The economic legacy of the Holocene

January 7, 2021

Ed. note: This piece is excerpted from The Perennial Turn, edited by Bill Vitek and published by New Perennials Publishing. You can find out more about the book and download a free copy here.

The untenable trajectory of the human economic order on Earth risks unprecedented ecological decay and mass extinctions. Many people deny there is a crisis and pursue business-as-usual, and even those who acknowledge the need to change course can grasp for illusory “solutions” that ignore the depth of the crises, which is another form of denial. Instead, we should face reality: The other-than-human-world now has become almost entirely eclipsed by an unassailable “superorganism”—us, the human species—that continues to expand in evermore destructive fashion.

I begin with how my own approach to this complicated matter of economy and Earth began to change. In the mid-1990s, I worked closely with my stepfather, the human ecologist Paul Shepard, whose interdisciplinary scholarship expanded our understanding of the relationship between humans and the other-than-human world. I helped him bring closure to his life’s work in the two years it took him to die of lung cancer. My role was modest—organizing papers, pursuing references, and doing the mundane tasks associated with helping him publish his last books (Shepard, 1996, 1998)—which connected me with the ideas of his world and eventually altered my thinking.

I have many poignant recollections of this time but one is particularly relevant here. In the week before he died, when the lines of time and space began to break down as they reliably do, Paul turned to my mother one night and said that she shouldn’t be alarmed if when she awoke he was not there—she would find him in the backyard, scything. At the time, it seemed to me a strange place for him to go, given that he had dedicated his life work to a critical appraisal of the impact of agriculture on humans and Earth, highlighting all that had been lost when humans began to domesticate plants and animals. I thought he would rather return to the Pleistocene, the era before agriculture, but instead he embraced an act of the Holocene, scything. Paul was not finished thinking about the importance of agriculture. I have since internalized his deathbed inclination, the impulse to understand what happened to humans and Earth when humans began the cultivation of annual grains and embarked on animal agriculture, bringing with me my training as an economist.

The significance of the agricultural revolution

The human population went from around six million people at the start of the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago, to at least 100 million a mere 8,000 years later. Agriculture, particularly annual grain crops and domesticated animals, accelerated human population growth and led to concentrated and sedentary living, eventually in state societies, in a relatively short period of time. Agriculture was not a continuation along a linear path of human alteration of the other-than-human world but rather an abrupt turn—an altogether new trajectory and a major evolutionary transition for humans.

The Agricultural Revolution is the direct antecedent of the present-day collision course between the global economy and Earth, and capitalism is merely one particular institutional rendering of a system change that had been in motion for 10,000 years, long before the market economy. Yet many critics assume today’s crises are the product of the Industrial Revolution, advanced technology, and capitalism. The importance of the Agricultural Revolution is obscured, never fully discounted but never wholly acknowledged. An example is the work of Jason W. Moore (2016), who argues we should speak of a distinctive “Capitalocene.” Moore is right to expand our view of capitalism to a longue durée—not just the past 250 years but perhaps beginning in the 14th century when capitalism’s “world ecology” took hold—but he discounts the importance of the Agricultural Revolution in his analysis. Certainly capitalism’s specific version of domination, exploitation, and expansion have led to extinction and ecological decay, but a broader historical context and deeper ecological perspective is necessary to understand the emergence and complexity of capitalism’s economic order.

While it may be true in some very general sense that humans always change the environment and the environment always changes humans, epochal changes come long before the emergence of capitalism. The Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic/Holocene period brought a huge qualitative shift in the relative influence of one on the other. The domestication of annual grains and livestock was a distinct, momentous change that set the stage for the emergence of capitalism’s world ecology. Advanced globalized capitalism and state societies arising out of agriculture are part of a continuum—the shift from gathering/hunting to state societies was the key rupture.

Agricultural insects

Are we the only species that farm? No other primates practice agriculture, but ants and termites do. As far as I know, social insects are the only other species to share this mode of production with us. It turns out that the structure and dynamic of the economy of agricultural insects is very similar to that of agricultural humans—interdependent with an extensive and hierarchical division of labor, expansionary, and autocatalytic.1 A similar outcome in two cases does not mean that ultimate causes are the same, but the comparison of social insects and humans deserves a closer look.

The most highly evolved agricultural ants are in the genus Atta, commonly known as leafcutter ants, which cut leaves and process them in assembly-line fashion that involves a complex division of labor. The largest ants cut big pieces that are transferred to smaller ants, who further cut them and so on until the pieces end up with the smallest assembly line ants that “mold the fragments into pellets, add fecal droplets” and insert them in a place where an even smaller ant can plant “loose strands of fungus” on them (Hölldobler & Wilson, 2011, p. 55). There are also ants in charge of defense, waste removal, brood care, and so forth. With this extensive division of labor, they build underground colonies that are architecturally sophisticated and can unify as many as a million ants around a focused enterprise of fungus farming. As a species, the leafcutter ants have clearly tapped into collective benefits in their ability to articulate and reproduce themselves efficiently around such fungal production.

The colony’s ants are so profoundly interdependent that individual autonomy is essentially non-existent and cooperation is so intensive that some members of the colony are sterile. No single ant has knowledge of fungal production; that knowledge is embedded in the collective and the way it works around the common purpose. Following the lead of Hölldobler & Wilson (2011), it does not seem a stretch to say the ants have “civilization” and to refer to the colony as a “superorganism” in virtue of its intelligence and order. The colony, as a unit of natural selection, has standing in evolutionary terms. These species are extremely successful by biological and evolutionary standards, as the autocatalytic interplay of fungal production and population growth allows for tremendous expansion in colony size. There is also expansion through migration to a new nest site and the establishment of new colonies.

Other observers have noted the parallels. For example, in his review of Hölldobler and Wilson’s book The Superorganism (2008), Tim Flannery (2009) states that “it is the changes wrought in attine societies by agriculture that the principal interest for the student of human societies lies.” When I became aware of these similarities in economic organization and population dynamics in connection with agriculture, I felt compelled to identify the processes and mechanisms that gave rise to strikingly similar economic configurations in otherwise very dissimilar species. The Agricultural Revolution of humans did not appear to be only a matter of ingenuity, intentionality, reason, institutions, and culture, since agricultural insects had achieved the same milestone, the same configuration, and the same “success” millions of years before humans.

As an aside, I also wonder whether Adam Smith and his tome on capitalism might have turned out differently had he been aware of Atta ants. He could not have claimed that the human capacity for a division of labor “is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals” (Smith, 1796/1976, p. 17). Perhaps in his discourse on the invisible hand, Smith might have concentrated more on the co-evolutionary fabric of cultivation and the species proclivities.

Economic order and its drivers in the matrix of evolution

In researching agricultural species, I looked to evolutionary biology, something progressive social scientists generally avoid. Understanding agriculture’s rupture of the structure and dynamic of human economic life is illuminated by evolutionary theory—particularly an extended evolutionary framework that embraces the complexity of evolution as it relates to the formation of groups, the evolution of cooperation, and niche construction (Margulis, 1970; Okasha, 2006; Wilson & Wilson, 2007; Pigliucci & Muller, 2010; Jablonka & Lamb, 2014; Laland et al., 2015). This extended evolutionary theory allows analyses to move beyond the narrow confines of genes and kin selection. John Gowdy and I have argued that the use of population biology and evolutionary theory to understand societies can help explain the formation of the economic collective as a force, and unit of selection, in evolution (Gowdy & Krall, 2013, 2014, 2016).

I realize that for some there is something off-putting about this approach because using evolution to explore economic order can make the latter seem deterministic (and, for that matter, make the former seem theoretically loose). An expanded evolutionary framework doesn’t answer all questions but provides insights in understanding the emergence and success of an economic order by focusing on collective rather than individual behavior. Much of economic theory emphasizes the role of the individual—from the simplistic reading of Adam Smith to the banal assumptions of the behavior of “rational economic man.” Yet the more appropriate emphasis may be on the collective, where the whole becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Again, once formed, agricultural groups outcompeted non-agricultural groups by the standard used in evolution: fitness.

In the case of agricultural insects and humans, the division of labor is a particularly important species capability that helped to give rise to agriculture, to structure group cohesion and to extend its influence, especially via the expansionist and warring proclivities of agricultural societies. In human agriculture, I separate examination of division of labor from specific cultures because insect species practicing agriculture do not have culture as we think of it. Culture permeates human social order, of course, but this separation of the two forces gets at something elemental, especially in thinking about economic order across species.

The ant and termite species that practice agriculture clearly have the same species potential to engage a division of labor. Humans came into the Holocene with this propensity already established, but in gathering/hunting it had been engaged rather modestly and loosely, mostly based on age and gender. Agriculture expanded division of labor to create an interdependent collective focused around grain and livestock production, driving a new economic order evolution (Gowdy & Krall, 2013, 2014, 2016).

From an economistic perspective, division of labor offers efficiency benefits—greater output produced per unit of species input, which in agriculture created food surpluses. Hence there are adaptive, positive feedback loops for societies (be they human, ant, or termite) that engage this strategy. The new interdependence of agricultural societies produced greater cohesion and unity. Over 10,000 years, this was accentuated with human institutions and technologies that reinforced the fundamental structure and dynamics of interdependence, surplus, and geographical expansionism that began with agriculture—all leading to the human takeover of the biosphere.

Human agriculture: The engagement of an economic superorganism

A categorically different human ecology and economy emerged from the cultivation of grains and domestication of animals. As with colonies of agricultural insects, the human economy became something of a “superorganism” with formidable evolutionary advantage. The Holocene warming and its climate stability were necessary for successful agriculture, and a good stock of fertile soil also helped to jump-start the process. These external conditions tipped the scale favorably in the direction of agriculture but were not the whole story. We also have to consider the interplay or co-evolution of internal factors and their force as a collective whole.

Agriculture required good co-evolutionary potential between people, plants, and animals to create a new integrated and structurally interdependent collective order. There was cultural cohesion in human groups before agriculture, and the human capacity for cooperation was well developed (Richerson & Boyd, 2006; Bowles & Gintis, 2011; Moffett, 2013). But it was only with agriculture that humans became a superorganism: an insular, autocatalytic interdependently ordered whole. Individual autonomy in material life all but disappeared, and the material interdependence gave new power to the collective enterprise focused and structured around agriculture’s demands. Importantly, the ecology of human material life took on a dynamic of expansionism and conquest, and a related duality between humans and the-other-than-human world emerged.

Annual grains were quick to give co-evolutionary results because they were planted and thereby selected every year. Any attribute of a plant that worked well for humans, such as non-shattering seeds and large seed size, could be accentuated in a relatively short time (Cox, 2009). And grains, which could be easily stored, allowed accumulation of significant surpluses. But growing grains and grazing livestock also led to loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, and landscape degradation, continuously pushing human territorial expansion to secure food supplies.

Humans also were reconfigured, perhaps more profoundly than the annual grains and domesticated animals. This was not apparent in the human genome (with a few exceptions), but in the structure and power of the collective formation and cohesion of agricultural groups. The human capacity for cooperation and a division of labor had never integrated humans with such machine-like precision and extensive interdependence in material procurement, until agriculture honed this human propensity in concert with cultivated grains.

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It is possible that without the propensity for a division of labor, humans would not have overcome the initial challenges of agriculture and certainly would not have fully realized the productive benefits. Gathering/hunting continued alongside early experiments with cultivation, creating more tasks for people. The efficiencies inherent in a division of labor created surpluses, extending the division of labor in a positive feedback cycle and reinforcing grain cultivation as a viable material strategy for humans. This occurred despite declines in human health, stature, and intelligence (agricultural diets tend to be less healthy than gathering/hunting), with increasing numbers of humans relegated to slavery, coerced labor, military conscription, and other forms of hierarchical subjugation (Larson, 2006; Scott, 2017).

The positive feedback loops pushing the expansion of population and the division of labor did not produce a steady-state equilibrium but instead expansion, with vast state societies developing in a relatively short time after domestication. A new economic order had taken hold of humans that would direct the path of society, culture, and technology for millennia.

The ecology of dualism embodied in the organization of work

Annual grains demanded work that could be routinized, rationalized, and standardized. The structure of agricultural work was dictated by the needs of its domesticates in the same way that the diversity of plants and animals that were utilized by hunters and gatherers to procure their material life dictated the structure of those peoples’ work. However, the knowledge and skill associated with gathering/hunting resided primarily in the individual, and in the quality of observation and understanding of a varied and complex nonhuman world. Engagement with this world was not amenable to standardization and rationalization in the way it came to be with agriculture. Richard Lee observed that pre-agricultural societies (bands) had “a degree of freedom unheard of in more hierarchical societies. In the organization of production foragers could work their own schedules” (Lee, 1998, p. 12).

Agriculture demanded control of nature, creating, as Bill Vitek put it in his essay in this volume, a “powerful dualism pitting crop against weed and pest, and livestock against predator.” The duality of human-nature separation emerged out of agriculture, as life became a more insular, focused, routinized, rationalized, and integrated collective enterprise, dictated by the demands of annual grains and livestock. Humans as a whole easily adapted to this regiment, while as individuals they had no choice but to submit to it.

Agriculture reduced the complexity in the provisioning of food to mundane and routinized tasks, leading James Scott to characterize the late Neolithic revolution as “something of a deskilling” (Scott, 2017, pp. 91–92). With cereal production, knowledge and skill came to reside in the routines of “fixed-field farming” of cereal grains. The routines were daily and seasonal; sowing, weeding, watering, cutting, bundling, threshing, gleaning, winnowing chaff, sieving, and drying dictated the rhythm and structure of life. Scott argues that we became subordinated to crops. “Once Homo sapiens took that fateful step into agriculture, our species entered an austere monastery whose taskmaster was mostly of the genetic clockwork of a few plants” (Scott, 2017, p. 92). This routinized work, for a species well-adapted to working with a division of labor, tipped the trajectory of human social evolution in the direction of the expansionary “superorganism.”

The human domination that resulted is not some pinnacle of evolutionary perfection. The gain was in the economic efficiencies, which provided the raw material for expansion, state civilizations, and hierarchy, but the quality of the day-to-day interaction of humans with the other-than-human world had been irrevocably altered. What was once symbiotic and ritual coexistence for gatherers/hunters became drudgery and an agonistic relationship for farmers. Material provisioning of life no longer expanded the human imagination nor reinforced a sense of belonging in the ecosphere; instead, it dulled the senses and distanced humans from the other-than-human world in an interminable self-referential economic bubble. And it has led to ecological degradation that now threatens human survival.

The other side of despair
My best judgement tells me that there is much to lose in this historical moment by relying on naive optimism—especially when it comes to economic matters.

Economic order for humans is something more than the interplay of intelligence, culture, intentionality, and technology. It goes deep into foundational aspects of how we collectively became what we are. This is no simple matter. It is not simply that the “dark side” of our nature (the capacity for greedy and violent behavior) has landed us here but a more subtle and unintentional—but very real—evolutionary play around the inherent tendencies of our species and annual grains in the rich Pleistocene soils and the Holocene warming. Seemingly small initial changes can end in more profound outcomes; evolution is not a teleological process that aims at perfection, but a process that unfurls on the basis of short- to medium-range advantage in fitness. What is successful in the short run can be disastrous down the road.

The dynamic of expansion and surplus production, the profound material interdependence, and the alienated relationship with the other-than-human world remain with us in the contemporary form of global capitalism and its attendant technologies, ideologies, and institutions. So much the worse for us and for Earth. Ten-thousand years with this agricultural system has only served to enhance and cement certain tendencies. If we want to stop the wholesale extermination of the other-than-human world and leave reasonable possibilities for future generations of humans, we will have to dismantle this “economic superorganism.” This is no easy matter, and the question of the effectiveness of human agency on this front obviously looms large.

On the hopeful side, while our social order is the legacy of the Holocene, Homo sapiens is a species evolved to resonate in the rhythm and dynamic of a rich biosphere (Shepard, 1982). In this sense, we are very much a Pleistocene species. It is only because of the converging contingencies of the peculiar Holocene trajectory that we have forgotten this and succumbed to a cultural amnesia engendered by human supremacy, which the dominant culture calls “progress” (Crist, 2017). We have to override the force of this Holocene legacy with Pleistocene sensibilities that remind us that we need to be careful about our numbers and recognize that population growth is a pernicious part of an autocatalytic agricultural dynamic that we ignore at our own peril.

Our Pleistocene sensibilities also tell us that we need to be careful about our propensity for cooperation and, in particular, how we order ourselves collectively around material life. It is one thing to work together in small groups and help each other out but quite another to become mechanistically structured around technologies and institutions that reduce us to mere cogs, to casualties or appendages of the collective’s expansionism; that alienate us from, and diminish and destroy, the other-than-human world. Annual grains, a bloated livestock industry, industrial technology, state societies, and market capitalism are problematic outcomes, technologies, and institutional arrangements that come straight out of the Holocene manual. Unfortunately, they have been good at offering up economic efficiency, surplus, and increased population, and historically these have been treated as improvements. Again, evolution cannot see ahead; a strategy has been evolutionarily successful in the short-haul is no guarantee in the long-haul.

Paul Shepard’s scything was the meditation of someone standing on a border between two worlds. Looking back, he could still meet the eye of a wolf at the edge of a field. He could still glimpse the finely tuned human ecology of our Pleistocene evolution with its demography of “a slow-breeding, large intelligent primate” (Shepard, 1998, p. 169). Looking forward, he understood that a madness had overtaken us. The death-knell of the other-than-human-world is ringing loud and clear. We have two billion more people on earth now than we did two decades ago when Paul did his scything, global GDP has doubled in that time, and mass extinction is the order of the day.
Our debt to the other-than-human world is past due. Our goal should be a finely tuned human ecology where we are not a dominant species but simply one of many. It seems fitting to begin this change with agriculture, such as The Land Institute’s Natural Systems Agriculture research on perennial grains, but the reach of a different agriculture must be expansive, extending beyond the fields of food production and giving rise to a fundamentally different landscape of economic order.

1 The term autocatalytic refers to the presence of endogenous system variables (that is, things produced within the system) that feed back on themselves and each other, thereby reinforcing the system


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Teaser photo credit: By Pjt56 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Lisi Krall

Lisi Krall is a Professor of Economics at the State University of New York, Cortland. Her current research focuses on the emergence of agriculture and the configuration of human economic order into an economic superorganism. Her essays and articles on political economy, human ecology, and the evolution of economic systems appear in such diverse journals as the Cambridge Journal of Economics, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and The Ecological Citizen. Her 2010 book, Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History, explored the connections of economy, culture, and land in U.S. history. She has been a Fulbright Scholar, a SUNY Senior Scholar, and a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Research.

Tags: agricultural revolution, annual grains, capitalism, economic growth, environmental crises, superorganism, the Holocene