A Little Link: Jared Diamond on Agriculture

Today I stumbled across a 1987 article from Discover magazine by Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” It’s a fascinating look at the effects of agriculture on our health — both physical and social — as a species.  The notion that agiculture made us shorter and more disease-prone is interesting enough, but he then discusses how gross social inequality — classism and sexism — might have been exacerbated by settling down to grow crops. A good, quick read that was written long before the recent interest in Paleolithic eating*, but is very relevant.

(*Updated info: I just read that in 1985, a radiologist named Boyd Eaton wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine called “Paleolithic Nutrition.” Loren Cordain was inspired by Eaton. Even earlier (1975), Walter L. Voegtlin wrote the book The Stone Age Diet. The Paleo movement didn’t take off til recently, however.)

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6 Responses to A Little Link: Jared Diamond on Agriculture

  1. Philippa says:

    That article is a fabulous find. Although Diamond writes towards the end that a complaint about archaeology is that it offers no lessons for the future, two ideas struck me that are relevant today:

    Firstly, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the vast majority of starches consumed by those early agriculturalists were unrefined. By extension, this should give paleo naysayers something to think about, particularly in light of the nutritional advice to “eat more grains” – and that’s whole grains. My big beef with the whole grain dogma is that the overwhelming majority of grains eaten by most people continue to be largely refined. Even wholewheat flour, in most cases, is refined flour with bran added back in. But history is teaching us that even whole grains, untouched by hybridization and GMO, are problematic.

    Secondly, I was surprised at how low the life expectancy at birth was for both communities at Dickson Mounds, and the nutritional deficiencies discovered in the farmers they studied. Obviously the bodies studied may have been older than the average, but without further information, it does make me wonder how much nutritional deficiency the average SAD grain-raised child is already carrying around. I had always assumed that diseases of modern civilization set in after many years of grain eating, but perhaps the damage is already done much sooner than we realize.

    • I’ve had similar thoughts about just how early the effects of SAD appear, and how broad those effects are.

      It seems to me that once we got into white flour (and fake wholegrain flour) as a species, it was like getting into the loco weed; we aren’t quite aware of it, but we’re poisoning ourselves into a kind of dangerous madness…and the effects are much further reaching than just the well-known western diseases with their obvious physical manifestations. The body is made sick, but I think it’s hitting us in the head as well, so to speak. I suspect it has had an impact in the number of diagnosed cases of ADHD and depression in children, for example. I wonder, too, about average IQ, motivation, and the ability to engage in effective long-term planning. At a population level, we seem to be weakening in these areas, with some countries far worse than others (cough); is it possible that we’re doing this to ourselves? Shooting ourselves in our collective foot with (incorrect) insistence on the health and wholesomeness of a grain-centric diet?

      Have you read anything about epigenetics in relation to nutrition? Something I’ve seen bounced around is “you are what your grandmother ate,” and somewhere else (apologies for lack of references) that it will take three generations of correct eating before the damage is mostly corrected in offspring. (And knowing what my own grandmother ate gives me a sinking feeling!)

      Philippa, thank you for your insightful comment.

  2. Pingback: A Little Link: Dr. Michael Eades on Agriculture | Cleaning My Plate

  3. Here is my favourite Jared Diamond quote at the moment:

    “In 1849, hungry gold miners crossing the Nevada desert noticed some glistening balls of a candy-like substance on a cliff, licked or ate the balls, and discovered them to be sweet-tasting, but then they developed nausea. Eventually it was realized that the balls were hardened deposits made by small rodents, called packrats … Not being toilet trained, the rats urinate in their nests, and sugar and other substances crystallize from their urine as it dries out … In effect, the hungry gold miners were eating dried rat urine laced with rat feces and rat garbage.”

    – Collapse by Jared Diamond

  4. Yes, and so has my employer, Glen Runciter. Thank you for asking.

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