Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

One of the best books I read this past year is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. The book covers the type of data HBDers (human biodiversity advocates) and other hereditarians tend to ignore. Kenneally shows how powerful is environment in shaping thought, perception, and behavior.

What really intrigued me is how persistent patterns can be once set into place. Old patterns get disrupted by violence such as colonialism and mass trauma such as slavery. In the place of the old, something new takes form. But this process isn’t always violent. In some cases, technological innovation can change an entire society.

This is true for as simple of a technology as a plow. Just imagine what impact a more complex technology like computers and the internet will have on society in the coming generations and centuries. Also, over this past century or so, we saw a greater change to agriculture than maybe has been seen in all of civilization. Agricultural is becoming industrialized and technologized.

What new social system is being created? How long will it take to become established as a new stable order?

We live in a time of change and we can’t see the end of it. We are like the people who lived during the time when the use of plows first began to spread. All that we know, as all that they knew, is that we are amidst change. This inevitably creates fear and anxiety. It is a crisis that has the potential of being more transformative than a world war. It is a force that will be both destructive and creative, but either way it is unpredictable.

* * * *

The Invisible History of the Human Race:
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
by Christine Kenneally
Kindle Locations 2445-2489

Catastrophic events like the plague or slavery are not the only ones that echo down the generations . Widespread and deeply held beliefs can be traced to apparently benign events too, like the invention of technology. In the 1970s the Danish economist Ester Boserup argued that the invention of the plow transformed the way men and women viewed themselves. Boserup’s idea was that because the device changed how farming communities labored, it also changed how people thought about labor itself and about who should be responsible for it.

The main farming technology that existed when the plow was introduced was shifting cultivation. Using a plow takes a lot of upper-body strength and manual power, whereas shifting cultivation relies on handheld tools like hoes and does not require as much strength. As communities took up the plow, it was most effectively used by stronger individuals , and these were most often men. In societies that used shifting cultivation, both men and women used the technology . Of course, the plow was invented not to exclude women but to make cultivation faster and easier in areas where crops like wheat, barley, and teff were grown over large, flat tracts of land in deep soil. Communities living where sorghum and millet grew best— typically in rocky soil— continued to use the hoe. Boserup believed that after the plow forced specialization of labor, with men in the field and women remaining in the home, people formed the belief— after the fact— that this arrangement was how it should be and that women were best suited to home life.

Boserup made a solid historical argument, but no one had tried to measure whether beliefs about innate differences between men and women across the world could really be mapped according to whether their ancestors had used the plow. Nathan Nunn read Boserup’s ideas in graduate school, and ten years later he and some colleagues decided to test them.

Once again Nunn searched for ways to measure the Old World against the new. He and his colleagues divided societies up according to whether they used the plow or shifting cultivation . They gathered current data about male and female lives, including how much women in different societies worked in public versus how much they worked in the home, how often they owned companies, and the degree to which they participated in politics. They also measured public attitudes by comparing responses to statements in the World Value Survey like “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than a woman.”

Nunn found that if you asked an individual whose ancestors grew wheat about his beliefs regarding women’s place, it was much more likely that his notion of gender equality would be weaker than that of someone whose ancestors had grown sorghum or millet. Where the plow was used there was greater gender inequality and women were less common in the workforce. This was true even in contemporary societies in which most of the subjects would never even have seen a plow, much less used one, and in societies where plows today are fully mechanized to the point that a child of either gender would be capable of operating one.

Similar research in the cultural inheritance of psychology has explored the difference between cultures in the West and the East. Many studies have found evidence for more individualistic, analytic ways of thought in the West and more interdependent and holistic conceptions of the self and cooperation in the East. But in 2014 a team of psychologists investigated these differences in populations within China based on whether the culture in question traditionally grew wheat or rice. Comparing cultures within China rather than between the East and West enabled the researchers to remove many confounding factors, like religion and language.

Participants underwent a series of tests in which they paired two of three pictures. In previous studies the way a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot were paired differed according to whether the subject was from the West or the East . The Eastern subjects tended to pair the rabbit with a carrot, which was thought to be the more holistic, relational solution. The Western subjects paired the dog and the rabbit, which is more analytic because the animals belong in the same category. In another test subjects drew pictures of themselves and their friends. Previous studies had shown that westerners drew themselves larger than their friends . Another test surveyed how likely people were to privilege friends over strangers; typically Eastern cultures score higher on this measure.

In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.

The differences between the cultures are attributed to the different demands of the two kinds of agriculture. Rice farming depends on complicated irrigation and the cooperation of farmers around the use of water. It also requires twice the amount of labor that is necessary for wheat, so rice-growing communities often stagger the planting of crops in order that all their members can help with the harvest. Wheat farming, by contrast, doesn’t need complicated irrigation or systems of cooperation among growers.

The implication of these studies is that the way we see the world and act in it—whether the end result is gender inequality or trusting strangers— is significantly shaped by internal beliefs and norms that have been passed down in families and small communities . It seems that these norms are even taken with an individual when he moves to another country. But how might history have such a powerful impact on families, even when they have moved away from the place where that history, whatever it was, took place?


4 thoughts on “Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

    • That doesn’t surprise me. Small farmers are literally a dying breed. An increasing number of farms are owned by big ag.

      There is less and less of a place for the traditional farmer. They have tractors now that don’t even require a person, as they use GPS. At best, a big ag corporation might hire someone to just sit in the tractor to keep an eye on it. The actual manual labor of farming is disappearing.

      A big ag corporation doesn’t need a farmer to do the farming. It’s become a high tech operation. The remaining small farmers are having an ever harder time making much profit because highly productive big ag drives down the market prices.

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