All this hard graft no longer makes sense

Colin Tudge

This article originally appeared in the Independent, 20 October 1998

Work hard - do well. Who doubts it? Furthermore, it's right to work hard, not because Mrs Thatcher told us to but because, deep down, we feel it to be so. Our granny told us how 'the Devil finds work for idle hands' long before the dark decade of the 1980s.

But our efforts to 'improve' ourselves and our surroundings are putting our minds, our society and the planet under dreadful strain. Our 'Puritan' ethic ostensibly has religious - Judaeo-Christian - origins; although we live in a secular age; encapsulated in God's injunction to Adam and Eve as he banished them from the easy pickings of Eden: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread!' We have been sweating ever since, hating it, but thinking it was the right thing to do.

Nevertheless we can see our predispositions and prejudices in another light - as evolved psychological adaptations, developed by our ancestors to cope with the problems of their own times. Hard graft is an adaptation to the inescapable rigours of early agriculture, as portrayed throughout the Old Testament. But, in the developed world at least, most of us don't farm any more, and those who do have machines to help. Many of our evolved predilections are still vital to us - including our many social skills. Others - like the guilt that comes with doing nothing - are anachronistic.

Farming is traditionally supposed to have begun about 10,000 years ago with  the 'Neolithic revolution' of the Middle East; but our ancestors were surely practising forms of 'proto-farming' for many thousands of years before that. After all, many animals 'farm' up to a point. Fruit bats spread and so propagate the seeds of the trees they feed upon. Others practice crop protection - fish guard the more succulent algae of the coral reef and ants drive intruders from acacia trees. Our pre-Neolithic ancestors would have done the same - propagating trees by planting sticks, corralling animals, freshening the vegetation with fire. 

But before the Neolithic revolution people combined such 'proto-farming' with gathering and hunting. Yet  this modus vivendi was unstable. The more that people controlled their environments the more their populations grew; and the more they grew the more they needed to supplement their diets by more proto-farming, until they were forced to farm all the time.

This transition - not the birth of farming per se - is what the 'Neolithic revolution' reflects.

Hunters, though, albeit hunting cum proto-farming, need to be idle. Hunting is difficult and dangerous. It is dramatically subject to the law of diminishing returns. Do it when you are too tired, and you get injured. Accordingly, lions doze for about 20 hours a day while the Bushmen of the Kalahari were shown to hunt only for about six hours a week. In between, they told stories.

But full-time farming changes the logistics. The point of farming is to increase the amount of food the environment can produce. The harder you work the more you get until the land is exhausted - and this can  take a very long time. Hunters who worked hard would have fared no better than their indolent rivals. But farmers who toiled from dawn to dusk pushed their less vigorous fellows aside.

But after 10,000 years of human graft the most fertile lands worldwide are already under the plough. High and heavy tech do the work. It really would be sensible to do as our pre-farming ancestors did, and lions do now, and graft only as necessary. We should see our industriousness not as an inveterate 'objective' good but as an adaptation geared to different times, and one that no longer makes sense; a mental vestige; virtually a psychopathology. We and the world would be much pleasanter and safer if we did.