Ecology: Farmers and Hunters

(see also Ecology: The Scholars)

Our human ecology, with its two signature properties of (1) being based on agriculture, and (2) supporting a large population, is shot through with dark dilemmas. Its awareness of this now is acute, but not, perhaps, all that much more so than it was around the time of its birth, some 8,000 years ago.

Being understandably prejudiced in favour of the way of life we know at first hand, we tend to dismiss the life of hunter-gatherers as laughably irrelevant to anything that matters to us now. However, we do in fact have considerable knowledge about that precursor to the familiar urban civilisation that we see as normal. Our main source of knowledge comes from anthropologists’ studies of the many groups all over the world who have been able—at least until very recently—to hold out against the transformation of their lives, societies and minds by the development of agriculture, and the explosive growth in population that follows. No romantic text along the lines of “Let’s go back to being hunter-gatherers”, or supposing that these societies were free of grief, is implied by recognising that they may have something to say to us which we need to know.

The first thing it is useful to know is that they knew what they were about. Stone Age craftsmen, with their mastery of working with crystalline rocks and their slender stone “laurel leave” knives, worked to a standard in their medium which has never been matched. Until the climate change at the end of the last ice age, when increased rainfall and expanding forests altered the equilibrium that had lasted 100,000 years, they maintained a balance with their environment and its food sources. They had reliable supplies of meat. They cooked it. They sustained conditions which supported natural selection for the brains we have now. They kept astronomical records. They would have had their Einsteins. They were artists. They lived sustainably.E1

And they had freedom. We can guess, no doubt, that there were exceptions to this, but what we know from studies of hunter-gatherers is that the political culture which was most suited to their lives, skills, numbers and environment was egalitarian individualism. The anthropologist Hugh Brody lived with and studied the Inuit in northern Canada. He writes of their respect for each other’s minds and decisions; individuals recognise each other as experts, and they may be willing to take advice, but the leader of the hunt does not give instructions. Others will follow if the plan is good or if the leader’s expertise is persuasive, but whether they do so or not is their decision.E2

This is a cooperative, capable society with shared ends and means. People (and other animals) with a high degree of community interdependence can develop the powers of shared thinking, acquiring some of the attributes we might think of as a collective brain (Modularity). One of the central concepts in Inuit culture is the sense and reason of deep belonging to the group. The education of Inuit children is based on imitation, inspiration, belonging, play and practice, with little explicit instruction: the children want to belong in the community, and they learn that participating in its culture is a good way of doing so. As Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Sampson and others argue—with unconcealed irritation at having to do so—there is indeed such a thing as human nature, despite the claims of the “blank slate” theory which has argued to the contrary: if the assumption around which we organise education is that our minds are passive and not much better than “potty putty” (as Sampson puts it), it is not surprising that we see education as an enormously difficult uphill task. The Inuit, in contrast, do not see it that way; they go with the flow of the developing insights for which their children’s minds are prepared.E3

So we do not need to have reservations about their competence when we read such delineations of hunter-gatherer societies as this:

In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at—or if they would work at all. Women, too, . . . generally set up their own daily schedules and paced themselves on an individual basis. . . . A man might decide it was a good day to string his bow, pile on thatch, look for feathers, or lounge about the camp. A woman might decide to . . . collect firewood, plait a basket, or visit her mother. If the cultures of modern band and village peoples can be relied upon to reveal the past, work got done in this way for tens of thousands of years. Moreover, wood for the bow, leaves for the thatch, birds for the feathers, . . . fibre for the basket—all were there for everyone to take. Earth, water, plants and game were communally owned. Every man and woman held title to an equal share of nature.E4

Why has it been necessary to pay this visit to Stone Age society when the matter at hand is the ecology of our time? Because we need to have some idea of a starting point and, in order to do that, we need to be aware of the state as a newcomer on the planet, and to note the differences between it and the very different form of human society and ecology which it replaced. There is, of course, debate about why so many human groups made the transition from the sustainable hunter-gatherer system to an expansionist agriculture in so many parts of the world at roughly the same time. One version of events is that, as the climate warmed and the ice retreated, as rainfall increased and the forests grew, conditions became less favourable for the large grassland-dependent animals (the megafauna) on which Stone Age society depended. This was a crisis which led to an intensification—and an improvement in the technology—of hunting, with the result that the megafauna were depleted and approached extinction, leaving their human predators with no alternative other than to domesticate their own plants and animals, to raise them in one place, and to call it home. But let us leave that matter unsettled and turn from why it happened to what happened, and what the consequences were. And—from the point of view of concise storytelling, combined with fierce insight into what it was like to be there and to experience that revolution at that time—there is no better source than the Book of Genesis.E5

We join the story in the second chapter. From the dust of the ground (adamah), God made Adam (Genesis 2:7). God planted the Garden of Eden but warned that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was not to be eaten, on pain of death. He made Eve from Adam’s rib. Then in chapter three, the serpent tempted Eve to eat the apple, despite the prohibition. It was so good that she persuaded Adam to have one too. God, who had been walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, realised what had happened, and came looking for them. He threw them out of the garden, placed angels with flaming swords at the entrance to make sure they stayed out, and issued seven interesting curses. All of them have something to tell us, but curses 4, 5 and 6 have intense relevance to the transformation from hunting to agriculture—to mankind’s new role as a farmer:

1. The serpent will crawl on its belly and be hated by human beings.

2. The woman will endure intense pain in childbirth.

3. The woman will yearn for her husband, but (he told Eve) “he shall rule over thee”.

4. The soil will be unproductive, full of thorn and thistles.

5. Humankind must “eat the herb of the field”.

6. In order to get enough to eat, the man will endure intense hardship: “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”.

7. In death, Adam will then return to the ground, “for out of it thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”.E6

With Adam’s two sons, Cain and Abel (in chapter 4), we begin to see these curses at work. Cain is an agriculturalist. Abel has somehow escaped the curses, and is a herder—that halfway stage from the life of the hunter-gatherer. They both make sacrifices to God. Abel offers a succulent lamb; Cain comes up with what sounds like a veggie box of rather middling quality. God evidently prefers the lamb. That makes Cain jealous and—despite a short lecture from God about needing a sense of responsibility towards his brother—Cain murders him. This is followed by God’s new curse—this time on Cain: he will find the ground where he has murdered Abel to be unproductive; he is condemned to move on, to be a vagabond, to live in the land of Nod (the land of wandering). And now two things happen. One is that Cain turns out to be very successful as an agriculturalist—the founding father of a whole people, building the first city, Enoch, complete with musicians, craftsmen working copper and iron, and a population that will restlessly spread (wander) far afield. The other is that Adam has another son, whom he calls Seth, and his wife takes pains to explain what he represents: “For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew”. Clearly, hostilities were to be permanent between the new order of agriculture and cities and the old order of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. The new order would win every time, but the matter would never be settled, least of all in the mind.E7

And that’s the story. We know that actually the process of domesticating plants took place over millennia, and indeed that hunting for food (fish, game) and foraging (blackberries, mushrooms) is still practised, but the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture must have seemed sudden, and to many it undoubtedly was: the original hunter-gatherer population of Europe was practically wiped out—except in the areas such as northern Scandinavia which were unsuitable for agriculture—in about the fifth millennium BC. The near liquidation of the indigenous Indians of North America took as little as two centuries. Wherever an agricultural people became established, their population would grow to the scale of the city, and they would expand outwards, destroying the hunter-gatherers as they went.E8

And now this city-building, forest-felling, ground-breaking, pastoralist-murdering, serially-cursed, crazily-expansionist, energy-addicted, water-insatiable, ruthless family of Cain, having won every other battle by foul means, has piously invented environmental ethics and wants to know how it can win with regard to the ecology.


Ethics and algorithms

One of the many things which that story leaves us to think about is the way in which matters turn out not as (we might think) they ought to. Abel, who is closer to nature and to God, is killed; Cain, who is cursed, prospers. His family is fruitful and multiplies; the knowledge derived from that forbidden tree is turning out to be rather useful. He and his descendants worked out how to domesticate plants and animals. Before long, God himself is seeing the sense of this, and takes to calling domesticated animals “clean” and wild animals “unclean”. In modern language, Cain and his descendants get out of jail free. By using knowledge and applying thought, they (we) can open up a range of choice which defies expectations, and seems to be free of the most elementary standards of right and wrong.E9

Clearly it pays to bend the environment to our will. Cain’s extended family, after being hit by an overwhelming curse which might have had anyone else spending the rest of time in sackcloth and ashes, walked away and worked out how to make wine. The tree of knowledge could equally well have been called the tree of opportunity. Its apples make you free.E10

Freedom is a good thing. That is an absolute and unconditional value. But even absolute and unconditional values come at a cost. The cost in this case is related to feedback. A rule for sustaining resilience is “tight feedback loops”—rapid response to a stimulus or shock. But then, the exception to this is the case of a large system in which there is a time-delay between events and consequences, and which uses that delay to apply its knowledge and intelligence; to dig itself in. It suffers grief and uncertainty because it knows much and sees many solutions, but knows it will not change: ecology’s nudges are simply ignored. The death penalty prescribed for those who eat from the tree of knowledge is carried out first in the sense of the death of innocence—freedom’s freedom to destroy itself and the world around it. Knowledge and intelligence can be a curse.

And stupidity, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains, can be an advantage. He explains why in his outline of the key principle of algorithms. An algorithm is a certain sort of formal process that can be counted on, whenever it is run, to yield a certain sort of result—the game of tossing a coin will always produce a winner and a loser; long division will always reveal factors of a number. Dennett’s interest in algorithms stems from his consideration of ecologies where species consistently reproduce more rapidly than the ecology can support, and therefore find themselves in competition. Following Darwin, Dennett shows that repeated waves of competition and selection will lead to a natural selection of traits, resulting in the emergence of a progressive advance in capability well beyond anything that could be consciously designed or predicted. It is not intelligence that has achieved this, but trial and error in response to the simplest of rules:

Darwin’s dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature. It is hard to believe that something as mindless and mechanical as an algorithm could produce such wonderful things.E11

Dennett’s observation about the stupidity, the underlying mindlessness, of algorithms is emphatic:

Although the overall design of the procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each constituent step, as well as the transition between steps, is utterly simple. How simple? Simple enough for a dutiful idiot to perform—or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform.E12

Cain’s children did not reject algorithms. They could not have developed their technology and cities and taken over the world if they had. But they used their knowledge to override—or to react differently to—the feedbacks of detail supplied by their ecology. The thorns and thistles indeed showed up as forecast by the curse, but instead of taking this as a sign that the environment did not like what they were doing, they took it as a sign that they needed to work harder and know more. More research was needed. And more sweat.


The yearning for an orderly ecology

One of the long-standing assumptions of thinkers about ecology is that it is ordered. For St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), for instance, animals are . . .

. . . ordered to man’s use in the natural course of things, according to divine providence.E13

and he cites the authority of Psalm 8:

Thou makest him [i.e., mankind] to have dominion of the work of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.E14

“Ordered” implies care, protection, continuity, an obligation not to destroy, because (Aquinas adds) what ultimately matters is “the perfection of the whole [which is] providentially cared for by God”.E15 And Aldo Leopold emphasised this sense of order and continuity in his land ethic (see Ecology: The Scholars):

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

and Leopold fuses this order with the idea of community:

A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.E16

In fact, community is central to ecology. The sense of community, equilibrium, cooperation, order and health was at the heart of ecology for much of the last century—a counterpoise in the mind, if not in practice, to the accelerating environmental destruction. The ecologist Paul Sears pressed the case for restoring biological order as a key task of public policy. For Frederic Clements, one of the characteristics of that order is that an ecology should not be prevented from maturing naturally towards, and then conserving, its “climax”. And the climax is a stable state in which its parts interact with each other almost to the point of forming a “superorganism”, with many of the self-organising properties of a single plant or animal.E17

Science both enriches ideas and amends them, and it did both to the idea of climax, adding the physics of energy flows, trophic levels (nutrition), mineral exchanges between living things and the physical environment to the central principle of diversity, and so forming the robust and coherent principle of the “ecosystem”, brought together by Eugene Odum. Much of the observation and science—perhaps most of what is most important—is correct: forests do undoubtedly promote and protect the high rainfall they need; clear, shallow lakes do provide habitat for the plants and fish that keep them clear; a failed state, awash with disorder and distrust does provide conditions for disorder and distrust to settle in and stay. That is the nature of resilience. But if the inference is drawn from this that natural systems have a purpose—the principle of “teleology”—there is trouble. And Odum gets into trouble. What all systems have in common, he tells us, is . . .

. . . a strategy of development . . . directed toward achieving as large and diverse an organic structure as is possible within the limits set by the available energy input and the prevailing conditions of existence.E18

The principle of teleology is not only attractive and inspiring, but influential. It influenced, for instance, Edward Goldsmith, perhaps the most inspirational writer on ecology of all:

Ecology has to be teleological, for purposiveness is possibly the most essential feature of the behaviour of living things. Only a methodology that accents this can enable us to understand the roles that living things play within the Gaian hierarchy of which they are the differentiated parts.E19

But there is a difficulty with this—it is inconsistent with the principle of natural selection, with its simple algorithms leading, by a process of competition and selection, towards increasing competence and diversity. It is possible, with care, to argue that animals have capabilities which are not at present recognised by most Darwinian scientists, but the basic principle of natural selection is now well out of the range of critics, and the idea of purposive progression towards climax and homeostasis is now not recognised as science.E20

Maybe forests do tend to mature to what looks like a complex condition, but some do not; and those that do are themselves in a constant state of change. Some ecologies’ progress towards maturity is interrupted; some destroy themselves, like inland lakes which eventually turn themselves into land; forests burn; some get so clogged and dark that they die back. None are exempt from the contest between Gaia (order) and Medea (disorder)—a satisfying story, but an uncomfortable one: while we naturally want to join together to progress towards an orderly future, we know that, in the long view of ecology, nature sees this as a rather naïve aim.


A question of scale

The Wheel of Life entry traces the sequence from the pioneering stage of an ecology to its maturity and ultimate failure. This ‘adaptive cycle’ is widely acknowledged in the science of ecology at present, and it may well prove to be robust because it is a coherent view of how complex and ecological systems in general can be expected to behave, given what we mean by complexity—a system containing lots of species interacting with each other and their environment in diverse ways. To refer to Barry Commoner’s Fourth Law of Ecology (though filched from economics): “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. It would be strange if complexity were indeed a perfect system untouched by old age and decay and vulnerable only to some unkind external force that comes along to spoil it.E21

But a large complex ecology is made up of smaller, less complex ones—holons—which build their own capabilities. The holons join up, adapt and change, forming a hierarchy or panarchy of subsystems which cooperate in a positive and symbiotic way with the larger system. But even individually and on their small scale, they have the advantage of rapid feedback and recovery-elastic resilience which may enable them to endure in some form, even if the wider system does not. It could go the other way—with the whole ecosystem failing and taking everything with it, small-scale holons included. But at least those local holons are in with a chance.

Cain and his extended family of (now) some 7 billion people have received plenty of feedback cues about inadvisable courses of action, but their response has been to insist that their knowledge and their size gives them the freedom to do it anyway. We do not live in the domain of algorithms. We have a plan, and we have the freedom to carry it out. Would living in the domain of algorithms mean being unfree? No, it would mean being small.


Related entries:

Ecology: The Scholars, Good Shepherd Paradox, Spirit.


« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: