“Lazy Like Lions”, by Apio Ludd

Lazy Like Lions

“In the jungle, the [lazy] jungle the [lazy] lion sleeps tonight!”

Colin Tudge, Neanderthals, Farmers & Bandits: How Agriculture Really Began, Yale University Prss, 1998

This short book (53 pages) is a clearly written essay exploring the fuzzy line between mere foraging (hunting and gathering) and cultivation. The author is not an “expert” in any of the specific fields one might think necessary for such an exploration. He is not a biologist, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an ecologist, etc. He is described merely as a “research fellow at the London School of Economics: for philosophy” and is known as a science writer. But this lack of expertise in any single field combined with his capacity for critical thinking allows him to escape the limits imposed by any single scientific specialization on the ability to draw evidence from different fields together. In this essay, he managed to weave different strands of evidence from several fields together to create a feasible and very interesting story of how agriculture began. Though at times, I felt he stretched credibility a bit, in general, the story he tells seems fairly likely.

His hypotheses are sure to aggravate those (die-hard primitivists, for example) who want a clear break between a pristine foraging existence and the rise of agriculture, those who prefer the theological perspective of a “fall” into civilization. Tudge instead describes how all beings to some extent manipulate their environment, and intelligent beings will almost certainly willfully manipulate it to more readily gain what they desire from it. Such manipulation will include method for favoring the growth of certain plants and animals that those manipulating find particularly desirable or useful. In the picture that Tudge paints, the earliest “farming” would have involved only a few techniques and would have only been taken up occasionally for brief periods, like a hobby, supplementing the foraging of people who were still mainly nomadic. He points out that settled, arable farming requires a high level of “unremitting toil” and argues that no one would be likely to switch from the life of foraging supplemented by occasional “hobby farming” to settled arable agriculture unless circumstances forced them. In the case of the Fertile Crescent, he is able to explain those circumstances in relation to the effects of the melting at the end of the last ice age. But what allowed people to make this change there was that they had already developed a number of methods for manipulating their environments which they could weave together and enhance to create settled arable agriculture. And those methods were the various different ways they’d developed for favoring the growth of certain animals and plants in their surroundings. In other words, there was no sudden fall, no magical flaring up of the idea to dominate other creatures, but rather a simple egoistic desire to more easily get the foods and other things that one most wanted, and the intelligence to figure out ways to do so.

But one of the best aspects of Tudge’s book is his recognition of the relative life of ease that these foragers with their hobby gardens likely lived, the laziness that was likely their usual way of life, as opposed to the unremitting toil of the settle peasant. He takes his readers through his arguments and brings them to the current hectic world and the increasingly irrevocable damage it seems to be bringing about, and concludes his book with this advice: “Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are lazy. Perhaps we should learn from them.” And since I want to enjoy my life as much as I can, I am quite willing to take such advice.

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