Where Do We Come From?

“It was once assumed that the rise of urban life marked some kind of historical turnstile, whereby everyone who passed through had to permanently surrender their basic freedoms and submit to the rule of faceless administrators, stern priests, paternalistic kings or warrior-politicians – simply to avert chaos (or cognitive overload)....The overall effect is to portray the violence and inequalities of modern society as somehow arising naturally from structures of rational management and paternalistic care: structures designed for human populations who, we are asked to believe, became suddenly incapable of organizing themselves once their numbers expanded above a certain threshold. Not only do such views lack a sound basis in human psychology. They are also difficult to reconcile with archeological evidence of how cities actual began in many parts of the world: as civic experiments on a grand scale, which frequently lacked the expected features of administrative hierarchy and authoritarian rule....What happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal [grain] domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 in which it did?...
Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies – say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighborhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction – will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?...
In some ways, such a perspective might seem even more tragic than our standard narrative of civilization as the inevitable fall from grace. It means we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about. It means that mass enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labor never had to happen. But on the other hand it also suggests that, even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.” (David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity)
What is our story? What I want to say today is that what the evidence is now showing about the 200,000 years homo sapiens have existed on the planet is that nothing about the predicament of modernity is inevitable, nor need we be stuck with it. We can design new ways, and live into them. It’s what we have in fact been doing since the beginning of us.

It’s a central function of our religion to tell us a story of where we came from. Genesis, the first book of the Torah and of what Christians call the Old Testament, begins with a story of where we come from. If you grew up in America, Europe, or anywhere under the cultural influence of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, then that story is a part of you. And you’ll notice it has a certain ethic built into it: after each stage of creation, the story tells us, “God saw that it was good.”

The repeated moral of that story is that creation is good. And the proper response to this goodness, for all animals, human and otherwise, is to be fruitful and multiply. Creation exists to create more of itself, for creation is good.

From the Greek, and Roman, and Norse myths, to the stories told by original peoples of the Americas, of Africa, Australia, Asia, humans have told each other origin stories. We tend to call them myths if they are not our story, but either way, there are these stories that tell us where we came from and, thus, what we are. So, again, what is our story – the Unitarian Universalist story?

Two things: one, the UU story is plural, and, two, the UU story is changing. We have lots of stories. The Genesis story is one of our stories, and its allegorical and poetic resonances affirm for us that creation is good and creating is good. Maybe the Greek myths also resonate with us in these poetic or allegorical ways. Or maybe we cherish certain Native American origin stories.

Aside from our poetical and allegorical narratives, we Unitarian Universalist also have available to us the evidence-based stories – the stories of physics and archeology that tell us about how our universe emerged and how human society formed and evolved. The thing about evidence-based stories is that they keep changing as the evidence changes -- as we make new discoveries, and adopt different interpretations of old discoveries. So to ask what is our story is to ask what is our story now.

This is a pretty radically different way of being religious. Hundreds of generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims learned the Genesis story as children, and they lived their lives and died with that as their only human origin story. But Unitarians and, to a lesser extent, Universalists, were early adopters of the very different Darwinian story. Darwin amassed a huge amount of evidence, and we are a people who tend to respect the evidence.

Certain aspects of that story have changed just in my adult life. And it is those changes – the emerging evidence-based part of the story – that I will talk about today. I will talk about what I have experienced as three phases of the story about agriculture.

Phase 1, with which I entered young adulthood, was a story of the agricultural revolution as a dramatic break from our primitive past as foragers: a brilliant innovation which set us on the way to all the wonders of the modern world we enjoy today. About 12 thousand years ago, the basic story goes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors domesticated grain crops. We settled down, started forming cities, had some surplus, which allowed for people to specialize and develop expertise, which fueled innovation, and we were off to the races. And it was good. Human ingenuity produced this progress and hoorah for that.

That was the story that I had – gosh, even as recently as 10 years ago. When I started as your minister, that was the story I had.

Then, phase 2: I started learning about the evidence for a different story – that the agricultural revolution led to standing armies, so that wars, which had been small-scale skirmishes between bands, were now massive-scale slaughter. In 2017 I read in a New Yorker article by John Lanchester about one side effect of grain agriculture. Drawing on a book by James Scott, Lanchester explained:
“Grain, unlike other crops, is easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) are buried and so can be hidden from the tax collector, and, even if discovered, they must be dug up individually and laboriously. Other crops (notably, legumes) ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season rather than along a fixed trajectory of unripe to ripe—in other words, the taxman can’t come once and get his proper due. Only grains are, in Scott’s words, “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’ ”
So grains led to taxation, which led to standing armies, and the powerful getting more powerful on the backs of the laborers. Hunter gatherers didn’t have to put up with that. Also foragers had a lot more leisure time, without the constant arduous toil of the agricultural laborer.

Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens:
“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of human kind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
Here Harari is harkening back to Jared Diamond, best known for his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond says agriculture was the “Worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Why would we make such a mistake? Harari explains:
“The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life. … Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.... But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty. Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a villages population from a hundred to 100, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.”
Some writers have stressed the separation from nature and the psychic damage wrought upon our species by the transition from foraging to agriculture. Chellis Glendinning wrote in My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.”
It's the Genesis story all over again, isn’t it? – only with the twist that we didn’t get kicked out of Eden for eating a fruit. We kicked ourselves out by growing grain.

John Lanchester, Jared Diamond, James Scott, Yuval Harari, and Chellis Glendinning are all people whose work I’ve learned about in the last 10 years – and they have made scattered appearances in sermons I gave from the CUUC pulpit. Both the phase 1 story and the phase 2 story center on something called an agricultural revolution and they both have an air of inevitability about them. The phase 1 story tells of inevitable onward and upward progress of homo sapiens. The phase 2 story depicts our species unable to avoid the tragedy of agriculture.

I was also, along the way, picking up some hints that things might not have been so inevitable. There have, throughout, been people and peoples who somehow managed to avoid getting suckered. In a sermon four years ago, I preached about the importance of community – of having a tribe. I drew on Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger’s point is that we need community, and that modern life isn’t well set up for what we humans most need. On the one hand, Junger underscored for me my emerging understanding that the path from agriculture to urbanization to, eventually, industrialization was all a bad turn. But on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t inevitable. In that sermon I said:

In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more. They were making "progress" happen. Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
On Tuesday we’ll be observing the anniversary of the date in 1776 when American colonists declared independence from Britain.Six years later, in 1782, Hector de Crèvecoeur described the people who were making much more radical declarations of independence – independence from European ways of life. Crevecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”

Tribal life was 95 percent of human history, and it meets the needs we evolved to have. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, said Junger,
“would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left... alone.

The legacy of the agricultural revolution – hierarchy, inequality, plagues (because now we were packing ourselves into cities), famines (because we had larger populations but sometimes the crops failed or were terribly mismanaged), arduous toil for most people, until finally the industrial revolution replaced back-breaking labor with isolation and alienation and loneliness – well, maybe that whole deal wasn’t so inevitable if peoples of the Americas and other forager cultures scattered around the globe had avoided the trap well into modernity.

Through that crack, that maybe the whole thing wasn’t inevitable, comes phase 3 of the evidence-based story of where we come from. As more and more evidence has come to light, it turns out that it’s a lot more complicated than either of the first two fairly simple stories, either the triumphant or the tragic. Archeologists and anthropologists are starting to tell us – as anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow say in their 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything: “The course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.”

We now see a lot more diversity of human culture – and a lot of pretty thoughtful reflection and intentionality about how they wanted to live. We know of peoples who went a little bit agricultural – who had gardens but didn’t go full-in on grain dependence – and who lived that way for thousands of years. We know of peoples who did develop intensive grain agriculture, and then rejected it and went back to a mixed system of some gardening and some foraging. We don’t have to get sucked in by our own technology, whether that technology is grain agriculture or smart phones.

In fact, in the dawning light of evidence, the very idea of an agricultural revolution starts to get fuzzier and fuzzier until finally disappearing into the complexity of different ways that different cultures have at different times approached the cultivation of plants. Per Graeber and Wengrow, there was no agricultural revolution. Yes, some peoples did gradually come to increasingly depend on grain agriculture, but even those that did, slowly got there over about 3,000 years. They write:
“In the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, long regarded as the cradle of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, there was in fact no ‘switch’ from Paleolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production took something in the order of 3,000 years.”
A 3,000-year unfolding is not accurately called a “revolution.”

Nor does agriculture mean the inevitable rise of hierarchy and inequality. Graeber and Wengrow continue:
“And while agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the centuries between, people were effectively trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you will, switching between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth.” (248)
Nor does the rise of cities mean that we had to have a ruling class and structures of authority to keep such large collections of people in line and more-or-less coordinated. Graeber and Wengrow write:
“Contemporary archeology shows, among other things, that surprisingly few of these early cities contain signs of authoritarian rule. It also shows that their ecology was far more diverse than once believed: cities do not necessarily depend on a rural hinterland in which serfs or peasants engage in back-breaking labor, hauling cartloads of grain for consumption by urban dwellers.”
The shape of any given human society has a lot less to do with universal forces of economics, ecology, or evolution, and a lot more to do with human beings discussing, deliberating, and imagining together. The way we live is not dictated by material conditions, but created through our collective invention. Graeber and Wengrow note that “humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views.” When we’re thinking something through, we have an inner dialog. Through dialogs within ourselves and with other people, we work out who we are and our place.

Humans have been creatively and pretty intentionally working out their social and political arrangements in diverse ways for as long as there have been humans. There are a lot of details here that I can’t go into – and that’s the point: the story is vast and sprawling and complicated and highly, highly various. No simple story can do justice to the evidence. What that means is that nothing about the predicament of modernity is inevitable, nor need we be stuck with it. We can design new ways, and live into them. It’s what we have in fact been doing since the beginning of us.



  1. Still having that inner dialog, but paused to send gratitude for your reflection and challenge.

  2. Meredith,
    Graeber and Wengrow’s work is.very liberating - they show that the history taught by the west has been a PR campaign convincing us that oppression is inevitable.

    Thanks for sharing your evolution of scholarship and reflection.

    I hope you continue the work.

    It is so important.

    1. BTW, the comment above is from Bice.