All humans were once hunter-gatherers. Back then, versatility came with the territory. There were only so many game animals, and they differed a lot in size, shape, and color. So you had to enjoy switching back and forth from one target animal to another. And you had to enjoy moving from one place to another. Sooner or later you’d have to.
Beginning 10,000 years ago, farmers made their appearance. Now monotony came with the territory. A plot of land wasn’t something you could forget while you took off somewhere else. It needed constant care. The tasks were also more repetitive: ploughing, sowing, harvesting …
Things worsened as farming became more advanced. You had to focus on one crop and a limited number of key tasks.
Different means of subsistence have selected for different mental traits, and this selection has had genetic consequences. Monotony avoidance has a heritability of 0.53 (Saudino, 1999). This predisposition has usually been a handicap in modern societies, so much so that it often leads to criminality. Males with a history of early criminal behavior tend to score high on monotony avoidance, as well as on sensation seeking and low conformity (Klinteberg et al., 1992).
Today, if you have trouble fitting into your society, you might still survive and reproduce. In the past, you probably wouldn’t. Other people would take your place in the gene pool and, over successive generations, their mental makeup would become the norm.
That’s gene-culture co-evolution. We have reshaped the world we live in, and this human-made world has reshaped us. After describing how our ancestors radically changed their environment, Razib goes on to write: “We were the authors of those changes, but in the process of telling that story, we became protagonists within it” (Khan, 2014).
China: a case study
Advanced farming—intensive land use, task specialization, monoculture—has profoundly shaped East Asian societies, particularly China. This is particularly so for rice farming. Because the paddies need standing water, rice farmers must work collectively to build, dredge, and drain elaborate irrigation networks. Wheat farming, by comparison, requires no irrigation and only half as much work.
Advanced farming seems to have favored a special package of predispositions and inclinations, including greater acceptance of monotony. This has been shown in two recent studies.
The first one was about boredom and how people experience it in their lives. The results from the 775 Chinese participants were then compared with the results from a previous survey of 572 Euro-Canadians. It was found that the Chinese participants were less likely to feel bored in comparable situations. They seemed to value low-arousal (calm, relaxation) versus high arousal (excitement, elation) in the case of Euro-Canadians (Ng et al., 2014).
The authors attributed their findings to cultural learning. One may wonder, however, why preference for low arousal persists in the face of China’s massive influx of high-arousal Western culture.
Relational thinking, collectivism, and favoritism
The second study had the aim of seeing whether the sociological differences between rice farmers and wheat farmers have led to differences in mental makeup. When 1,162 Han Chinese performed a series of mental tasks, the results differed according to whether the participants came from rice-farming regions or wheat-farming regions (Talhelm et al., 2014).
When shown a list of three items, such as “train”, “bus”, and “tracks”, and told to choose two items that pair together, people from rice-farming regions tended to choose “train and tracks,” whereas people from wheat-farming regions tended to choose “train and bus.” The former seemed to be more
abstract relational in their thinking and the latter more relational abstract. This pattern held up even in neighboring counties along China’s rice-wheat border. People from the rice side of the border thought more relationally than did people from the wheat side.
A second task required drawing pictures of yourself and your friends. In a prior study, Americans drew themselves about 6 mm bigger than they drew their friends, Europeans drew themselves 3.5 mm bigger, and Japanese drew themselves slightly smaller. In the present study, people from rice regions were more likely than people from wheat regions to draw themselves smaller than they drew their friends. On average, people from wheat regions self-inflated 1.5 mm, and people from rice regions self-deflated -0.03 mm.
A third task required imagining yourself doing business with (i) an honest friend, (ii) a dishonest friend, (iii) an honest stranger, and (iv) a dishonest stranger. This person might lie, causing you to lose money. Or this person might be honest, causing you to make money. You could reward or punish this person accordingly. A previous study found that Singaporeans rewarded friends much more than they punished them. Americans were much more likely to punish friends for bad behavior. In this study, people from rice regions were more likely to remain loyal to friends regardless.
Interestingly, these findings came from people with no connection to farming at all. They grew up in a modern urban society, and most were too young to have known the China that existed before the economic reforms of the late 1970s. It looks like rice regions have favored hardwiring of certain psychological traits: less abstract thinking and more relational thinking, less individualism and more collectivism, and less impartiality toward strangers and more favoritism toward kin and friends.
Why farming sucks, for you but not for me
These findings corroborate the ethnographic literature on the differences in mentality between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Hunter-gatherers typically see farming as a kind of slavery, and they have trouble understanding well-meaning outsiders who want to turn them into land-slaves.
Yes, for the same land area, farming can produce much more food. But it’s hard work, not only physically but mentally as well. Humans had to undergo a change in mentality before they could make the transition from hunting and gathering to farming
Those humans ended up transforming not just their physical landscape but also their social and cultural landscape … and ultimately themselves. By creating new values and social relations, they changed the rules for survival and reproduction, thereby changing the sort of mentality that future generations would inherit.
Humans transformed the world through farming, and the world returned the favor.
Khan, R. (2014). Our cats, ourselves, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 24
Klinteberg, B., K. Humble, and D. Schalling. (1992). Personality and psychopathy of males with a history of early criminal behaviour,European Journal of Personality, 6(4), 245-266.
Ng, A.H., Y. Liu, J-Z. Chen, and J.D. Eastwood. (2014). Culture and state boredom: A comparison between European Canadians and Chinese, Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 13-18.
Saudino, K.J., J.R. Gagne, J. Grant, A. Ibatoulina, T. Marytuina, I. Ravich-Scherbo, and K. Whitfield. (1999). Genetic and environmental influences on personality in adult Russian twins, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 375-389.
Talhelm, T., X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, and S. Kitayama. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture, Science, 344, 603-607.