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In which John discusses the agricultural revolution, the development of permanent settlements, and whether cities were good news. SOURCES BELOW.
Hank is publishing a novel next year!
But before then, we are going on tour to celebrate my new novel, Turtles All the Way Down:


Hunter-gatherers have less famine than agriculturalists: This gets into some of the archeology and analysis of human remains that indicates that hunter-gatherers lived on average longer and healthier lives than agriculturalists.

The Case against Civilization inspired this video and includes the statistics about how much hunter-gatherers work in food acquisition and domestic labor:

This article also explores some of the complexities of agriculture's development:

The book discussed in "The Case against Civilization" is called AGAINST THE GRAIN, and while I disagree with a lot that's in it, I also think it's an interesting read and outlines both its case for why cities developed and other people's cases. I also leaned on the book SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari for some of the theories about why cities developed.

Our World in Data is an amazing resource for understanding long-term trends in human history. That's where I got the graph about the dramatic reduction in absolute poverty the world is experiencing:

And also the graph about the declining number of hours worked:

And lastly, the median U.S. household income really is higher (even after adjusting for inflation) than it ever has been before:

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Preorder John's new book, Turtles All the Way Down, out October 10th 2017! You can find links to both the signed and unsigned editions here: and information on how to (probably) get a signed copy here:
Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.

So I think one of the great unanswered questions of world history is, why cities? Like, for 95 percent of human history basically, everyone was a hunter-gatherer living in a small band of maybe a few dozen people.

And then around 12,000 years ago communities started to get bigger with the advent of agriculture and domesticated livestock. Suddenly one person could harvest and/or slaughter more than one person's food needs, meaning that not everyone had to be in the food acquisition business. And that allowed for specialization of labor--professional priests and scribes and soldiers and so on.

But how and why that happened is the subject of much debate amongst historians, not least because the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture seems to have been completely irrational. For starters, hunter-gatherers seem to have been healthier than early agriculturalists. Like analysis of human remains and archaeological sites show us that famine and starvation were much more common among early settlement dwellers.

Also, hunter-gatherers were less likely to die of disease pandemics because, you know, cities meant lots of people living together and getting each other sick, and also living with livestock, so diseases could cross the species barrier.

So living in early agricultural settlements was bad for your health. It also probably meant more work. Like, studies of twentieth-century hunting and gathering communities show that members of those communities work on average less than twenty hours per week acquiring food, and also less than twenty hours per week on so-called domestic labor, which is everything from preparing food to tool and shelter maintenance.

Everything we can gather about early agricultural life is that it was a lot more labor-intensive, and certainly contemporary life is a lot more labor-intensive. Like, Americans, for instance, work on average forty hours a week and spend another thirty-six hours per week on domestic labor.

So why would anyone wanna live in a city, where your life is harder but also shorter? Well, there are many theories about this--some people think the chicken of state power came first, that like the moment there was a surplus it was taxed by the state, and then the power structure became inescapable for the people living under it. Others think the egg came first, that people chose to use the surplus to create a state that could protect them from outside attack.

Some theorize that then, as now, cities were just more exciting places to live, with more connections to make. Others argue the relative equality of hunter-gatherer communities was unattractive to those who wanted power and that the drive to concentrate power drove the growth of cities.

But whatever happened, it does seem like cities were not, in the short- or even medium-term interest of those who lived in them.

Now, it'd be easy to say, and many have, that this was all a mistake and we should've just remained hunter-gatherers. Certainly agriculture and the ensuing human-centric planet has been very bad for biodiversity on earth. But we also shouldn't romanticize pre-agricultural communities, where infanticide was usually common and rates of death by violence were usually much higher than they are now.

And while settlements do seem to have been initially disastrous for those who lived in them, they did eventually lead to better lives for humans by almost any measure. We are less likely to die of infectious disease or malnutrition or violence than ever. And while, as I mentioned earlier, we do work more than hunter-gatherers, we also work less than we have at any point in the last 150 years. Meanwhile, absolute poverty is declining dramatically, and median U.S. household income is at its highest point ever.

But I'd actually argue the greatest benefit of cities has been reading and writing, which have allowed us to speed our accumulation of knowledge and fueled discoveries in science and technology and which could only be invented in big communities with specialization of labor.

But there were trade-offs to the choices our ancestors made, and there are trade-offs to the choices we're making today. To live intentionally, I think you have to bear in mind what you believe to be the ground of meaning in life. Like, if the point of life is to preserve biodiversity on our home planet, then hunting and gathering is the way to go. If the point is to seek an understanding of the universe and our place in it, then specialization of labor is a necessity.

But I'd have to say that while I understand much has been lost, I am grateful to live in a world with telescopes and vaccines and YouTube and books.

Late update! Speaking of books, Hank, I am so incredibly excited you are publishing a book next year! Fancy New York Times article in the doobly-doo below!

I continue to be awed by your ability to do so many things so well. It is An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. That is the title, but it's also how I feel. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.