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01 / 04
Rural Life in the past Was a Battle for Survival

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Rural Life in the past Was a Battle for Survival

People in pre-industrial Europe generally lived a miserable, hand-to-mouth existence which would be foolish to romanticize.

In my last two pieces for CapX, I sketched out the miserable existence of our ancestors in the pre-industrial era. My focus was on life in the city, a task made easier by the fact that urban folk, thanks to higher literacy rates, have left us more detailed accounts of their lives.

This week I want to look at rural life, for that is where most people lived. At least theoretically, country folk could have enjoyed a better standard of living due to their “access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity,” which the anthropologist Jason Hickel praised in a recent article in The Guardian. In fact, the life of a peasant was, in some important aspects, worse than that of a city dweller.

Before industrialisation, European society was bifurcated between a small minority of the very rich and the vast majority of the very poor. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military engineer during the reign of Louis XIV, estimated that the French population consisted of 10 per cent rich, 50 per cent very poor (fort malaise), 30 per cent near beggars and 10 per cent beggars. Likewise, Francesco Guicciardini, an Italian historian and friend of Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote that “except for a few Grandees of the Kingdom [of Spain] who live with great sumptuousness, one gathers that the others live in great poverty”.

Indeed, a census taken in the Alencon area of the Alsace region in France at the end of the 17th century found that of the 410,000 inhabitants, 48,051 were beggars. That amounts to about 12 per cent of the population. “In Brittany, of a population of 1,655,000, there were 149,325 beggars, or about 9 per cent.” Out of the English population of 5.5 million at the time of Henry VIII, 1.3 million (i.e., nearly a quarter) were described as “cottagers and paupers”. By implication, rural cottagers and urban paupers were deemed to have shared similar standard of living. The vast majority of these wretches lived in the countryside.

That was during “normal” times. As Carlo Cipolla observed in Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700, “in the cities the number of poor soared in the years of famine because starving peasants fled the depleted countryside and swarmed to the urban centres, where charity was more easily available and hopefully the houses of the wealthy had food in storage. Dr Tadino reported that in Milan (Italy) during the famine of 1629 in a few months the number of beggars grew from 3,554 to 9,715.” So much then for the vaunted benefits of “access to abundant commons”.

An account of rural life in 16th century Lombardy found that “the peasants live on wheat … and it seems to us that we can disregard their other expenses because it is the shortage of wheat that induces the labourers to raise their claims; their expenses for clothing and other needs are practically non-existent”. In 15th century England, 80 per cent of private expenditure went on food. Of that amount, 20 per cent was spent on bread alone.

By comparison, by 2013 only 10 per cent of private expenditure in the United States was spent on food, a figure which is itself inflated by the amount Americans spend in restaurants. For health reasons, many Americans today eschew eating bread altogether.

What about food derived from water, forests and livestock? “In pre-industrial England,” Cipolla notes, “people were convinced that vegetables ‘ingender ylle humours and be oftetymes the cause of putrid fevers,’ melancholy and flatulence. As a consequence of these ideas there was little demand for fruit and vegetables and the population lived in a prescorbutic state”. For cultural reasons, most people also avoided fresh cow’s milk, which is an excellent source of protein. Instead, the well-off preferred to pay wet nurses to suckle milk directly from their breasts.

The diet on the continent was somewhat more varied, though peasants’ standard of living was, if anything, lower than that in England. According to a 17th century account of rural living in France: “As for the poore paisant, he fareth very hardly and feedeth most upon bread and fruits, but yet he may comfort himselfe with this, and though his fare be nothing so good as the ploughmans and poore artificers in England, yet it is much better than that of the villano [peasant] in Italy.”

The pursuit of sufficient calories to survive preoccupied the crushing majority of our ancestors, including, of course, women and children. In addition to employment as domestic servants, women produced marketable commodities, such as bread, pasta, woollen garments and socks. Miniatures going back to the 14th century show women employed in agriculture as well. As late as the 18th century, an Austrian physician wrote, “In many villages [of the Austrian Empire] the dung has to be carried on human backs up high mountains and the soil has to be scraped in a crouching position; this is the reason why most of the young people [men and women] are deformed and misshapen.”

As Johan Norberg noted in Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, it was common for “children to start working from seven years of age”. Their working conditions varied, but one 16th century ordnance in Lombardy found that supervisors of work in rice fields “bring together a large number of children and adolescents, against whom they practice barbarous cruelties.… [They] do not provide these poor creatures with the necessary food, and make them labour as slaves by beating them and treating them more harshly than galley slaves, so that many of the children … die miserably in the farms and neighbouring fields.”

The idealised imagery of rural life portrayed by Romantic painters, philosophers and poets provides the modern reader with a highly skewed sense of reality. “We do know,” Cipolla writes, “that the mass [of the population] lived in a state of undernourishment. This gave rise, among other things, to serious forms of avitaminosis. Widespread filth was also the cause of troublesome and painful skin diseases. To this must be added in certain areas the endemic presence of malaria, or the deleterious effects of a restricted matrimonial selection, which gave rise to cretinism.”

This piece concludes a series of articles in which I have shown how contemporaneous evidence from town and country alike shows clearly that whatever their “access to abundant commons”, people in pre-industrial Europe generally lived a miserable, hand-to-mouth existence which it would be foolish to romanticize in any way.

This first appeared in CapX. 

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Centers of Progress, Pt. 1: Jericho (Agriculture)

Neolithic Jericho was the site of two decisive events in the history of civilization: permanent settlement and the beginnings of agriculture.

Today marks the launch of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our first Center of Progress is Jericho. Jericho is thought by many scholars to be the worlds oldest city. It was first settled sometime around 9000 BC. The people who lived in Jericho and surrounding areas may have been among the first humans to give up their hunter-gatherer ways, domesticate plants and become farmers.

The invention of agriculture, often called the First Agricultural Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution, was a decisive turning point in our species’ history. It dramatically changed the way that we live. By producing a surplus of food that could be stored for difficult times ahead or traded for other goods, agriculture ultimately allowed for far greater prosperity than hunting and gathering ever could.

Today, Jericho is a tourist-oriented city in the Jordan River Valley and is frequented by religious pilgrims and history buffs. It is relatively small, with a population of just over 20,000 people. The city is located in a natural oasis in the desert, thus earning its nickname in the Hebrew Bible—the City of Palm Trees. The city is home to various cafes selling shawarma and falafel, as well as many historic ruins. Jericho is also the site of near-constant archeological digs, as we try to deepen our knowledge of the citys past.

If you were to visit Neolithic Jericho, you may have been able to observe two decisive events in the history of civilization: permanent settlement and the beginnings of agriculture.

Imagine a group of hunter-gatherers—dubbed Natufians” by todays archeologists—walking through the wilderness. They would have carried hunting weapons such as spears, and they would have worn leather made from the hides of mountain gazelles and beaded jewelry made of gazelle bones. They would have carried food and supplies in baskets and animal skins. They would also have had domesticated dogs walking alongside them, perhaps looking something like the modern-day basenji hound.

You would have seen them coming upon a natural oasis bursting with freshwater springs in the middle of the wilderness and settling down to rest. You would have watched this group of hunter-gatherers coming to a momentous decision as they resolved, perhaps after some spirited discussion in a long-dead language, to build a permanent camp at the oasis and end their nomadic wanderings.

Of course, the decision was probably gradual, with the Natufians camping out at the oasis for longer and longer periods each year, until the settlement became their home year-round. But at some point, the decision was made to remain there permanently. In any case, the Natufians built a number of semi-subterranean oval-shaped stone dwellings to form a village that would grow into the worlds first city. Thus the story of Jericho began.

The first people to inhabit what would become Jericho had long survived by hunting animals such as gazelles, and eating wild cereals and other wild plants. But a shift in the climate, which became less rainy and more desert-like, may have helped to prompt a change in the Natufian survival strategy.

How did that happen? Maybe the Natufians noticed that edible plants sprouted in places where those plants’ seeds had been scattered before. Perhaps inspired by that observation, an enterprising individual (or multiple individuals) must have, at some point, proposed deliberately planting the seeds of the plants that the Natufians ate. When the Natufians began to plant seeds intentionally, they set humanity on a new course.

The Natufians are often called the first farmers. Although there is no expert consensus on precisely where in the Fertile Crescent agriculture first appeared, Jericho was certainly among the earliest communities to practice agriculture. The oldest archaeological remains of domesticated barley, rye and early forms of wheat are found in human Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent, such as the Natufian settlement where Jericho is today. Evidence of domesticated figs has also been found near Jericho dating to around 9400 BC.

The worlds first farmers were patient and innovative. Consider wheat. They discovered how to selectively breed wild emmer grass so that the plants seeds would not fall off of its stalks when the grass became ripe, making collection of the seeds far easier. They used the seeds to make bread, and what started as just another kind of grass, gradually became what we now know as wheat. Today, according to Yale University, twenty percent of the worlds total calorie consumption comes from wheat.

Researchers disagree as to how much credit ought to be given to the conscious efforts of the early farmers. “One controversy in this area is about the extent to which ancient peoples knew they were domesticating crops,” noted University of Sheffield plant scientist Colin Osborne. “Did they know they were breeding domestication characteristics into crops, or did these characteristics just evolve as the first farmers sowed wild plants into cultivated soil, and tended and harvested them?” he continued.

In addition to bread, the Natufians also enjoyed beer and some researchers believe that the production of alcoholic beverages made from fermented cereals may have served as one of the motivations underlying early agriculture.

Whatever their motivation, the first Jerichoans became farmers, and were thus able to produce enough food to eventually leave their old hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind. Selectively breeding plants would prove to be a painstakingly slow process, and perhaps for centuries the people of Jericho may have continued to supplement their agricultural food production with hunting and gathering.

As agriculture advanced, the people still hunted gazelles and other game animals, but the grains they planted, harvested and stored yearly increased their food security. One day, there was no longer any need to forage for wild plants, beginning a new chapter in human history.

Over the centuries, the residents of Jericho became increasingly adept at farming. The Jerichoans went on to cultivate many other plants and develop an irrigation system, and their harvests grew larger. They soon had enough food to store for lean times and to trade. But with such productivity came a danger—the threat that nearby nomadic tribes would raid the city and rob Jerichos granaries with their large stores of food.

To fend off raiders, the people of Jericho built the oldest known protective wall in the world, perhaps dating to around 8000 BC. At that point, Jerichos population had probably reached 2,000 people or so. For perspective, that’s about as many people as the current population of the rural town of Victor, Idaho. For its time, however, Jericho must have felt like a bustling metropolis. (Recall that there were fewer than 10 million people in the entire world back then, roughly equivalent to the current population of Portugal).

Producing a surplus of food allowed for some specialization of economic activities: not everyone had to be a farmer, freeing people to pursue other projects. The wall’s construction could not have been accomplished without some degree of specialization. The stone wall stood over 11 feet high, and in addition to defending the city, the wall may also have served to protect the city from floods.

There is some evidence that the walls accompanying 28-foot-high cone-shaped stone tower, also built around 8000 BC, served a symbolic purpose rather than a practical one. The tower is not well-positioned to serve as a defensive lookout. But computer models show that back when the tower was built, the nearby mountains would cast a shadow on it just as the sun set on the longest day of the year—the summer solstice. The shadow would fall precisely on the tower and then spread out to cover all of ancient Jericho.

So, the tower may have served as a warning: its growing shadow let the people of Jericho know that the days ahead were about to start becoming shorter and the nights longer. Agricultural activities such as planting and harvesting are intimately linked to different seasons in the year, and so, to the largely agrarian community of Jericho, marking the summer solstice likely held great significance. The solstice may have been observed as a day of importance, whether as a celebratory festival or a day of solemnity.

The tower also may have symbolized power or authority. Transitioning from hunting and gathering to becoming an agricultural society entailed a transformation in how people related to one another: whereas hunter-gatherer tribes tended to be egalitarian (i.e., lacking in hierarchy), the more specialized and complex society that emerged in Jericho brought with it a new set of social power dynamics. Grave sites show that the first Jerichoans observed differences in rank, with some individuals buried alongside valuable goods such as shell jewelry and others occupying simpler graves.

“This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” according to Tel Aviv University archeologist Ran Barkai, one of the researchers behind the discovery of the connection between the Tower of Jericho and the summer solstice. “We believe this tower [by acting as a symbol of power and authority] was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle,” he continued.

Today, Jericho is perhaps best-known due to the role it played in Biblical times. It is the place that the ancient Israelites are purported to have conquered in 1400 BC, after escaping from slavery in Egypt. The well-known song about the Battle of Jericho, covered by musical icons ranging from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, was first composed in the 19th-century United States by enslaved African-Americans. The songs subject, about a previously enslaved people triumphant in battle, and its chorus, proclaiming that Jerichos walls came tumbling down,” both alluded to the songwriters’ own desire for freedom.

Thus the city of Jericho became a symbol of freedom in popular culture many thousands of years after that city helped to free humanity from foraging for food in the wilderness. The transition to agriculture was likely a difficult and patience-testing process, upending the Natufians’ previous way of life and altering their social structure, but the payoff has been a level of food security beyond what our hunter-gatherer ancestors could have imagined.

For being the worlds oldest city and possibly the birthplace of agriculture, Neolithic-era Jericho deserves to be recognized as our first Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Cities Are Central to Human Flourishing

Urbanization is good for humanity and for the environment.

Urban populations increasing, cities essential to humanity

Increasing urbanization may not sound like a particularly positive and newsworthy trend. In fact, cities are the engines of human liberation and economic growth. Urbanization is also good for the planet, for people in the cities have a smaller environmental footprint than people in the countryside. As such, it should be welcomed and encouraged.

Traditionally, between 80 percent and 90 percent of humanity lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture. As late as 1900, 40 percent of Americans, to give just one example, worked on farms. Today, less than 2 percent do. Prior to mechanization, farm work was physically exhausting and poorly paid, which helps to explain why people started to move from the countryside to the cities. At first, most found employment in manufacturing. Today, they tend to occupy better paid and physically less strenuous jobs in the service sector.

In the past, cities were the engines of liberation. In Medieval Europe, for example, serfs who escaped from their masters and lived in a city for “a year and a day” became free from servitude. Hence the German saying, “Stadtluft macht frei” or “city air makes you free.” Cities also offered better schools, leading to higher levels of literacy and political consciousness and, in time, democratization.

At first, cities were even less sanitary than the countryside. Unprepared for the huge influx of people from the countryside, they could not cope with overcrowding and the spread of contagious diseases. Over time, urban infrastructure caught up with population growth and today cities provide superior medical care, leading to life expectancy that is, typically, a few years higher than that in the countryside.

Urban centers have been more welcoming to different lifestyles and beliefs since time immemorial. That was of particular significance to sexual and religious minorities, who were more broadly tolerated in cities, such as renaissance Florence and early modern Amsterdam, than they would have been in more intimate rural settings.

Finally, cities offered and continue to offer a greater variety of amusements, leisure activities and intellectual stimuli. As Samuel Johnson famously put it in 1777, “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

For once, Karl Marx may have been right when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” Harsh, perhaps, but true.

In many countries today, cities are the centers of innovation, engines of growth, and home to the richest segment of the population – just think of Delhi, London, New York, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. In fact, the World Bank found that “No country has grown to middle income without industrializing and urbanizing. None has grown to high income without vibrant cities.” Yet as late as 1950, a mere 29 percent of humanity lived in the cities. In 2018, it was 55 percent. In 2050, it is projected, 68 percent of people on Earth will be city-dwellers. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of the population live in cities – a figure that will rise to 57 percent in 2050.

Many of the environmental advantages of urbanization are derived from living spaces being condensed. For example, electricity use per person in cities is lower than electricity use per person in the suburbs and rural areas. Condensed living space also allows for more of the natural environment to be preserved. In a suburban or rural environment, private properties are spread out, because land values are relatively low. So, more of the natural environment is destroyed. In cities, property values are higher and space is used more efficiently. That means that more people live in the same square mile of land than in the rural areas.

Another environmental advantage of cities compared to rural areas is a decrease in carbon emissions per person. In a rural or suburban area people normally use their own vehicles to drive to work or anywhere else. Due to congestion, the use of personal cars in the city is much less attractive. More people use public transportation instead and that means that less carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere.

None of the above advantages of urban life should be read so as to deny the loveliness of the countryside, which is made all the lovelier by having more animals and fewer people living in it.

A version of this first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Ridley: Cities Are the New Galapagos

Urban wildlife is expanding and evolving faster than expected.

Easter Monday bank holiday feels like a good moment to put aside politics and consider something far more portentous: evolution. Recently I was walking alongside a canal in central London, surrounded by concrete, glass, steel and tarmac, when I heard the call of a grey wagtail. Looking to my right I saw this bold, fast, yellow-bottomed bird, which I associate with wild rocky rivers in the north, flitting into a canal tunnel. Later that week I stared up at two peregrine falcons circling high above parliament — and got funny looks from passers-by.

Like other cities, London is increasingly home to exotic wildlife and is as biodiverse as some wildernesses. Mumbai has leopards, Boston turkeys, Chicago coyotes and Newcastle kittiwakes. Suburbs are already richer in wildlife than most arable fields in the so-called green belt, making environmental objections to housing development perverse. Gardens, ledges, drains, walls, trees and roofs are full of niches for everything from foxes to flowers and moths.

Two Czech scientists counted the species of plants in the city of Plzen compared with a similar area of surrounding countryside. In the city the number of species had risen from 478 in the late 19th century to 773 today. In the countryside it had fallen from 1,112 to 745.

Since most animals have shorter lifespans than us and no welfare state, they are genetically adapting faster to the concrete world than we are. A fascinating book by a Dutch biologist, Menno Schilthuizen, called Darwin Comes to Town, documents just how wide and deep this urban wildlife evolutionary pulse is. We have unleashed an unprecedented burst of natural selection.

Once a species thrives in a man-made habitat, it may find itself giving up living elsewhere. This must have happened to swallows and sparrows a long time ago: they became so successful nesting in buildings that the genes of their tree or cliff-nesting cousins died out. Today it is probably happening with peregrine falcons and herring gulls: urban ones are having more young than rural ones, so will soon swamp the whole species with their genes.

Urban landscapes present new evolutionary pressures. Street lights confuse and massacre moths and cause songbirds insomnia. Metal concentrations can be toxic. Noise drowns out birdsong. Instead of remaining insuperable, however, these novelties bring out the ingenuity in evolution. Urban insects may be changing their genetic  make-up so they no longer fly towards lights: suicide as a selective force. One Swiss study found that ermine moths from the countryside are almost twice as likely to fly towards a light as their cousins from the city of Basel.

Other examples of urban evolution abound. Killifish in polluted American harbours have developed genetic resistance to the effect of polychlorinated biphenyls, an industrial pollutant. Acorn ants in Cleveland, Ohio, can withstand high temperatures better than ants from the country — which is necessary because city temperatures tend to be higher. Mexican sparrows that incorporate cigarette butts in their nests have fewer bloodsucking mites feeding on their chicks because nicotine is a pesticide.

Birds sing higher-pitched songs in cities — the ones that stayed low having attracted fewer mates over the sound of traffic. In the countryside, the opposite is true: female great tits mated to high-pitched males are more likely to stray. So the species is splitting into soprano town-tits and bass country-tits. In the Netherlands, chiffchaff warblers and grasshoppers both sing higher-pitched songs if they live near busy roads. Pigeons in big cities have darker plumage because melanin pigment binds zinc, excreting it from the body and improving the birds’ health.

Human beings, too, have been forced to evolve by urbanisation. For centuries cities such as London were population “sinks”, killing more people with disease than their birth rates could match and sustaining their population only by immigration from the countryside. That put a premium on genetic mutations that resisted urban diseases. People with long histories of urban living tend to have genes that resist tuberculosis and leprosy, for example. It would not be a surprise to find that an ability to tolerate continual noise may also be partly genetic as well as learnt.

Walking to the Tube in London each morning at this time of year I hear goldcrests and goldfinches, parakeets and dunnocks, wrens and long-tailed tits, none of which lived in the middle of cities in my youth. Experiments show that urban tits, finches and sparrows are less “neophobic” than rural ones: they have evolved to be less fearful of the appearance of new objects on bird tables, for example. Compared with the egg-stealing, catapult-wielding youths of previous centuries, young people today simply do not pester animals as much.

Blackbirds first showed up in London in the 1920s, later than in continental cities. Studies in France and the Netherlands found that urban blackbirds were rapidly diverging from rural ones. They tend to have shorter beaks and wings, longer intestines and legs, as well as higher-pitched songs. They may soon count as a separate species, just as town pigeons are very different from their rock-dove cousins. Dr Schilthuizen argues that “as the urban environment expands its reach, it will become more and more an ecosystem in its own right, writing its own evolutionary rules and running at its own evolutionary pace”. Wildernesses experience very slow rates of species formation because they are already mature ecosystems. Cities, like archipelagos of islands, experience a much faster rate of change.

The immediate reaction of many people to this tale of urban biodiversity might be to lament the human interference in nature and discount urban wildlife as artificial. We sometimes despise rather than admire creatures that become urban: town pigeons are “feathered rats”, urban foxes “mangy vermin”.

An increase in urban wildlife cannot compensate for the extinction crisis in wilder spaces. But thanks to increased awareness and new techniques, we have shown we can halt extinction if we try.

In recent centuries we have lost 61 of 4,428 species of mammals and 129 of 8,971 birds. Thanks to the genetic change that is happening in the urban Galapagos, we can create new species too, albeit unwittingly. A small cheerful thought for a festival of chicks and bunnies.

This first appeared in The Times.