Friday, April 22, 2016

Scarcity and the Agricultural Grand Transition

If an alien civilization is going to climb up the rungs of the technology ladder to star travel, it has to have some motivation to make the transitions. The ladder doesn’t have evenly spaced steps, but groups of them, which arise because technology development sometimes spurs other related technology developments. We label these groups of changes as technological grand transitions. A recent post talked about the hunting grand transition. Other very well known ones include the agricultural grand transition and the industrial grand transition, which we humans have completely or partially navigated, and the genetic and neurological grand transitions, which we have not yet met.

One aspect of the grand transitions is cause. Perhaps those of us who are enamored by technology simply assume that people work on it because of its intellectual attractiveness, and so it just happens. Alternatively it could be assumed that things don’t change until they have to. In the midst of a successful living situation, major transitions might not happen at all, even if some alien inventor came up with some possibilities. It isn’t the invention that might be the pacing element, but necessity.

Some discussion about the agricultural grand transition involves this scenario: members of the species are involved with living by hunting, but there is also some gathering of fruits, perhaps even some edible vegetables. Some bright individual notices that the location where they threw the seeds of a meal a year or several years ago is now a small grove of identical fruit. Cultivation is born. Would the hunting clan decide to rapidly or slowly transition to agriculture? Would they alter their habit of moving the location of their camp to follow or find animals to hunt so that they could stay in the one location? Would they figure out how to survive on a year-round basis using grown rather that caught food? No, but they might make a small change to take advantage of the harvest time of some naturally grown foods. Would they abandon hunting, their main source of food? Not so likely.

On Earth, this transition may have been motivated by the extinction of the usual prey of human hunters, and this might be expected to happen in any society where technology developed to allow it. The extermination of hundreds of species of large prey animals on Earth occurred over a rather short time, a few thousand years, which is a coincidence that has puzzled scientists since it was discovered here. Human hunting is believed to be one of the main contributors to this. If humans largely lived on the killing of large mammal species, when they one by one went extinct, the various human species alive at that time would have faced scarcity. Only one survived. This may be the motivation that led to the agricultural grand transition, not efficiency in food production or a delight in adopting new ways of living. Scarcity may have met humans the first time ten thousand years or so ago, and agriculture, the necessary technology for civilization, developed because of it.

Agriculture includes animal husbandry as well as crops. The transition may have been very difficult, and only accepted out of desperation. Failed searches for animals led to hunger and ways of maintaining foodstocks for periods when the animals could not be found. It might be that it was not so much agriculture that drove the agricultural grand transition, but the technology of food preservation. Crops of all kinds in temperate climates are seasonal, and some way of preserving food would have been necessary. Animals provide that storage method, and perhaps that is the first step into agriculture. Tended animals might be gradually supplemented by grown food, and then ways of preserving certain types of that developed to provide a more robust food source year-round. Root crops, grains, cheese, salt preserved meat and many more possibilities could be discovered over the millennia necessary for this grand transition.

It was argued in that earlier post that the technology of hunting and game preparation as food were the initial developments in technology, and without game, intelligence would not develop further, at least by this channel. These types of hunting implements are not so useful with small game as with large game, so it would be reasonable to assume that alien species on distant planets might also find themselves facing a dearth of huntable species and be forced into making the same choices as humans did, that animal capturing and confining was a means of ensuring survival. Agriculture would follow from this, provided the alien world would support it.

This is interesting in its own right, but would other transitions have to be forced by scarcity as well? Of more generally, would these other transitions occur voluntarily, with the civilization simply deciding to adopt new technologies and then follow the cultural changes that they necessitate? Perhaps considering individual technologies rather than groups of them makes things simpler. After the agricultural grand transition, what motivates more technology? Shortly after agriculture, textiles were invented. Was that because the use of animal skins was simply insufficient for clothing, and something had to be done? Pottery was also developed around this time, perhaps for multiple purposes in living in a fixed agricultural site: food preservation, food preparation, water, milk collection, fermenting, removal of salt used in preservation, and more. Without pottery, the number of sites where agriculture could be successful is fairly small. These two areas of technology, pottery and textiles, might be lumped together with the agricultural grand transition, and then the concept of forced technology growth seems to make more sense.

Once textiles and pottery are developed, an unseen but drastic change happens. Specialists evolve. The technology takes experience and learning, and the transmission of knowledge between generations. This means that larger groups are necessary, and small groups would be at a disadvantage. This again is driven by necessity.

It would be interesting to understand if other grand transitions would not happen unless forced by necessity. Scarcity appears to be a possible driver for the agricultural transition, and for some individual technologies as well. The argument is not so clear for the industrial revolution. Perhaps one way to look at the industrial revolution is to look at two things: energy sources and their exploitation, and the emergence of combat between groups, initially clans, but later small cities and then larger units. This entails military technology. Since military technology allows one group more opportunity to control another group, it would seem to be a driver, not like scarcity, but still important enough to drive change.

If there is no similar driver for the genetic grand transition, does that mean it might not happen on alien planets? We have no experience with it here, so only clear thinking might provide some possible answers to this question. Are there drivers, analogous to food scarcity or military control, that would motivate either the entire genetic grand transition, or individual technologies within it? Care for the next generation, via genetic improvement, might suffice for the very early tip of this transition, but it does not seem to prolong itself to later technologies. Perhaps there is a feedback effect, in that the initial gradual genetic improvements create new generations more likely to want to adopt later changes. Perhaps not, and alien worlds all stop dead in their technology tracks before this grand transition is accomplished. This is worth thinking about.

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