Did selfishness fuel farming?
Around 12,000 years ago, the behaviour of our ancestors underwent a radical change. Rather than taking food that was growing naturally around us, as we had done for thousands of years previously, we began to grow crops and farm the land.
Debate has raged for many years over why this change occured when it did. Was it that a new technology became available which made farming possible? Was it that farming was a more efficient way of life? Or was it that changes to the Earth's climate made farming possible?
A paper published by Samuel Bowles in PNAS this week argues that none of the above quite fit the evidence. His team, based at the Santa Fe Institute in California, point to archaeological discoveries that the early farmers were more under-nourished than the hunter gatherers who lived around them as evidence that farming was not a more efficient way to find food.
Moreover, even if farming makes more efficient use of land than hunting and gathering, the world's population was in decline at the time and there was no particular need to be efficient in land use.
Any suggestion that new technology helped the advent of farming also doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The basic tools of farming are seeds and ploughs, both of which are much simpler than the spears needed to hunt down a woolly mammoth in the wild.
Samuel Bowles suggests that the key to the beginning of farming may have been that we evolved to be more possessive and forceful in defending our exclusive right to property. He goes on to argue that since it is easier to raise children when settled in one place rather than roaming the countryside, once a few possessive individuals had set up farms which they defended against trespassers, they would have grown in number to take over control of society within a few generations.