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« The Fourth Annual Biophysical Economics Conference | Main | The Fourth Annual Biophysical Economics Conference - Followup »

November 06, 2012


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John Wesley Harding

1. Agriculture did not appear everywhere at once. Its most popular variant originated 10-11K years ago in the fertile crescent

2. Agriculture did not become predominant in 1-2K years. It spread over the course of 5-6K years, outward from its origin (determined by tracing genetic markers).

3. Agricultural spread wasn't the cessation of migration, but fueled by migration. For example, Northern European agriculturalists were migrants with lineage tracing back to what we would call Greece today. They came with their own unique culture, displayed by unique burial practices in megaliths. I'd theorize that local overshoot from bursts of surplus energy forced agriculturalists outward toward new lands.

4. Wealth (the ability to command energy) is a natural consequence of agriculture and the granary. The accumulation of seeds allowed early farmers to exponentially harness the sun's energy. Naturally, they would begin to value physical tokens (originally seeds) that give them the potential to secure energy and expand it. A seed was the difference between life and death, and giving it to someone could put them vastly in debt to you.

@Oliver: While the thought may be sad, it can also drastically shift the paradigm going forward. We can separate humans from civilization and agriculture (which are likely facing extinction), and find a way forward by looking into the past. We don't have to hate what we are, but what we have become. There is life after the plow (minus 7 billion people or so), and that life may be beautiful. It could also suck worse.


Before agriculture humans simply did not reproduce faster than they died. I think ample paleo population studies have noted this. We are not all that different than before agriculture, we just have figured out not only how to co-opt ever larger percents of the earth's annual output, but to pull out of the earth the output of previous geological eras. It was a great ride.

Paul Chefurka

JWH, I guess I've been labouring under some misapprehensions. Thanks for setting me straight. I guess the world is ordinary after all :-/

The advent of agriculture was a massive enough shift on its own to completely change our cultural narratives. There's no point pining for the olden golden days - because even if they were in some sense real, you can't go home again.

My sense is not that "we're finished" in an absolute sense like extinction (at least not immediately) but that we're heading for changes that we can't predict, can't prepare for, and perhaps won't prepare for. I'm actively not preparing for them even though i know they're coming, partly because I can't, but partly out of curiosity - what will it feel like to move through the change as a ordinary person but fully aware of what's happening? It should be interesting.

By the way, can someone recommend a good book on the topic of the spread of agriculture?


We must look for the grounds not only look at the consequences (which are Obama, multinational companies, governments). The root of problems is in human relationships of ordinary people i.e. in what way life is organized in masses. Ordinary people live for their families and for well-being of their families they steal, kill, and deceive for the sake of their families. Everyone is ready for anything such as deceiving, stealing, and trickery for well-being of their families. There is war in society between people for survival (for the place under the sun for more capable) not human relationships of building and cooperation. War is animal relationships of competition and mutual destruction.


In addition:

Survival and place under the sun are the same things. It depends on a person status in life.


Great point Paul. It's almost like we were visited by aliens who influenced us with innovative ideas like math, engineering and agriculture.

Paul Chefurka

Tom, I'm not supposed to mention the name Sitchin out loud in public :-) But yes, it does feel like that.


Do you guys really think that the end of the ice age and the subsequent warming and ice melt causing massive run off flows was just a coincidence with the beginning of agriculture?

Agriculture allowed for much more free time and hence the development of technologies and other knowledge.

I know it is fun to speculate about aliens but Occam's razor applies.

Aboc Zed


thanks for reminding everyone about Occam razor - we all need to remember to apply it to what we think and say

Heartfelt welcome to John Wesley Harding!

Your most insightful comments are very much appreciated.

I particularly liked your point about "not hating humans and blaming evolution".

I hope the "regulars" would not mind me much saying that all of us here have our own "personalities" in terms of focus and communication style but I think I will not be far off the truth if I say that all of us respect and strive to use scientific method and share the fruits of our analysis with others.

So once again good to learn there is one more individual who asks questions on behalf of the organism-whole.

My opinion is we will not go extinct but learn from the bottleneck with sapient portion (in my book I call them belief-free-scientists) moving into government and governance and taking over from homo sapiens sapiens. I call the humans of the sustainable future Homo Cogitans - _thinking_ man

Evolution never stops. We will keep on learning and eventually the speed of learning will catch up with the momentum of human condition and we will apply the knowledge we accumulated to managing ourselves and whatever left of the planet after the bottleneck event in the post fossil fuel era.

I even think that however miniscule and insignificant each of us is on our own if we were to organize in some seed group it would make an impact.


AZ - Nice to hear your 'voice' again. Here's a question for you.

Is the evolution of Homo cogitans (a wonderful thought) based on hope, or based on science? If the latter, please elucidate. Thanks.

Aboc Zed


I think evolution is based neither on hope nor on science.

Evolution is a property of matter. Matter in organic form. In other words, lifeforms evolve. That is all we can say.

Hope is our word to denote a certain state of wishful thinking which may or may not be informed by science. Hope is a break against depression induced by knowing that probability of positive outcome is practically zero.

Science is our word for the accumulation of knowledge. Science is inevitable manifestation of genetic property of hominids which I call "deliberative capability". Because genetic qualities of all lifeforms can be viewed as result and factors of evolutionary process we can say that science is an out come of evolution.

Think about laws of thermodynamics and entropy - the fundamental arrow pointing from order to disorder. The only direction we have observed so far in the Universe.

Science and knowledge accumulation can be thought of as the way by which lifeforms balance the entropy.

Life is accumulation of knowledge. Our complex brains learn. When we die all that learning is released back as simple building blocks of matter. It gets reused by other lifeforms and eventually by stars and planet and so on and so forth without beginning and without end.

Evolution of Homo Cogitans will simply be a next step in entropy fighting accumulation of knowledge by lifeforms.

The general breakdown of civilization will require next level of organization a the hominid organism-whole level. And I am not speaking of technology and culture we have now that are based on institutionalized ignorance.

I am talking about fundamentally next level of institutionalization that does not yet exist simply because it requires a seed group of individuals who while operating under constraints of default institutions of homo sapiens sapiens would think and act within the group in a fundamentally new way.

I cannot devine that way.

But I know that as species we will _evolve_ that way.

We have so many of us - billions and we learn fast enough to eventually come up with a seed group I am talking about.

Once the seed group emerges it will run all the way to the top of the pecking order pyramid very quickly because it would be the only group that knows what has to be done to survive and how to transition from unsustainable institutionalization of homo sapiens to sustainable institutions of homo cogitans.

Of course many doomers think that homo sapiens will take down the whole planet by squeezing last drop of juice out of Gaia but I am odf the opinion that homo cogitans that already are among us simply will not let it happen because they will see clearly that it would be the mater of their survival to dismantle homo sapiens and its unsustainable ways.

Most likely when it happens the planet will be scortched and it is something we cannot do anything about because our learning is lagging behind our corrupting our environment. But eventually our learning will speed up and the die off causes slow down of corrupting - that is the time when homo cogitans emerge and take over from homo sapiens. It may happen in 50 to 100 years or it may happen in 100 to a 1000 years but it will happen if we manage to have continuity of knowledge accumulation and that we should be able to do with writing books and educating our children.


Thanks AZ - very insightful rationale. I will re-read this a few times to absorb what you theorise about "our" future, which is certainly a lot more interesting than the 'total extinction' scenario.

One sentence immediately got my attention: Hope is a break against depression induced by knowing that probability of positive outcome is practically zero. That is both amusing and tragically truthful. I lived in hope for decades, and when I eventually got angry that my hopes never materialised, I hit the bottom of the deepest nadir. Your definition really helps me understand the process, so thanks for that.

All the best, Oliver

George Mobus


Sorry for these increasing delays in responses. I posted a comment in my "4th annual BPE" blog to explain my slowness.

This has been a very interesting discussion. I'm glad to see the blog spur such thoughtful commentary. Responding to the back and forth regarding evolution/agriculture, etc. I can only suggest the following. This is how I see evolution.

The Universe is a giant entropy machine. Energy always flows from concentration to void. But while it does so, it passes through subsystems of matter that interact with the energy flow to produce local organization and complex dynamics, i.e. life where the degrees of freedom and thermal conditions allow.

Living systems are excellent dissipative structures. They evolve to maximally dissipate whatever free energy is available. We humans are just the epitome of this natural maximization. Ergo we will use up energy at the fastest possible pace just because it is available! All of our cognitive faculties are geared toward this end, hence we are genetically predisposed to grow and reproduce to provide additional (expanded) pathways by which energy can dissipate.

However, there is a kind of potential out. While energy is making its way through our dissipative structures it is temporarily in residence. Energy can be converted from kinetic to potential in many ways. So it isn't necessarily true that we absolutely have to burn it all up as fast as we can so long as there is an evolutionary process constructing greater organization (and storage of energy) than previously existed.

Now I posit that the evolution of our brains actually reflects this principle. We evolved to be able to invent and use agriculture as a way to increase the residence time of energy in our Earth system. But we did not evolve the kind of hierarchical regulation systems that, for example, we find in unified living organisms like cells and individuals. Such regulation systems must pertain to society, or in other words, our societies must evolve to be more eusocial.

This means, however, that our brains must evolve a greater capacity to be agents in such a society. Rather than turn into ants or bees, our evolution toward eusociality was along the lines of more empathy, strategic, and systems thinking - IOW: higher sapience.

What seems to have happened, though, is the horse got behind the cart as we were clever enough to invent agriculture before we were sapient enough to understand it as a way to regulate energy flow (and consequently regulate our own behaviors and population sizes, etc.)

Thus we are in the situation we are. I still have hope that a bottleneck evolutionary process will provide a kind of reset and since we will have diminished the fossil fuel stores below an economical recovery level our progeny (if any) will be forced to find ways to manage the real-time flows of solar energy and regulate their own selves to match.

Ultimately entropy wins, of course. But my suspicion is that there is still a lot of evolving of organization, both biologically and socially, that can go on on this planet. Our experiment with agriculture was marred by our lack of bigger-picture understanding. But that doesn't mean that agriculture, as a means for capturing and storing energy, was inherently a bad thing. If there is a future for the genus I think it must involve understanding the trophic pyramid principle that allows the top of the food chain to evolve sentience as long as its total biomass stays within the limits of the whole system.

The real solution is biological-social co-evolution. In my opinion.



Thanks for this elucidation George. It imbues me with the lately missing sense of joy that maybe, just maybe human society will change into the biological-social co-evolution that you outline. This would give me a tad of comfort that it wasn't a complete waste of energy resources my breathing the same oxygen as my Alpha Male co-inhabitants. :-)

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