Historical Notes: All this hard graft no longer makes sense
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)
Latest in News
From the blogs
I know Dan Lepard nabbed it first for his wonderful book on baking but I’m eternally jealous, as it ...
Let's talk book blurbs, those quotes you get, usually from other writers, that are meant to entice y...
Much has been written this past week about a Syrian rebel named Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the nom...
Maize is a political crop that has essentially enslaved Malawi as a nation. Despite being the staple...
Notes from a small island: Is Sealand an independent 'micronation' or an illegal fortress?
World news in pictures
You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
Join Ryanair! See the world! But we'll only pay you for nine months a year
Revealed: Eerie new images show forgotten French apartment that was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II and left untouched for 70 years
- 1 Stoke City investigate 'religious abuse' after 'pig's head is found in Kenwyne Jones' locker'
- 2 Heading for America? Prepare for the longest US immigration queues ever
- 3 Amir Khan interview: 'One second could end my boxing career'
- 4 Groundhog day looms for Arsène Wenger as Arsenal battle for a place in the Champions League on final day
- 5 Join Ryanair! See the world! But we'll only pay you for nine months a year
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.
£350 - £500 per day: Progressive Recruitment: Project Manager - Public Sector ...
£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...
Negotiable: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: HR Manager Independe...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Huxley Associates: INTERIM HR MANAGER - ...