Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization

Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization

by Richard Manning

In this provocative, wide-ranging book, Richard Manning offers a dramatically revisionist view of recent human evolution, beginning with the vast increase in brain size that set us apart from our primate relatives and brought an accompanying increase in our need for nourishment. For 290,000 years, we managed to meet that need as hunter-gatherers, a state in which

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In this provocative, wide-ranging book, Richard Manning offers a dramatically revisionist view of recent human evolution, beginning with the vast increase in brain size that set us apart from our primate relatives and brought an accompanying increase in our need for nourishment. For 290,000 years, we managed to meet that need as hunter-gatherers, a state in which Manning believes we were at our most human: at our smartest, strongest, most sensually alive. But our reliance on food made a secure supply deeply attractive, and eventually we embarked upon the agricultural experiment that has been the history of our past 10,000 years.

The evolutionary road is littered with failed experiments, however, and Manning suggests that agriculture as we have practiced it runs against both our grain and nature's. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, along with his own travels, he argues that not only our ecological ills-overpopulation, erosion, pollution-but our social and emotional malaise are rooted in the devil's bargain we made in our not-so-distant past. And he offers personal, achievable ways we might re-contour the path we have taken to resurrect what is most sustainable and sustaining in our own nature and the planet's.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this controversial and prodigiously researched condemnation of our current and past systems of growing grain, Manning (Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution) argues that the major forces that have shaped the world-disease, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, trade, wealth-are all a part of the culture of agriculture. He traces the beginnings of agriculture to the Middle East, where plants were abundant and easily domesticated in coastal areas; hunter-gathers, who became fishermen, formed settlements near river mouths. Manning skillfully details the historical spread of agriculture through the conquest of indigenous peoples and describes how this expansion led to overpopulation, famine and disease in Europe, Asia and Africa. Sugar agriculture was supported by slaves and farming by laborers who grew produce for the rich while the workers ate a high carbohydrate diet (potatoes, rice, sugar, bread) and ingested no protein. In the U.S., modern agriculture has evolved into an industrial system where agribusiness is subsidized to grow commodities like wheat, corn and rice, not to feed people but to store and trade. According to Manning, agricultural research focuses on just these few crops and is profit driven. Although he succeeds in drawing attention to critical problems caused by agriculture, such as water pollution and malnutrition, he is pessimistic about reform coming from political systems. He romantically advocates hunting animals for food and hopes that such citizen movements like urban green markets and organic farms can lead to better nutrition. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Manning is a Montana-based writer whose books (e.g., Inside Passage; Food's Frontier) frequently focus on environmental themes. His latest takes a sweeping, critical look at agriculture's social, economic, and political effects on humankind, as well as its environmental effects from its origins 10,000 years ago to the present day. Much of the text focuses on the practices of modern agriculture, especially large-scale grain farming and its integration with the food industry. Resulting ills include loss of small farms and rural communities, environmental damage, and unhealthy, sugar-laden diets. Manning is not optimistic about "top down" changes from the agriculture establishment but sees some hope in organic farming, farmers' markets, and projects that connect people more closely with the foods they eat. This thought-provoking and readable book will force readers to see agriculture, farming, and food in a different light. Recommended for all libraries.-William H. Wiese, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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DIANE Publishing Company
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Excerpt from Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Manning. To be published in February, 2004 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


It is high summer at my mountainside home in Montana, when days are long at this latitude. The season is, if not yet desperate, at least frenzied, because we who live in the northern Rockies know that the climate makes life difficult when winter comes. The cold comes fast, so flora and fauna grab for photosynthesis or its various derivatives while they can, in a constant buzz and bustle. The observer of all this sees a race for a more prominent seat in the sun: set seed sooner, get taller faster to shade a rival, learn to grow in a bare spot no other can tolerate, secrete poisons to kill the competition, send out roots to steal water that belongs to others. The color that traces this race is green; primary producers announce their success in sucking up sun by making a display of it. The various subplots thickening among the wider cast of characters spin off the main plot played out among plants. Everything depends on the plants' success, on green. All the rest is secondary.

Mimicry, attraction, repulsion, information. These secondary dramas are a primal struggle staged in a blinding array—the red of devil's paintbrush, the yellow of arrowleaf balsamroot, the blue of pentstemon, the gaudy flash of butterflies drawn, like me, to these colors. Too often they draw me away from the keyboard, into the hills, into the vital stories of others. Every shade signals something about food and sex,the links in every being's path to the future. Unlike me, though, the butterfly is a player on this stage. To my eyes, this is simply a pleasant display. My pleasure is vestigial, relict, when compared to the intensity with which it is examined by all those other eyes around me. For them, reading the code of color is survival.

Color reveals a layered natural text, most of it straightforward and necessary information. Some of it is the ink on a contract of partnership: the black sheen of chokecherry or currant
cf0signals to bears and birds that the fruit is ripe, and then chokecherry sprouts from bear shit and bird shit miles away. This is how chokecherry uses color to recruit bears and birds to spread its genes. Sometimes, there is deceit, as when a perfectly edible butterfly evolves into a dead ringer for a foul-tasting species. There is no premium on honesty or fair play where survival is concerned.

Every so often I test this observation with a cruel trick, leaving the bright-red plastic jug that holds gas for my chainsaw out on my front porch. On the right sort of day, calliope hummingbirds arrive within minutes to buzz and hover an inch or so away, believing they have encountered the world's biggest flower. I don't mean to lie to them. More, I am a child trying to form the first few letters of a fully formed and unimaginably complex alphabet of hummingbirds. Color makes me want to be able to read what is being said all around me. It is not a trivial desire, more an ache, a longing that grows out of what I suspect is a profound loss—even more lost to many of my fellow humans who don't live as I do, with long days to think and wander a relatively undisturbed mountainside forest.

Every fall I try to plumb some of the depths of this longing with a sort of game some humans play. I hunt meat, an experience that is a pathetic substitute for what the hummingbird knows and sees every day, but one of the few ways I have of sustaining a life that is visibly coupled to the forces that created it. I don't kill for sport but for meat. Venison and elk provide most of the protein at my wife's and my table. Through the years, I have come to look forward to these fall weeks of hunting, less for the killing than for the seeing. Then I am able to perceive more detail—literally. Hidden layers become visible. Every subtle shift of shape or sound in the forest may signal the advent of an important moment. Hunting enlivens the senses like no other experience, giving me a taste of what it must be like to truly see and hear.

Sometimes I hunt birds with dogs, and, again, the pleasure is not so much in killing the birds as in observing the dogs, equipped as they are with noses many times more powerful than mine. They raise their heads and face the wind, and their nostrils pulse and flare as if they are pumping in every bit of air to sample the surroundings. They smell the world in the same way that I see it.

I came to believe it was possible for me to know more of the world this way. One year I was hunting elk, and before seeing or hearing the beasts, I smelled them. I could smell the coming
fs20kill, and I was right. We know more than we think we do. Experiments have shown that normal people given the whiff of a T-shirt can tell whether it was worn by a man or woman, even have a sense of whether the wearer was attractive. How much of this have we sublimated? What would it be like to meet other humans and smell, say, anger, or arousal, as I am sure my dogs do?

Sensual experiences of this sort have spawned a certain curiosity in a few people, have sent perfectly civilized and privileged modern individuals to live among primitives in an attempt to comprehend in some blundering, bumbling manner just where the doors of our perception open. Richard Nelson, an anthropologist and a friend, made such a pilgrimage, spending his early adult years living among the Koyukon people of the Yukon River basin, an experience he recounts in fine books like Make Prayers to the Raven.

Nelson once told me a story. He had left the Yukon and settled on an island in the far different maritime environment of southeast Alaska, where he spent years hunting deer and closely observing the place, about which he eventually wrote The Island Within. He still maintained contact with his Koyukon friends, and after several years he invited a couple of them to come visit him—a big deal for them, in that they had never been outside their familiar surroundings. Geographically unmoored as we postmoderns are, it is difficult for us to imagine what this means, but try to understand a human life in which all referents, all mental anchors and guides, are set in the natural features of a particular place.

Nelson, of course, was curious as to how they would respond, but not quite prepared for the way this reunion with old friends worked out. It was silent. As with all reunions among friends, there was catching up to do, greetings to be made, stories to tell—but none of this happened, at least not right away. His friends simply lapsed into silence. They were so wrapped up in observing everything around them that there was no part of their brains left for speech. This went on for days. When finally they did speak, they revealed to Nelson all sorts of details about his closely observed island that he himself had never noticed.

There are beings, many of them human beings, that see, smell, hear, remember, sense more than we do. This is not a genetic accident, like being taller than six-foot-five or having an IQ of 150 or high cheekbones. This is a matter of culture. The human beings who maintain these 0hyper-refined senses are hunter-gatherers. Their impressive powers of perception have been noted and detailed by just about every student of hunter-gatherer groups. It is not only that they sense more than the rest of us do, but that they do so in a qualitatively different fashion. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram leans on philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's concept of synaesthesia to explain Abram's own experience with hunter-gatherer perceptions. The term "synaesthesia" describes something every child knows. In fact, Merleau-Ponty believes that we have "unlearned how to see, hear, and, generally speaking, to feel." Synaesthesia is the mental function (or suite of functions) in which the senses run together, in which colors have a feel to them and tastes have a color. We speak of a loud shirt, of bright music, yet how often do we sense reality this way? For Abram and other observers, the phenomenon marks a total immersion in sense, when the observer is no longer in control, no longer separating and analyzing sight, sound, and texture, and becomes a part of his sensual surroundings. That is, the observer calls forth the world.

"As soon as I attempt to distinguish the share of any one sense from that of the others, I inevitably sever the full participation of my sensing body with the sensuous terrain," writes Abram. "Many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or 'mind,' not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds."

I mention all of this because my own hunting tells me it is true, and that is part of why the experience enlivens me. Yet I know it better still from the more common experience of making music. I became a musician as an adult. The advantage of that approach is that one has an adult's drive and discipline to pound away at practicing the necessary technical skills day after day. The disadvantage is that one needs the drive and discipline. Merleau-Ponty is right about "unlearning." As adults, we have unlearned how to hear. As a literate society, we trust notes on a printed page—indeed, authorities of all sorts—far more than we trust our own ears, such that a large part of my struggle to learn music has been to teach myself to hear. Immerse a child in music before this unlearning has occurred and real music, not just notes, flies from her fingers like the sung notes of a bird.

Yet lately, after years of learning the fundamentals and years of learning that the biggest
fs20barriers I face are those I unconsciously erect for myself, I have begun to believe what a music teacher once told me: "My main job is to teach you that you know a lot more than you think you know." The physical marker of this dawning awareness has been for me something very much like what Abram describes. I finally began hearing chord changes, and hearing a C as a C, only when the senses blurred, when individual notes took on color and texture, not just sound. There came a day when I realized that some notes had edges, had thickness, and I found myself shifting position to try to see the backside of a note, so real was the sense of depth. At the same time, I found that more and more it was not my fingers and mind playing the music but my whole body. For me, this is not about making music; it is about exploring the horizons of what it means—or at least meant—to be human.

There was a time in my life when I enjoyed fly-fishing, before Montana's rivers became a floating fashion show for the catalogue-fresh Orvis gear of dot-com millionaires. I can understand, though, why those with means gravitate toward this pursuit; it's not just about catching fish. No other form of hunting I know requires such a thorough knowledge of the prey's habits and surroundings. Fly-fishing is simply a means for contemplating rivers.

Once I was fishing a favorite stretch of a favorite creek at the finest hour of the day. Dusk was thickening to dark on a late summer evening and all the right bugs were on the water. I was taking fish and really didn't want to quit, but the fact was, I could no longer see. One can still fish under such conditions if the mind can correctly fill in the blanks where vision fails, but mostly the mind guesses and misses. Nonetheless, I played along. All of a sudden, my mind's eye leapt from its usual perspective to zoom in on a scene across the creek where I imagined my fly to be drifting toward a productive hole. I saw that particular spot as if in close-up, but also fully illuminated, bright as day. Then, just as my imagination had provided daylight, it delivered an enormous rainbow trout, arching out of the stream to take my fly. I felt a little stupid when this hallucination seduced me into tensing my rod to set my hook in the phantom fish. Less stupid when the hook set solidly, and I fought a nice fish for a while, finally landing it. It was the fish I had imagined, no mistaking it.

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