The idle shall inherit the earth

July 22, 2004

Ours has been an era of hard work – busy, busy, busy. With toil comes success – vide the 18-hour days of Margaret Thatcher – and virtue too, for ‘The devil finds work for idle hands’. But we should see the work ethic for what it is – an adaptation to life in quite different times that for us is an anachronism and a dangerous one at that.

At Dartington Hall this weekend, Jenni Adams offers a course on ‘Doing less – being more’ to explore ‘the quiet place within’. Idleness should be seen as a positive quality just as much as graft, and as the third millennium beckons, we must cultivate its arts.

For, as Charles Darwin first pointed out, our behaviour and the attitudes that underpin it are, to a large extent, evolved: they have been shaped by natural selection, helping us and our ancestors to survive and reproduce. After all, if our behaviour were not by and large adaptive and hence appropriate, then none of us would be here.

But evolution can catch us out; organs and behaviours that evolved in one era may be out of place in another, yet persist like a hangover. Our insatiable proclivity for hard work was favoured by natural selection when our ancestors first learned to farm. Only with farming – and then only with primitive farming – was hard graft truly apt. The world has moved on.

It used to be thought that agriculture was invented at a stroke, 10,000 years ago, in what is traditionally known as ‘The Neolithic Revolution’. But farming seems to have crept up on people. It seems likely that for many thousands of years before the Neolithic Revolution our ancestors were not just hunter-gatherers but ‘proto-farmers’, not just culling their environment but managing it; not much, but enough to make a significant difference to their own survival.

There are many ways in which this might have happened. In the 1970s, John Yellen of America’s National Science Foundation found that the Hottentots of south-west Africa would raise goats for a few years and then go back to hunting. Husbandry was just their fall-back position when game was hard to come by.

Australian aborigines do not cultivate but they are, says Rhys Jones of the Australian National University at Canberra, ‘firestick farmers’ who light bush fires to control the vegetation and the creatures that feed on it. So they practise land management of a kind highly appropriate to Australia’s unpredictable outback.

Clive Gamble of Southampton University suggests that our own Cro-Magnon ancestors displaced the Neanderthals in Europe around 30,000 years ago not by direct combat, but simply by exploiting the environment more adroitly. He does not employ the expression ‘proto-farming’, but it certainly seems apt. Those Late Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) people of the tundra and steppe surely manoeuvred the great herds of mammoths and horses just as their descendants in North America – the people we used to call ‘Red Indians’ – marshalled and dragooned the bison.

Surely, too, they protected favoured coppices and herbs; and there is no clear distinction between crop protection and cultivation – except that human beings are more aware than other animals of what they are doing and so can turn habit into formal technique.

Around 40,000 years ago, marking the start of the Upper Palaeolithic period, our ancestors seemed to shift into a higher gear, making better and more varied tools, and beginning to create what deserves to rank as fine art. This, I suggest, is when proto-farming was truly beginning to make an impact; raising the status of Homo sapiens and compromising everything else, from the mammoths and wild horses to Homo neanderthalensis.

People who combined hunting and gathering with proto-farming surely enjoyed the best of all worlds. We tend to think that hunting and gathering is inveterately harsh – and that farming must be an improvement – partly because we cannot envisage ourselves doing it, and partly because the people who still do it (or did until very recently) for the most part survive only in the margin-lands, the deserts and densest forests.

When hunter-gatherers had the world to themselves, and could take their pick in the rich fertile valleys that are now under the plough, and the estuaries that have become marinas, life was often very easy. Some wild places even today – like the Serengeti in Tanzania or the everglades in Florida – show how astonishingly rich a wild environment may be.

Even in recent years, the aborigines on Australia’s Cape York culled the passing flocks of birds and picked off the shellfish at will. The hunter-gatherer’s diet is immensely varied: modern gatherers commonly know and make use of scores of different plants, and a host of animals.

Skilled gatherers know exactly what they are doing. Where there is variety, there is virtually no fear of nutritional deficiency. The various hallucinogens in wild plants – often enhanced by fermentation – were a significant bonus, widely enjoyed but tightly controlled in traditional societies.

To be sure, hunting is dangerous, and young men in traditional societies do get killed. But they were adapted to it, and with the risk comes kudos, and what young man ever wished for anything more? Besides, human beings have taken much of the risk out of hunting. Our ancestors long ago developed weapons – including, most importantly, weapons that can be thrown. There is evidence now that Homo erectus, an ancient human who lived well before Homo sapiens, made well-balanced javelins nearly a million years ago.

The most formidable animal predators – lions, tigers, bears, wolves – must run the gauntlet of horns and hooves, and are often maimed. Only human beings can kill from a distance – or at least wound, and an animal, once wounded, can be followed until it fades from loss of blood.

What’s more, human beings have the wit to hunt in closely organised teams. Hunting-gathering is uncertain: floods, droughts, erratic migrations of prey, collapse of favoured coppices through disease or over-exploitation. Proto-farming, then, is the constant amelioration. The animals are guided, to some extent, to where the people want them to be, the favoured animals are protected and dispersed. Fruit bats and orang-utans and many other creatures spread the seeds of their favoured food-plants. Surely humans did this too – though with a little more deliberation.

In some places, life could be so good that people had plenty of leisure. The archaeological record of Europe suggests that 40,000 years ago – the time known as Late Palaeolithic – people began to make better tools in greater variety.

The first cave paintings in Spain and France date from this time – not the scratchings that anyone might do, but beautiful, refined representations of bison, mammoths, deer – all the creatures they depended on and increasingly manoeuvred. These paintings alone reveal a society that was confident, settled, and with enough spare capacity to support specialists and intellectuals. Life, for human beings, has surely never been better. Such a vision feels good: it is what our psyches are geared to.

So why give it up? Why turn to full-time agriculture? Recent studies suggest that our ancestors did not take easily to agriculture and indeed, very sensibly, resisted. Bones from the first full-time farming peoples show signs of malnutrition and infections that did not seem to trouble their hunter-gatherer ancestors. The newly cultivated diet was too monotonous and probably too sparse, for crops often fail.

Farming was harsh, too, particularly arable, or crop, farming. It proved far more testing than the hunting-gathering life. There was no ‘eureka’ moment; no pastoral Shangri-La waiting to be discovered. The real question is why people took to it at all. The transition seems perverse.

But proto-farming with hunting-gathering was too successful. It contained the seeds of its own downfall. It did indeed increase the amount of food that could be coaxed from the environment, but as food increased, so did the human population. As numbers rose, so it became more and more necessary to farm. More land management meant more people who needed more food, which required more land management, and so on. Farming was thus a vicious spiral.

At intervals too, here and there, the ever-rising spiral was given an extra kick. Notably, around 10,000 years ago, the last Ice Age ended. In the Middle East, people had long been hunting and managing deer and gazelles on the balmy, fertile coastal plain between Arabia and Iran, with a little horticulture on the side. This, literally, was paradise: the story of Eden is, very plausibly, a distant folk memory of those idyllic times. But as the ice on the northern continents melted and the water flowed away, so the sea began to rise – 200 metres in all – and this Eden became the Persian Gulf.

The people, their population already swollen in the good times, shifted inland to the uplands. There, to their great fortune, they found big-seeded grasses – wild wheat and barley; and compliant creatures that were social, not too agile, and could be easily herded – sheep, goats and asses. This upland, Middle Eastern flora and fauna set the pattern of western agriculture: its direct descendants are now the subject of EU grants. And with farming came the work ethic. For a hunter, too much zeal is self-defeating. Hunting can be risky for all predators, even though young males may relish the risk. Those who try too hard, and hunt when they are tired, get hurt.

Natural selection favours idleness and so it would in our own hunting ancestors. There is modern, indirect evidence for this. In the 1960s Richard Lee of the University of Toronto found that Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari hunted for about only six hours a week. The rest of the time they sat beneath the acacia trees and told stories.

Surely our own Upper Palaeolithic ancestors did exactly the same. Storytelling is our mode of thought: all conscious understanding is narrative. For a hunter, much of the time, sitting around is by far the best thing to do. But the logistics of agriculture are quite different. Its whole point is to increase the amount of food that the environment will yield. The more you farm, the more you get. Farming, in short, favours industry. As hunters became farmers they also changed from wool-gathering storytellers to go-get-’em workaholics.

Graft was the new adaptation, appropriate to the agricultural age. People don’t like it but it works, and whatever works best has to be done. God makes the point in Genesis, as he banishes Adam and Eve from Eden’s easy pickings: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground!’ This, in a nutshell, was the reality of the Neolithic Revolution.

Given time, natural selection tends to favour animals (including people) who enjoy doing the things they need to do. If we did not enjoy sex we would surely be extinct, for sexual reproduction without fun is grim and dangerous indeed. But sometimes, natural selection does not have time to adjust our minds. Then the psyche remains out of sync with life’s demands. Our Neolithic ancestors surely hated their new way of life – the Old Testament makes this very clear – but they had to get on with it nonetheless. Those who did not learn to live with unhappiness, died. We are the children of the Neolithic Revolution, and have been sweating ever since.

The vicious spiral has lifted the world population from around eight million at the end of the last Ice Age to 300 million by the time of Christ, to six billion today, to an estimated 12 billion by the middle of the 21st century. Such expansion is without precedent in all biology, for big, fierce animals like us are generally rare.

The boom must end soon. Almost all of the world’s most fertile land is already cultivated. The task that our Neolithic ancestors began is almost complete. Besides, the hard work can now be done by machines. The frenetic industriousness of the Old Testament arablists is no longer appropriate yet we retain their Neolithic mentality: channelled, now, into a thousand industries whose output is mostly trivial.

It is surely time to take breath. Each of us knows personally that it would pay to take things easier. The Earth certainly needs a rest from our labours: at least we should give the fish a chance to breed, and allow the trees to grow. More broadly, though, we should perceive the historical evolutionary roots of our own behaviour, and acknowledge our mood and attitudes not as values or as sins but as adaptations, which as times change may become inappropriate; and see, specifically, that hard work for hard work’s sake is in that redundant category.

Most creatures in the history of the world have become extinct. Most of them did so because they persisted with behaviour that had evolved in different times and no longer served their purpose.

Inveterate workers that we are, however, we have already made work out of idleness. Leisure is a boom industry. Play has become competitive sport and that, too, is big business. We need to relearn, as our hunting ancestors did, what it is to be alive without expending energy. Get thee to Dartington, for Jenni Adams is on the right track. For us in our time, tranquillity is the appropriate adaptation.

Colin Tudge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of the London School of Economics. His latest book, Neanderthals, Bandits, And Farmers, is now available from Weidenfeld & Nicolson at A4.99.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Colin Tudge

Colin Tudge is co-founder of the College for Enlightened Agriculture, which is a project of the Real Farming Trust. His latest book, The Great Re-think, to be published later this year, puts flesh on the bones of all the above.

Tags: Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior