Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A neolithic prisonner's dilemma

Why did humans adopt agriculture in Neolithic times? Our intuition would say because it has better nutritional outcomes. But the evidence points to the contrary: the bones of early farmers consistently show poorer health than the preceding hunter-gatherers. So why would agriculture be adopted if it lead to a disadvantage?

Robert Rowthorn and Paul Seabright say it was individually rational to adopt agriculture, even though it was detrimental to society, much like in a prisoner's dilemma. The problem of a farmer is that he needs to defend his land and his cattle. That seems an additional disadvantage with respect to hunter-gatherers. But farmers can team up in villages, and fortify them. And voilà, now that they have a secure base, they can start raiding around them instead of only defending. This is where the prisoner's dilemma comes in: it is individually rational for every farmer to dedicate resources to defense, but this lowers everyone's welfare.

And thus started the grip of the defense industry on the economy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's also a matter of comparative advantage. The good hunters hunted, the bad hunters planted -- but they survived, and then outcompeted the brutes. Necessity created an advantageous niche. Wolves with low levels of adrenalin turned to scavenging around humans, then evolved into dogs. Bad wolves, great dogs, and a fine evolutionary success story.