The adoption of agriculture was one of the most momentous transformations in human history. It set into motion forces that changed our species from living in small numbers within the confines of local ecosystems into one that is now changing the biophysical characteristics of the entire planet. We argue that this transformation can be understood as a leap to ultrasociality—a type of social organization rare in nature but wildly successful when it occurs. Several species of ants and termites made a similar leap in social organization and the broad characteristics of their societies are remarkably similar to post hunter-gatherer human societies. Ultrasocial species dominate the ecosystems they occupy in terms of sheer numbers and the scale of ecosystem exploitation. We argue that the drivers for the ultrasocial transition to agriculture are economic. These societies operate as superorganisms exhibiting an unparalleled degree of division of labor and an economic organization centered around surplus production. We suggest that the origin of human and insect agriculture is an example of parallel evolution driven by similar forces of multi-level selection. Only with the evolution of expansionist agriculturalist societies did humans join ants and termites in the social domination of Earth. Viewing agriculture as an ultrasocial transition offers insights not only about the origins of agriculture and its consequences, but also about the forces shaping the current demographic transition and the modern global socio-economic system.
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There is clear evidence for complex symbolic culture from a site in South Africa dating 70,000 years ago (Henshilwood et al. 2004). Another site in South Africa (Pinnacle Point) contained red ochre pigments dating back to 164,000 years ago (Marean et al. 2007). Whether the development of human symbolic culture was gradual or a sudden revolution is still a matter of dispute but opinion is turning against the idea that human culture arrived in a sudden burst some 40,000 years ago. See the discussion in Knight (2010) and Pringle (2013).
The 1968 conference “Man the Hunter” (Lee and DeVore 1968) overturned the conventional wisdom of the time that hunter-gather existence was “nasty, brutish and short.” Richard Lee, Marshall Sahlins and others made a convincing case that hunter-gatherers had ample leisure time and lifestyles that were “affluent” in the sense of having everything they needed for a satisfying life. In a predicable counter-reaction Kelly (1995) and others argued that hunting and gathering was a spectrum of lifestyles and questioned Lee’s calculations of working hours among the Ju/ ‘hoansi of the Kalahari and his description of their peaceful lifestyle. For a response and a discussion of the current state of hunter-gatherer studies see Lee and Daly (1999).
This is not to deny that hunter-gatherers had dramatic impacts on local environments through hunting big game animals and by the use of fire to modify ecosystems (Murray 2003; Rule et al. 2012). The extent to which humans were responsible for megafaunal extinctions is still unclear. Current opinion leads toward the explanation that megafaunal extinction after the last ice age was a case of “coevolutionary disequilibrium” triggered by climate change and hunting pressure.
The parallel evolution of human societies after agriculture is nothing short of astonishing. Wright (2004, pp. 50–51) describes the results of parallel evolution from hunter-gatherers to civilization in Europe and the Americas: “What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other’s institutions. When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.” As we argue throughout this paper, such results cannot be explained by chance. There must exist basic evolutionary forces driving human ultrasociality.
For an illuminating discussion of the current state of the group selection controversy in biology see D.S. Wilson’s “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” available at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Truth-and-Reconciliation.pdf.
For a humorous account of leveling mechanisms in hunter-gatherer cultures see “Christmas in the Kalihari” in Lee (1993).
As conscious beings with long term memory and the capacity for planning and forethought, humans can disaggregate the conception of work from its execution and further rationalize the process of production and organize economic life based on the accumulated knowledge of the past.
A loss of intelligence associated with the increasing division of labor may also be present in eusocial insects. Riveros et al. (2012) tested the association between brain size and sociality across 18 species of fungus growing ants and found that increased colony size was associated with decreased relative brain size. In a study of human brain size, Geary and Bailey (2009) found that between 1.9 million and 10,000 years ago, when population density was low human cranium increased in size, but when population density increased beyond a certain point cranium size decreased. Average human brain size has decreased significantly, about 10 %, since the Upper Paleolithic.
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The authors would like to thank the following for comments on an earlier draft: Jennifer Fewell, Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Dan Franks, Michael Ghiselin, Mason Inman, Clark Spencer Larsen, Doug Price, Peter Richerson, Simron Singh, Arild Vatn, David Sloan Wilson and Ulrich Witt. The comments of four anonymous reviewers were particularly useful. They are not, of course, responsible for the opinions expressed in this paper. We would like to acknowledge the contribution of discussions with the participants in a series of workshops funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) at Duke University and a workshop “Evolution and Bioeconomics” at Ringberg Castle, Germany sponsored by the Max Planck Institute at Jena.
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Gowdy, J., Krall, L. Agriculture as a major evolutionary transition to human ultrasociality. J Bioecon 16, 179–202 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10818-013-9156-6
- Division of labor
- Economies of scale
- Evolutionary economics
- Neolithic demographic transition
- Origin of agriculture