Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

Devolution

Some 70,000 years ago we Sapiens enjoyed our Cognitive Revolution, although it is somewhat unclear exactly why. During this time we began to behave in new and ingenious ways. It was at this point in history that our ancestors began spreading to all corners of the globe. This was followed by the Agricultural Revolution roughly 11,000 years ago, which many believe to have been a great triumph for humanity. But historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, takes a different view.

Scholars once proclaimed that the Agricultural Revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature's secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous and often Spartan life of hunter gathers, settling down to enjoy the pleasantly satiated life of farmers. That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.

In chapter three of the same book, Harari acknowledges that we Sapiens, as a group, are far more knowledgeable now than at any other point in history. But that we have also become heavily reliant on one another far beyond comfortable acknowledgement.

The Human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapien's brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along, people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new niches for imbeciles were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly line worker.

Beyond this industrial scale codependency we've cultivated, Harari also suggests that contrary to popular belief, the Agricultural Revolution has resulted in a much harder existence for farmers when compared with hunter-gatherers.

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosion and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.

Whether or not Harari is right, we should be cautious not to invest so heavily in the next revolution that we have no means of turning back.

Inspired by: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


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