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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there