Why a leading political theorist thinks civilization is overrated

Is civilization good for us? Has it made us any happier?

The takeaway from a new book by James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University, is that the answer to the first question is yes but it’s complicated, while the answer to the second question is, well, even more complicated.

In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Scott explores why human beings decided to shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more sedentary, agrarian lifestyle roughly 12,000 years ago. The accepted narrative is that humans abandoned hunting and gathering as soon they discovered agricultural technology, because it made life easier and safer.

But Scott argues that this is not quite right. Humans, he says, spent thousands of years trying to preserve their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sure, settling down in agrarian societies provided the basis for the modern state by allowing large numbers of people to live in one place for extended periods of time, but it also led to the spread of diseases and forced people to give up the freedom of an itinerant lifestyle for the affluence of a modern one.

The story we tell ourselves about human history is one of linear progress, fueled in large part by moral and technological development. There is some truth to this, and on a long enough timeline it makes sense, but Scott says the sacrifices made along the way are rarely understood.

I spoke to him recently about those sacrifices, and what we tend to get wrong about early civilizations. For Scott, the price of civilization — for the individual and the environment — has been higher than we think.

Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Has civilization been good for humanity?

James Scott

So much of what I thought I had understood about early civilizations and pre-modern men and women was just wrong. I’ve tried to offer something of a counternarrative that suggests the domestication of grains centuries ago did not lead directly to humans living in large groups in one place for long periods of time, as we now do.

It turns out that the kind of agriculture that early humans practiced was onerous and involved a tremendous amount of work. The first civilizations were very hard and unhealthy places that gave us most of our first infectious diseases, many of which are still with us. They also produced the first coercive states that took slaves and oppressed large numbers of people.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the modern state since the French Revolution is not the ground of both our freedom and our oppression, but it does mean that the early states were by no means a simple advance in leisure, freedom, emancipation, or help.

Sean Illing

We can circle back to that last point about what we lost in terms of leisure and freedom, but first tell me what you initially got wrong about early civilizations — and presumably what a lot of us get wrong.

James Scott

A couple of things. One is that I think the standard narrative is that once we had domesticated plants, then we immediately shifted to an agricultural society so that we could stay in the same place. People also assume that before the agricultural revolution, humans had to wander around as foragers and hunter-gatherers. But that’s not quite right. Four thousand years passed between the first firm evidence of domesticated plants, cereals, and the beginning of truly agrarian communities that are living largely by agriculture.

The other mistake, which I had never thought about, was this assumption that we couldn’t wait to settle down, that this was part of the inevitable progress of humanity. That’s not true at all, and it certainly could have gone another way.

The truth is that staying in one place, which is what civilization more or less forced us to do, wasn’t all that healthy for us, and our human ancestors resisted [it] strongly for a very long time.

Sean Illing

So the birth of agriculture, which effectively laid the foundation for modern civilization, was not welcomed by most humans at the time. What were they resisting? What did they see?

James Scott

Well, you have to remember that in places like Mesopotamia, people lived in a kind of wetland paradise, with water levels much higher than they are today and with diverse migrations of mammals and birds and fish that created an extraordinarily rich set of ecosystems. Those early humans had a variety of plant and animal and fish sources of subsistence, and it actually required very little of the year for them to get all of their protein needs.

“It’s important to understand that this was not a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and the Danish welfare state on the other”
Sean Illing

So the hunter-gatherers were healthier than those who switched over to the more sedentary agricultural lifestyle — at least initially.

James Scott

That’s right. Their diet was extremely varied, which is to say extremely healthy. So that when you find the bones of people who died at the same time and you want to know whether they were a part of an agrarian state or whether they were hunters and gatherers and foragers, you can tell because the hunter-gatherers’ skeletons are much larger because they had fewer interruptions in growth, and their bones show almost no signs of malnutrition, whereas the people in the agricultural civilizations are both shorter and their bones and teeth are less robust. You see evidence of growth interruptions that are mostly due to protein deficiency of one kind or another.

It’s clear that people outside these grain civilizations were healthier than the people inside.

Sean Illing

People tend to think of human history as a story of steady progress, which is largely true, but it’s also more complicated than that.

James Scott

Even today, there is this idea that life with civilization is easier and affords more leisure, but hunters and gatherers spend only about 50 percent of their time producing or searching for what they needed to survive. The idea that hunters and gatherers and foragers were living hand to mouth and one day away from starvation is nonsense, even for those in pretty marginal areas where there is less access to natural migrations of fish and animals and the fruiting seasons of trees and so on.

Hunters and gatherers only spent half of their time working, and the rest was spent in play or leisure. By contrast, those early agrarian civilizations involved much more labor and drudgery. [They] also involved a narrower diet that turned out mostly carbohydrates. And that’s why people resisted this transition, and why many had to be forced into this change.

Sean Illing

You’re not arguing — and I’m certainly not arguing — that we would be better off if we all returned to this pre-modern world. No one wants to swap lives with someone from 10,000 years ago.

James Scott

Of course. From our perspective today, it’s inconceivable that we would want to go back like that. But I think it’s still important to understand that this was not a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and the Danish welfare state on the other.

At this point in history, this was a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and an agrarian state in which all of the first epidemic diseases developed due to the concentration of animals and human beings in a concentrated space. This was not as clear-cut a choice as a lot of people suppose.

Yes, things are better now, but it’s really only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve enjoyed the health and longevity that we do today. But this initial period when we think civilization was created was, in fact, a really dark period for humanity.

“Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing”
Sean Illing

What have the demands of modern civilization done to the individual? We enjoy more abundance and greater comfort, but at the same time many of us are less happy, less free, and more cut off from our natural environment. Isn’t this the real price of civilization?

James Scott

It’s an important question. Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. This is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. I think this has created a narrowing of attention to the larger world. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.

Sean Illing

I want to pres