Reading Notes: Against the Grain

— 7 minute read

I was initially interested in James C. Scott's Against the Grain simply because I wanted to read something that does not have the word "computer" or "code" or "tech" in it, & it seems that a book that explores the Mesopotamia was my safest bet. I was instantly drawn when I figured that the book is not just a recitation of facts & timelines regarding the earliest states[1]. It is also challenging the commonly held belief that humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to living a more sedentary, agrarian lifestyle that formed the basis of modern states because it made life easier.

Scott argues that this is not the case: there is a 4,000 year gap between the start of domestications and the beginning of the earliest states. A 1,000 year gap is still acceptable—after all, humans need time to adjust to the tools they have just discovered—but a 4,000 year gap is peculiar. In fact, humans actually struggled to preserve their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A sedentary, agricultural lifestyle does not seem any better when compared to the hunter-gathering lifestyle. In fact, it requires more labor and leads to all sorts of complications such as diseases. Thus, unlike the narrative that we're used to, humans weren't actually really willing to adapt the sedentary lifestyle.

For a while, humans managed to combine hunting and gathering with domestication and cultivation. This lasted until 5000BC, when some groups became dependent on cultivated grains, & agricultural villages started popping up. Farmers were given incentives to increase their grain production. Eventually, stronger states will have more grain, & thus the cycle continues. These states began adopting systems such as tax collectors to collect the grain and scribes to measure the grain. As the states' populations exploded, they also started to colonize alluvial lands, leading to the rise of the earliest states in 3300BC.

The keyword here is grain. Scott asserts that "grains make the states". Why grain & not cassava, potatoes, or other crops? Scott asks readers to put their feet in the shoes of tax collectors, and think about which one of them would be most suitable for tax collecting. Root crops are too easy to hide from tax collectors; other crops are harvested at different times. From tax collection perspective, grains are the perfect tax crops: they are harvested at the same time, they are not easy to hide, & they are countable.

The rest of the book explores what happens after the rise of these states. Scott expands that these early states were fragile as they were primarily based on taxation, slavery, & population control. The last chapter is devoted to the "barbarians"—people living outside of the walls of the states. The "barbarians" that we often think as primitives actually lived a happier life than the life of those living within the walls of the states.

My main takeaway of the book is that history is not as linear as it looks like. Every step that humans make is not necessarily a forward progress, just like how Scott's theory posits that humans were coerced into states. It makes me wonder: how many of the things that we currently deem as a forward progress turn out to be motivated by oppression instead of human welfare? This question makes me look around at the things that we are working towards today that are often touted as "progress" (cough tech). I wonder what kind of today's "progress" would be called out in the 2100 version of Against the Grain.

The idea that history is not as linear as it is blows me away as someone who hasn't read much history outside of school. Back then we glossed over things like the substinence models. Scott points out that the models do not make much sense because people have actually been combining these activities, such as hunting-gathering & farming, at the same time. In the narrative that most of us are familiar with (or at least me), it was as though the move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle was "meant to happen"; that humans' intelligence was finally catching up once they discovered agricultural tools, & they, with no question, adapted the tools because the tools improved their lives. I was just so used to the substinence models being placed sequentially one after the other, it was hard to imagine that people were actually combining both at the same time.

I also learned that "history is written by the victors" does not only apply to wars—to me the saying is often more visible when it comes to wars because the losing and winning side is clear, but the line is more blurry when it comes to something like picking up an agricultural lifestyle, since the consequences are not as straightforward. Plus, I guess the reason why it's difficult to make sense of is because the modern state is our current reality, & it is difficult to imagine retreating to a nomadic, pre-state life despite the evidence that the people living in those times were happier and healthier.

Would I trade places with the hunter-gatherers? I don't think so. There are many things we wouldn't have accomplished if we're still hunter-gatherers today, like going to space. I wouldn't go as far as saying that we're actually going backward considering all the things that humans achieved, but it is important to understand that the shift to a sedentary lifestyle was not a straightforward one, & there is still room to evaluate the status quo.

There is a paragraph that I probably wouldn't have come back to if I had read this a few months ago, but reading this in the time of COVID-19 I can't help but bring it up:

“The first written sources also make it clear that early Mesopotamian populations understood the principle of “contagion” that spread epidemic disease. Where possible, they took steps to quarantine the first discernible cases, confining them to their quarters, letting no one out and no one in. They understood that long-distance travelers, traders, and soldiers were likely carriers of disease. Their practices of isolation and avoidance prefigured the quarantine procedures of the lazaretti of the Renaissance ports.”

It seems to me that a lot of the times we just refuse to learn from the past, & I'm starting to think this is probably because people believe we are living in a world of continued progress. This, perhaps, further instills the idea that we know better than our ancestors. This is largely true, but when we realize that a continued progress is not the case, maybe we would have even more humility to learn from those who came before us.

Now moving on from the content itself... when I posted a couple of my highlights on my Instagram, a couple of my friends pointed out that it looks similar to Sapiens. I read Sapiens a few years ago so my memory is quite hazy, but yes, Against the Grain did touch (& expand on) some of the topics that appeared in Sapiens. Writing wise, I personally find Against the Grain more engaging. This is because most findings are not presented matter-of-factly; rather, he takes the time to explain the theory that ties all of these findings together & explains why these make sense[2]. In a way, this also makes it more thought-provoking, as us readers are constantly taken to reevaluate what we think we already know. Both the content & the writing make me realize that when it comes to history, I've been accepting things at face value. A lot of things are still up for question, & there is nothing wrong with questioning what we think we already know.

  1. Scott's indicators of a state are those "that point to territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials." ↩︎

  2. On second thoughts, perhaps this is because Sapiens covers a very large timeline, while Against the Grain focuses on a much shorter timeline. ↩︎