The relationship of agriculture and human behavior

Farm Forum

The development of agriculture has had profound effects on human behavior. The previous two Farm and Ranch Life columns indicated how agriculture greatly enhanced the survival of humans over preceding hunter-gatherer ancestors.

As agricultural methods of growing crops and raising livestock developed some 150 or so centuries ago, the people in these communities had a steadier supply of food and clothing, as well as time to pursue gainful activities besides scrounging for essentials.

Agriculture contributed to incredible advances that have shaped contemporary society, such as the invention of the scientific method, specialization in trades and cultural activities, the formation of cities and the establishment of governments.

Today let’s look at some of the ways agriculture has shaped our behavior and contributed to our emotional welfare.

Farming is a highly territorial activity. We are infused with a powerful drive, called the agrarian imperative, to acquire the land, water and any other resources needed to feed and protect the welfare of our families and the larger human community.

This drive has become a critical part of our inherited genetic makeup. Just like most animals signify the boundaries of their territories by vocal displays and scent marking, we humans mark our territories with signs, fences and legal descriptions. Even in our offices and work areas we post photographs and favorite objects in prominent places that say, “This space is mine.”

Even if we don’t operate a farm, we exhibit remnants of the agrarian imperative by obtaining property and engaging in activities (e.g., employment) that enable us to provide for our families. Gardening and caring for pets, lawns and houseplants are manifestations of this same urge.

The most obvious agrarian behaviors diminish in about three successive generations when people leave agricultural activities to take up other occupations and places to reside. Bodily movements such as those required to scoop snow become less efficient. Often, urbanites feel uncomfortable in rural terrain.

Urban people usually pay less attention to the weather than if their livelihoods depended on weather conditions. They do not lose their agrarian capacities, however, because these are retained in their DNA. The agrarian imperative has survival value for the human species.

A person can be removed from the farm but not the “farm” from the person! How quickly persons not familiar with farming become attached to the land when they take up agricultural pursuits.

When city residents marry farmers or return to agriculture as their life’s work, they rapidly develop interest in markets, weather and acquisition of land. They develop efficient use of time and physical abilities.

Domestic animals retain capacities in their DNA to readily revert behaviorally back to the ways of their wild ancestors when thrust into a feral existence. In a single generation the hair of feral pigs lengthens, their tusks enlarge, and their behaviors become cautious and aggressive.

Humans who return to agricultural pursuits soon develop larger and tougher hands. Mannerisms become brusque. All this happens in just a few years.

Urban Agriculture is a manifestation of the agrarian imperative, I think. David Montgomery observes in his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, how the urban agriculture movement is proliferating in European and Asian cities. He describes how many North American cities now promote community garden spaces and many metropolitan residents raise chickens.

Perhaps the formation of urban gangs is also a manifestation of the agrarian imperative. The behaviors of gang members certainly are territorial in nature, as indicated by displays of graffiti and violent disputes over infringement of boundaries. It is less clear, however, if gang violence has long-term survival value.

But again, we have to remember that most international wars have been fought over control of desired territory. The disputed territory has usually been defended more vigorously when it contains resources necessary for life, such as productive soil and water.

Dr. Montgomery warns us also that we can enhance or reduce survival of the human species by the way we manage our soil, water and air. He suggests the Roman Empire failed primarily because agricultural land became degraded and washed or blew away.

A similar process took place in the Persian plains of southwest Asia where agriculture began. As trees and ground cover were stripped away, the land became more arid. The Fertile Crescent was transformed into desert, like much of that area is today.

“A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt. How we farm and nurture the land are behaviors. Our agrarian imperative can easily go awry as we become so consumed with making profits that we exploit the resources necessary to produce adequate food.

We can easily destroy the land, water, air, and even the people needed to farm through greed and shortsightedness. We need healthy land and healthy farmers.