This summer I’ve been reading about world history on very long timescales: why civilization emerged and progressed at different speeds in different parts of the world, that sort of thing. Having spread out across the globe, a critical point for the humans in every region seems to have been the development of agriculture, when the local population turned from hunting and gathering by the whole tribe, to farming by some, and specialization by the rest. This happened as early as 12 thousand years ago, in places where there happened to be several types of domesticable plants and animals living in the area.
While that might seem like a long time ago, it’s fascinating to think that humans of one kind or another were around for three million years before that. Millions of years spent hunting and gathering, and then just a few millenia practising agriculture. It’s like spending the whole of New Year’s Eve sitting around thinking about fireworks, and then setting them all off in the last 10 minutes before midnight. What were we doing all that time? Physically, we were then, as we are now, relatively puny upright apes, that will have regularly come off worse in one-on-one altercations with bears, gorillas, and wolves, but we learned how to use fire, and tools, and, crucially, gradually developed the capacity to work together on a scale that no other animal does. We may not be fearsome creatures, but by golly we’re organized.
Being able to talk to each other, teach each other, “share best practices,” make each other think, persuade each other of the right thing to do: these skills are as vital today as they were when we brought down the last mammoth and planned our first crops. Our innate, evolved ability to co-operate with each other, and our instinct to do so, has been what has made us so successful at adapting to circumstances, and making a living in the world.
In the several thousand years since we settled down to tend crops and raise livestock things have changed awfully quickly. Freeing up some of the tribe to do things other than produce food has been both a blessing and a curse: we might trace the divide between the producers, and those who own the means of production, all the way back to that first agricultural revolution, and then note that we are still dealing with its fallout! But we all retain the talent, and instinct, for co-operation - and it’s easier for large numbers of humans to organize themselves today than it ever has been before. You shouldn’t bet against us succeeding.