The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Neolithic Singularity (Cake Wars, part II)

Ray Kurzweil and other techno-enthusiasts wax ecstatic over the coming “singularity” that will liberate humans from the limits of the physical body. Within a couple decades, through nanotechnology, we’ll be able to re-tool ourselves on the molecular/cellular level; ultimately, we’ll be able to upload our brains into machines and theoretically live forever. By “we,” I of course mean “they” — the tanned super-rich. One imagines future humanity ruled by an overclass of centuries-old Silicon Valley billionaires, orbiting the earth in laser-defended satellites, occasionally destroying a city or other “surface settlement” to scare the mortals into submission.

For now, it’s still on the drawing board. But in the distant past — 10,000 years ago, give or take — a singularity really did occur, a horizon beyond which human destiny was utterly and irreversibly altered. This was the transition to settled agriculture and the shift to a grain-based diet. The Neolithic Revolution is typically seen as a great advance, allowing people to settle down, create all the good things like cities and wealth and laws and writing and so on. But like biological evolution, social evolution isn’t ever simply a story of progress toward some ideal; it is adaptation to meet changing pressures and challenges.

The shift to cultivating grains didn’t happen because people finally figured out how to farm and thought it would be nice to stop being nomads; it happened because populations began to put too much pressure on the available resources. Resource scarcity drives technological innovation (think: overconsumption of oil–>rising gas prices–>demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles–>the Prius). Basically, beginning around 10,000 to 8,000 BC, migratory band-level societies living in the fertile equatorial and sub-equatorial areas all over the world started running out of resources, so they turned to the cultivation of grain. Put very simply, you can get more calories out of an acre of land by cultivating grain on it than you can by hunting and foraging on it. This principle “enabled” people to settle down, although in fact the life they settled down to was one of toil, and arguably worse in many ways than the migratory lifestyle they had given up.

Cultivating and storing grain crops meant the rise of central political authorities, and ultimately the rise of the city-state, with its huge divide between the rich ruling elite, the barely subsisting farmers laboring to produce the surplus needed to ensure year-round survival, and (often) slaves captured in war. Because the settled lifestyle was the beginning of warfare too. And we’re now learning that there was another big cost to the transition to an agricultural way of life: The so-called “diseases of civilization.” Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, as well as nuisances like tooth decay and acne can largely be traced to a diet based on “cheap” calories.

In my previous post I mused about how the world would never be able to support everyone returning to a Paleolithic diet that averted these health problems. All the bad or non-nutritive foods in the typical diet — refined carbohydrates, starches, factory-raised meat and poultry and dairy, etc. — are an effect of the global economic pressure to feed a higher population density than ever existed in the past. Even if new technological advances could theoretically enable high-quality, chemical-free meat and vegetables to be produced in factories, economics dictates that most of the world’s people will be induced by profit-motivated food producers to eat lower-quality food that sustains them but isn’t optimal for their health.

The inefficiency of a protein-rich diet — i.e., the fact that you can get more calories from scarce land by consuming grain grown on it than from feeding that grain to meat or dairy cattle, let alone pasturing those animals — has been part of the ecological argument against meat-eating for decades. (I’m thinking of books like Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet For A Small Planet, which was big when I was in college.) Yes, you can feed more people on the planet by giving up meat – for exactly the reasons I outlined as the basis for the Neolithic revolution — but when you see that the Neolithic lifestyle goes against what the human body is evolutionarily adapted for (i.e., a diet high in animal products), you see what a conundrum we face. The intersection of mainstream nutritional thinking with the ecological movement, and what this means for our society ever accepting (let alone embracing) anything like a Paleolithic diet, is fascinating to me.

As it now stands, “nutritionally sound” does not equal, and cannot equal, “ecologically sound.” That’s the hard reality. The solution of artificial, vat-grown meat, already being developed and encouraged by animal-rights organizations like PETA, may one day solve certain ethical issues of animal consumption; but even discounting the enormous R&D costs, the resources needed to mass-produce meat in vats are bound to be expensive — so, again, only affluent animal lovers, and the immortal super-rich in their space stations, will be able to afford to be clean-conscience carnivores.

What kind of compromise do we strike, as individuals and as a species? I wonder if the only answer is to nano-retool our bodies to better utilize refined carbohydrates. Maybe that’s the real solution.

About

I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at] gmail.com.

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