Field of Science

Book Review: "Against the Grain", by James Scott

James Scott's important and utterly fascinating book questions what we can call the "Whig view" of history, which goes something like this: At the beginning we we were all "savages". We then progressed to becoming hunter gatherers, then at some point we discovered agriculture and domesticated animals. This was a huge deal because it allowed us to became sedentary. Sedentism then became the turning point in the history of civilization because it led to cities, taxation, monarchies, social hierarchies, families, religion, science and the whole shebang of civilizational wherewithal that we take for granted.

Scott tells us that not only is this idea of progress far from being as certain, linear or logical as it sounds, but it's also not as much of a winning strategy as we think. In a nutshell, his basic thesis is that the transition from hunter-gatherer to sedentism was messy and mixed, with many societies sporadically existing in one or the other system. The transition from agriculture to city-states was even less certain and obvious, with agriculture emerging about 10,000 years ago and the first modern city-state of Uruk I in Mesopotamia emerging almost seven thousand years later, around 3000 BC. Until then people existed in temporary and fluctuating states of agriculture and hunter-gatherer existence.

Perhaps an even bigger message in the book is regarding the very nature of history which basically tells us the stories it preserves. Cities form the core of history because they leave traces like large monuments, but life outside cities which can be far more extensive - as it was until very recently - leaves no traces and is discounted in our narratives. The fact is that even after agriculture and the first city-states came along, cities were often temporary and fragmentary and often dispersed because of disease, famine, war, taxation or oppressive rulers, floods and droughts and reformed, much like an anthill. Then the population would live off the land as hunter-gatherers for some time and form city-like complexes again when the time was ripe. As part of his evidence that cities were by no means obvious, Scott makes the argument that the first civilizations formed around waterways and not in the plans and mountains. These civilizations were mixed models of hunter-gatherer and city-like existence at best.

Once we assume that cities were by no means enduring or certain, we can start questioning the wisdom of other narratives associated with them. For instance take the all-important nature of grains (wheat, barley, corn and rice) being the major staples of the world, then as now. Scott makes the brilliant argument that unlike other crops like potatoes and legumes, grains became the staple of city-dwellers not because they were objectively better in terms of nutrition but because they could be easily taxed because they were above-ground, ripened all at once and could be counted, assessed and carted away. But grains often consigned city residents to a monoculture, unlike hunting and gathering which could take advantage of a variety of food sources on land, water and brush.

The same arguments apply to domestication of animals. As Jared Diamond showed in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel", most of our modern diseases and pandemics can be traced back to diseases of animal or zoonotic origins, so domestication was hardly the wholly blissful invention we assume. With domesticated animals also came rats, sparrows, crows and mice which are called commensals, These brought other sources of destruction and disease. Finally, taxation which was a major feature of cities and which contributed massively to critical developments like slavery and writing could become very oppressive.

All this meant that cities were hardly the nuclei of civilization progress that we assume them to be. Not surprisingly, especially in a hybrid model, city dwellers often fled the unsanitary, tax-heavy, monoculture-rich environment of cities to a more flexible and open hunter-gatherer environment. In fact the vast majority of the population lived outside cities until very recently. Now, no means is Scott making the argument here, popular among "back to nature" paleo-enthusiasts, that hunting and gathering was fundamentally a better existence. He is saying that hunting and gathering continued to have advantages that made, until very recently, a permanent move to cities far from desirable, let alone inevitable. Unfortunately because cities leave archeological traces, we fall into the mistaken assumption that the history of civilization is the history of city-states.

In the last part of the book, Scott tackles the topic of "barbarians" versus city dwellers. Based on the ensuing discussion, it should come as no surprise that Scott is very cynical about the very word as invented by the Greeks and applied generously by the Romans. Clearly compared to the Roman and Greek city states, the barbarian countryside was often thriving and more desirable to live in. More importantly, the very distinction between barbarians and "civilized" folks is fluid and fuzzy - as is now well-known in the case of Rome, Romans could be barbarians, and barbarians could be Romans citizens (popularized recently in the Netflix show "Barbarians"). The fact is that Romans often willingly became "barbarians" because of the oppressive nature of the city-state.

Scott's book is one of the most important books I have read in years; it may well be one of the most important books I will ever read. The best thing about it is that it presents history the way it was, as a series of incidental, messy events whose end outcome was by no means certain. Whatever order we decide to impose on history is of our own making.

1 comment:

  1. This sentence in the second paragraph is incorrect:
    "...with agriculture emerging about 10,000 years ago and the first modern city-state of Uruk I in Mesopotamia emerging almost seven thousand years later, around 3000 BC."

    7000 years after 10,000 years is 1000 BC not 3000 BC


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