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What If Rousseau Was Right?

Sid Meier’s iconic Civilization computer games all start the same way. A band of hardy settlers is poised to emerge from an undifferentiated mass of shaggy, subsistence-level nomads and begin the arduous task of building a sedentary, urbanized civilization. Cultural progress, technological advancement, and higher standards of living beckon, but only if you, the player, assume the mantle of responsibility and lead your people into a brighter and, crucially, more settled future.

The Civilization paradigm of human progress has been recycled, tweaked, and overhauled by five massively popular sequels, a testament to how well it works as a gameplay mechanic and how deeply its assumptions are embedded in our cultural understanding of human progress. The imagery of the series’ cut scenes—a loincloth-wearing cave dweller becomes a toga-clad senator, then a knight, then a Renaissance inventor, then a posh industrialist, then a suit-and-tie wearing modern—reflects the just-so story we are taught in school. The history of humanity is a gradual progression from nomadic savagery to urbanized civilization, interrupted only by the occasional dark age or barbarian invasion.

Against the Grain [1], James C. Scott’s new history of humanity’s transition (devolution may be the more appropriate term) from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming challenges the very foundations of this narrative. After finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if our nomadic ancestors would have been better off slinking back to the hills and forests and giving up on the idea of ever settling down.

Scott, a Yale political science professor whose eccentric views—in an earlier book [2], he explains that he views everything through an “anarchist squint”—have made him one of the most consistently interesting academics writing today, says his latest work is merely an attempt to “connect the dots” between academic disciplines that study our earliest sedentary ancestors. He is too modest. Against the Grain may not include much in the way of original research, but it presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind.

This may come as a profound disappointment to those who have gloried in the role of chieftain-cum-emperor-cum-president to a fledgling digital civilization. But in the process of revising our understanding of the earliest permanent human settlements, Scott also raises several fascinating questions about governance, freedom, and human society.

Take natural rights, a venerable political tradition that has largely been banished from our public discourse. Rights are socially constructed, a product of contingent historical circumstances, a tarnished artifact of Western culture. Only the truly gauche—hardcore libertarians, say, or Christian conservatives—believe that we are endowed with certain inalienable and unalterable rights. Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” sounds like something you might hear from a particularly obnoxious teenage Objectivist.

But what if Rousseau was right? Scott persuasively argues that sedentary agriculture is a critical prerequisite for state formation and all its attendant miseries, from slaving to war-making to the spread of pestilence and disease. For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors. It was not until comparatively recently that we were chained by the plow, the ox, and the overseer. The historical record of our earliest ancestors is the most compelling evidence yet that there is something deeply unnatural about being socialized into a rules-based, hierarchical society.

Whatever your political leanings, the implications of Scott’s book are as fascinating as they are wide-ranging. Scott argues that sedentary agriculture was both more oppressive and precarious than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which relied on a diverse array of nutritional resources and was thus more resilient than depending on one or two staple crops. Why, then, did our ancestors allow themselves to be herded into farms and cities? Were they coerced, or were they forced to adopt labor-intensive agriculture by climate and environmental pressures?


The book’s title gestures at another provocative argument: namely, would the earliest states have emerged without the development of grain cultivation? In Seeing Like a State, [3] Scott explored what he calls “legibility,” the idea that governments depend on a certain regimented understanding of their subjects and territory to exert control and extract resources. Grain, unlike most sources of nutrition, is eminently legible. It’s easy to count, store, and transport, and because its cultivation depends on a regular and predictable growing cycle, the first bureaucrats knew exactly when to send in the tax collectors.

This radical perspective on settled agriculture, long thought of as a foundational human achievement, is just one example of Scott’s talent for gently upending history’s conventional wisdom. In Against the Grain, ancient cities are transformed from thriving centers that attract the ambitious and upwardly mobile to “late neolithic multispecies resettlement camps,” sedentary concentrations of filth, pestilence, and a variety of animals—some domesticated, some parasitical—that only exist because of the presence of a dense human population. Historical “dark ages,” meanwhile, are best understood as voluntary flights from these oppressive and unhealthy urban centers.

The book’s speculative digressions are particularly stimulating. Scott suggests that the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden might have been inspired by a hazy ancestral memory of our idyllic existence before the advent of settled agriculture, while the Epic of Gilgamesh is reinterpreted as a blueprint for ancient state-building. These stimulating detours inspire a host of other questions. In most pre-modern societies, hunting, sport, and country homes were the preserve of a privileged aristocracy. Did these elite prerogatives reflect a fundamental unease with sedentary life that lurks deep in the heart of every human? And what of learning and culture, the signature achievements of urbanized civilization? The emergence of art and literature is usually explained by the accumulation of an agricultural surplus, which liberated artisans, scholars, and craftsmen from the demands of tilling the soil. But what if these pursuits only became a necessary outlet for our creative energies once the freedom and leisure afforded by nomadism had been replaced by the backbreaking drudgery of sedentary agriculture?

His own “anarchist squint” notwithstanding, Scott almost certainly does not intend Against the Grain as a brief for any political ideology. But if you squint at his book from the right direction, a tentative defense of good old-fashioned classical liberalism, perhaps the least fashionable doctrine of our era, emerges. In one of his many thought-provoking asides, Scott suggests the arc of human history is best understood as the onward march of progressively more regimented societies, from hunting and gathering to farming to the factory floor. Each new stage of human development is more legible to the state than its predecessors, allowing for greater surveillance, exploitation, and control. By attempting to claw back a little space for autonomy, dignity, and personal freedom, liberalism has been one of the few historical brakes on this progression, and it is a considerably less disruptive brake than civil unrest or external invasion.

Against the Grain may upend Sid Meier’s gamified vision of human progress, but it recalls the wisdom of an older childhood favorite. One of the best chapters in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King follows the future King Arthur’s transformation into a goose by the wizard Merlyn and his subsequent introduction to the good-natured anarchy of avian society. Later in the book, Merlyn remarks that “[he] is an anarchist, like any sensible person.” At the time, Merlyn had been aging backwards for centuries, so perhaps he was already familiar with Scott’s thesis. Maybe the good wizard was onto something.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "What If Rousseau Was Right?"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On October 30, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

Given a) that hunting and gathering does not produce enough food for large populations, the solution is to keep population small

that b) birth control is not available, the population should be in danger of exploding, unless the death rate is equally high. Child mortality can keep the population stable

c) that a trible without resources soon gets the idea of raiding another tribe for resources, then warfare would be a constant in hunter gatherer societies.

Empires, with all their drawbacks, give a great advantage to the populations. No more being raided by the next town.

A popular novel “Black Ships” (which is a take on the Aeneid) makes that point that when the refugees go to Egypt, they are shocked that when they sail on the river, the children come to look at them and wave, instead of running away and hiding. They think that they should be easy pickings until they meet the Egyptian soldiers.

And an Empire can build granaries and distribute the grain in lean times.

#2 Comment By James Hartwick On October 31, 2017 @ 3:50 am

Each new stage of human development is more legible to the state than its predecessors, allowing for greater surveillance, exploitation, and control.

Online communication is a lot more legible to the state than ordinary interpersonal communication.

#3 Comment By polistra On October 31, 2017 @ 4:03 am

I don’t buy the standard Ted Talks model of evolution with Savannahs and Sabertooth Tigers.

It’s far more likely that the division between settlers and nomads is innate. These two basic temperaments are present in ALL living things from bacteria to humans, so it would make sense that the more settly types immediately started settling and cultivating, while the more roamy types immediately started roaming and hunting.

The division seems to be present as far back as we can detect artifacts.

#4 Comment By WPWIII On October 31, 2017 @ 6:02 am

Prof. Scott’s book reminds me of my freshman Humanities class at Wesleyan in 1958. Prof. Norman O. Brown taught similar ideas, with the basic texts being Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and “Nobby’s” own books. We’d come out of class determined to avoid repressive, neurotic civilization. As I recall there was also a certain amount of nomadic savagery on party weekends.

#5 Comment By Kent On October 31, 2017 @ 6:15 am

Agriculture was well understood for thousands of years prior to settled civilization. It didn’t take off until invading tribes conquered fertile land and enslaved the inhabitants to a life of farming a warriors new property.

Slavery requires property rights. Property rights require a violent government. But that genies not going back into the bottle.

#6 Comment By BradD On October 31, 2017 @ 11:18 am

“Freedom” in a hunter gatherer society is great until you realize what the freedom is. It is the freedom to toil as little or as much as you want, but it is also the freedom is be bashed in the head by someone stronger than you. It is a very basic freedom.

There is always a give and a take; I, for one, enjoy my modern comforts and wouldn’t want to live as a hunter gatherer. Chances are, I’d probably be dead in that society: eyesight need correction, got pneumonia when I was 3, etc, etc.

#7 Comment By Kevin Frei On October 31, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

It amazes me that anyone could turn to Rousseau for the answers to anything. His family life was a disaster and his washing his hands of his progeny is monstrous.
Dear readers as you read this post via the marvels of the internet on your electronic viewing device of your choice the answer must be NO.
The transition to agriculture despite all its fits and starts and shortcomings has allowed humanity to develop the technology, medical care, and all the other things in life we rely upon without a seconds thought.
The alternative choice would leave humanity in a state barely better than that of the animals we would compete with or eat. No electricity, no cars, no cell phones, no bathrooms, or all the things of life upon which we depend.

#8 Comment By Wilfred On October 31, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

I am most curious to know about the “evidence” that pre-civilization, mankind experienced longer & healthier lives, and that there was no warfare.

Try living among the tribes of New Guinea for a month.

#9 Comment By Just_Dropping_By On October 31, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

@ Wilfred: There’s a massive amount of archaeological data showing that hunter-gather societies generally were healthier than early farming societies.

See, e.g.: [4]


Later farming societies enjoyed improved health (and ultimately wiped out rival hunter-gatherers) as more types of domesticated plants and animals became available, farming techniques improved, trade proliferated, etc.

#10 Comment By Stephen On October 31, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

This would make a good April Fools article. Our “idyllic” hunter-gatherer existence? Only a professor could come up with this. I would guess he has a very nice home and comfy appointments at work. It takes a certain amount of luxury to fantasize about the prehistoric nomadic lifestyle.

#11 Comment By Indian Summer On October 31, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

This article seems to be a Halloween prank. Thanks.

#12 Comment By grumpy realist On October 31, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

Somehow I don’t think they have things called “hospitals” or “incubators” out in your typical hunter-gatherer culture.

In other words, I would have been dead Day 1 after birth. Standard evolutionary loss, I guess, but I don’t have to like it.

I’ll believe in the professor’s argument when he decides to head off into the wilds with a stone axe, a bow and set of flint-tipped arrows, and proves that he can survive on his own for at least a year.

Until then–you first.

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On October 31, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

P.S. It’s also been estimated that the supporting capacity of the Earth were we to all return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is something like 1/50th of the present population.

I suppose the dear professor assumes that he will be among the lucky 2%.

#14 Comment By Mackayla On October 31, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

“For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors.”

Yes, until, while enjoying your healthy Paleo-diet lifestyle of all the meat and fresh vegetables you can dig out of the ground with your stone tools comes to an abrupt end with a big gash on your foot while fleeing a sabre tooth tiger. You might have been able to climb a tree to escape but the chances are fairly high that the cut will turn into a bacteria infection without any of those corrupt antibiotics around to cure it.

I agree with the above poster who said, only a very comfortable academic could’ve written this.

#15 Comment By Angolo On October 31, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

I think Mr. Collins has been rather too easily seduced by the word “interesting.”

#16 Comment By JD On October 31, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

I have studied hunter-gatherer societies ethnographically and archaeologically and would feel confident arguing that their lives exist within a system of balanced trade-offs, much like our own lives. It is worth noting that all hunter-gatherer societies we have studied ethnographically currently live in ecologically marginal places, and may not serve as the best prehistoric/preagricultural analogues. It is unequivocally true that most hunter-gatherers appear to have been healthier than early farmers. This is evident in the healthy and robust skeletal remains, diverse and healthy diets evidenced by isotopic and archaeological studies, and relative lack of lifestyle illnesses (dental caries, STDs for instance) in populations of hunter-gatherers. They do, however, show signs of active, sometimes hard lives, such as with healed injuries. Early farmers suffered reduced statures, poor diet, poor dentition, and repetitive motion injuries. We moderns in functioning nations have reversed this trend and can basically choose to live healthy lives, have larger statures and longer lives, enjoy diverse diets, and can choose how robust and active we want our lifestyles to be. We also can keep our children and see them grow into adults without having to practice infanticide (a well-understood practice in southern African hunter-gatherer societies and other groups in marginally productive areas).
Violence is another thing. New archaeological data is shedding light on what appears to be a violent past for all humans – gatherers, hunters, and farmers. Skeletal data show signs of wide-spread violence throughout history. Violence may be more a product of inane neurological frameworks, culture, and external factors – not merely a construct. It is true that some of the hunter-gatherer societies we have studied ethnographically are remarkably peaceful, others less so. I don’t think anyone would trade places with a Papuan head-hunter (I know this doesn’t happen anymore) with a distended belly, a protein deficient diet, strict social taboos, and repressive violence. I suggest a filter effect where hunter-gatherers brush up against sedentary farmers or even herders with access to improved technology in marginal areas: peaceful groups coexist, violent ones do not. Peaceful ones then get studied by grad students in the post-WWII era = we believe everyone in the past was peaceful. This didn’t work out too well for Michael Rockefeller.
Furthermore, Dr. Steven Pinker suggests in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ that violence has steadily decreased. Basically, other humans are more valuable to us alive than dead in a market system, we have more effective means of communication, science and culture have advanced so that we can adapt and problem-solve without killing our neighbors or purging our children and elderly. We perceive we may be more violent based on the widespread nature of our communication, but the majority of us do not appear to be personally effected by violence… while we enjoy our diverse, grit-free diet.
The one aspect of hunter-gatherer societies I think a lot of us could really benefit and learn from is happiness and belonging. By many standards, the groups we have studied ethnographically are remarkably happy and close with each other. Happiness may not be intrinsically linked with one adaptive strategy over another, more so with society and culture. These groups are close-knit extended families focused on the well-being of their family members and the maintenance of traditions that ensure the preservation of the group.
We live in different worlds. A world with far, far fewer humans (but still including myself, obviously) abounding in game and nuts and seeds and tubers and grand vistas and clean waterfalls and vacant, dry caves, and only my favorite friends and family absolutely sounds great. But that is a fantasy at this point. It’s clearly a balance, one we continue to navigate.

#17 Comment By mrscracker On October 31, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

There’s evidence too that hunter gatherers ate each other.
So, no thanks.

#18 Comment By Youknowho On October 31, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

As I pointed above, hunter gatherer societies must practice population control so as not to exhaust te environment. That means infanticide. And those children who were deemed too weak to survive were the first to go.

Slavery? Of course they had slavery. They warred with each other for resources. What did you think they did with the captives they did not kill? The greater the warfare, the greater the supply of slaves.

It was because of that eternal fighting of city state with city state that slavery was a feature in Ancient Greece, while it was just a bug in Egypt and Persia.

#19 Comment By Ken T On October 31, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

So how exactly do you propose winnowing the 7 billion humans that are here now down to the million or fewer that Planet Earth is capable of supporting as hunter gatherers?

#20 Comment By Agriculture Fann On October 31, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

“For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors.”

Really? Prehistoric peoples had lifespans exceeding 70 years? “Healthier lives?” When an unhealthy tooth, any substantial wound, a kidney stone, or unchecked infectious disease could be fatal? “Free?” Free to be looted or sold into slavery by neighboring tribes or clans?

“In most pre-modern societies, hunting, sport, and country homes were the preserve of a privileged aristocracy.”

In pre-modern societies, you hunted any chance you got. Country houses have always been the preserve of a privileged aristocracy. I don’t think I want to go back. Civilization would be fine if population could be controlled, and usually prosperity does just that.

#21 Comment By Craig On October 31, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

It does seem to be the case that the transition from nomadic forager to early farming came at a cost: there was a decline in food diversity, maybe a reduction in protein content, and increased exposure to communicable diseases. While food availability should have been made better by the development of foods like grains that could be stored, increased population densities combined with crop failures may have left populations more vulnerable to famine. Nomads, at least, could move more readily in search of new food sources.

At least one theory is that population growth and the resulting pressure on the food supply probably made the adoption of farming inevitable. Once you had larger organized societies built on farming, conquest of adjacent lands that were thinly populated by nomads would have been hard to stop.

I am not convinced that hunter gatherer life permitted all that much expression of individuality. The pressure to adhere to the norms of the group was probably quite high. Failure to comply meant expulsion from the group and death. By modern standards, life in a nomadic group would have seemed very limited and stifling. Jared Diamond’s book “The World Until Yesterday” is worth looking at in this regard.

#22 Comment By Robert Hunter On November 4, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

Subjugation is kept afloat by its beneficiaries. This includes the subjugated.

The great sin of the civilized world is organized violence, but the greater sin of the primitive world is unorganized violence. Historically we have witnessed the decline in violence from ubiquitous to anomalous because of these same benighted tax collectors.

Violence is bad for business. To quote an unquoteable man, “poverty doesn’t cause crime, crime causes poverty.” When 10% of people faced violent deaths the economic success we enjoy today would be entirely unworkable. With modern deaths from violence in developed countries under 1% we find prosperity. The state has a vested interest in keeping this going. While we may have lost the “freedom” to pursue aimless wanderlust we gained a freedom to pursue health and happiness.

James C. Scott is a skilled researcher and intelligent man, but he is willing to massage the data to get the information he needs. He’ll omit key points such as the reduction in endemic violence. More troublingly he made a gross factual error by saying that there had never been a potato based civilization, a claim to which the Inca’s would take serious offense.

This book is a product of an unfalsifiable ideology by an intellectual ideologue. Its insights are not invalidated wholly by this plain fact, but they lose the luster they have at first. The state exists because of our consent, not in spite of it.