Historical Notes: All this hard graft no longer makes sense

WORK HARD - do well. Who doubts it? Furthermore, it's right to work hard, not because Mrs Thatcher told us to but because, deep down, we feel it to be so. Our granny told us how "the Devil finds work for idle hands" long before the dark decade of the 1980s.

But our efforts to "improve" ourselves and our surroundings are putting our minds, our society and the planet under dreadful strain. Our "Puritan" ethic osten-sibly has religious - Judaeo- Christian - origins, although we live in a secular age; encapsulated in God's injunction to Adam and Eve as he banished them from the easy pickings of Eden: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread!" We have been sweating ever since, hating it, but thinking it was the right thing to do.

Nevertheless we can see our predispositions and prejudices in another light - as evolved psychological adaptations, developed by our ancestors to cope with the problems of their own times. Hard graft is an adaptation to the inescapable rigours of early agriculture, as portrayed throughout the Old Testament. But, in the developed world at least, most of us don't farm any more, and those who do have machines to help. Many of our evolved predilections are still vital to us - including our many social skills. Others - like the guilt that comes with doing nothing - are anachronistic.

Farming is traditionally supposed to have begun about 10,000 years ago with the "Neolithic revolution" of the Middle East; but our ancestors were surely practising forms of "proto-farming" for many thousands of years before that. After all, many animals "farm" up to a point. Fruit bats spread and so propagate the seeds of the trees they feed upon. Others practice crop protection - fish guard the more succulent algae of the coral reef and ants drive intruders from acacia trees. Our pre-Neolithic ancestors would have done the same - propagating trees by planting sticks, corralling animals, freshening the vegetation with fire.

But before the Neolithic revolution people combined such "proto-farming" with gathering and hunting. Yet this modus vivendi was unstable. The more that people controlled their environments the more their populations grew; and the more they grew the more they needed to supplement their diets by more proto- farming, until they were forced to farm all the time. This transition - not the birth of farming per se -is what the "Neolithic revolution" reflects.

Hunters, though, albeit hunting cum proto-farming, need to be idle. Hunting is difficult and dangerous. It is dramatically subject to the law of diminishing returns. Do it when you are too tired, and you get injured. Accordingly, lions doze for about 20 hours a day while the Bushmen of the Kalahari were shown to hunt only for about six hours a week. In between, they told stories.

But full-time farming changes the logistics. The point of farming is to increase the amount of food the environment can produce. The harder you work the more you get until the land is exhausted - and this can take a very long time. Hunters who worked hard would have fared no better than their indolent rivals. But farmers who toiled from dawn to dusk pushed their less vigorous fellows aside.

But after 10,000 years of human graft the most fertile lands worldwide are already under the plough. High and heavy tech do the work. It really would be sensible to do as our pre-farming ancestors did, and lions do now, and graft only as necessary. We should see our industriousness not as an inveterate "objective" good but as an adaptation geared to different times, and one that no longer makes sense; a mental vestige; virtually a psycho- pathology. We and the world would be much pleasanter and safer if we did.

Colin Tudge's latest book is `Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers: how agriculture really began' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 4.99)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee