and barbarous periods of English history choice animals were often imported, and laws were passed to prevent their exportation: the destruction of horses under a certain size were ordered, and this may be compared to the ‘roguing’ of plants by nurserymen. The principle of selection I find distinctly given in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia. Explicit rules are laid down by some of the Roman classical writers. From passages in Genesis, it is clear that the color of domestic animals was at the early period attended to. Savages now sometimes cross their dogs with wild canine animals, to improve the breed, and they formerly did so, as is attested by passages of Pliny. The savages in South Africa match their draught cattle by color, as do some of the Eskimos their teams of dogs. Livingstone shows how much good domestic breeds are valued by the negroes of the interior of Africa who have not associated with Europeans. Some of these facts do not show actual selection, but they show that the breeding of domestic animals was carefully attended to in ancient breeding, for the inheritance of good and bad qualities is so obvious.”

The book was written primarily for a non-scientific audience but was gobbled up by them and the scientific community. There was much argument pro and con about the findings of the book, but little about the observations. Charles Darwin was already a highly respected scientist by the time of the publication of On the Origin of Species. It was also not written overnight or just on the expedition aboard the HMS Beagle, it actually took twenty years, starting in 1839. 

Darwin was hesitant about publishing his findings and more importantly, his interpretation of them as he felt that it was going against both the Church and public opinion. Darwin thought that his work would open himself up to ridicule despite his firm belief in the work itself. 

Around 1855, a paper came out, written by Alfred Russell Wilson entitled, “Upon the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” which put pressure on Charles Darwin to publish his book, lest he is known as second to the theory of evolution. In his paper, Wilson writes, “”Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species.” This is an example of evolution.

Charles Lyell, a colleague of Darwin’s, saw the connection between the two men’s work almost immediately and notified him of the association. On the Origin of Species came out on Thursday, November 24, 1859, with a price of fifteen shillings with the first printing of 1250 copies. By 1869, five editions had been printed with each having some changes made. This last edition included, for the first time, the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Within decades, the book had been translated into numerous languages. It was a worldwide hit, although with its publication and distribution came great controversy and condemnation.

To this day, arguments against the theory of evolution continue to be laid forth with little general success. So much of what Charles Darwin suggested in his book have been shown to be true. In 2017, On the Origin of Species was voted the most influential academic book ever written. Other’s have put it in the top five of books every scientist must read. 

One of the most important consequences of the publication of the book is how it detached the field of science from the area of theology. It fundamentally ripped the two apart which changed a discussion that had been going on for millennium. 

Now for our putting it into perspective segment of the podcast. In the 1860s, the United States fought its Civil War, Italy was reunified, serfdom was abolished in Russia, the Meiji Restoration in Japan occurs, the Suez Canal opens in Egypt, and the sport of skiing was introduced for the first time. 

Time to come up with a score for our two combatants. The first fifteen points are for the number of people involved. Well, this is a no brainer. We have a handful of people involved in the writing and publication of the book On the Origin of Species whereas we have millions helping move along the invention of agriculture. Fifteen points for agriculture, 1 for Darwin.

Next up is the twenty points for the effect on the rest of the world at the time. While the agricultural revolution changed our world forever, so did the publication of Darwin’s book. But, when we get right down to it, the Neolithic Revolution changed everything, although slowly. Darwin’s work changed the world in a few decades. For these reasons, agriculture gets 20 and Darwin receives 17.

The 25 points for the long-term effect is heavily for the agricultural revolution. It has been with us for over 10,000 years while One the Origin of Species has been with us for 160. Twenty-five for the revolution, five for Darwin.

The last point total on the immediate effect on the country or countries involved is one place where Charles Darwin gets the win and decisively. His book fundamentally changed the way science was approached, especially in his native Great Britain and it was by all accounts, immediate. The Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution, while fundamentally world changing, took time, in some cases, centuries. For these reasons, Charles Darwin receives the full forty points with the revolution receiving 25. 

The final tally is Agricultural Revolution 85, the publication of On the Origin of Species, 63. Moving on to the next round, the Revolution will go up against, the Russian Revolution.

Well, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Join me next time when we head on over to the Villains bracket where we pit a recent evil person, the leader of the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia Pol Pot against the first female villain, Erzsébet Bathory.

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#history #evolution #CharlesDarwin #Agriculture #AncientHistory

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