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The Toad Work

I am sure I am not alone in feeling that we would all be a lot better off without the Dublin Mountains. That assortment of hills has unsettled many in our city, including the present writer.

Standing with other blank faces, waiting for the morning bus, it is sometimes difficult to ignore the ritual beyond Lamb Doyle’s, as early shafts of yellow and golden light from the east slowly dissolve the night’s mist across the uplands and west towards Tallaght. Not being fully awake, one is not always sufficiently alert to avert one’s eyes. And with the registering of this event comes the knowledge ‑ and it comes instantly without having to go anywhere remotely near the deep heart’s core, wherever that may be ‑ that the day ought to be spent wandering about on those hills and that the ball and chain of work is a crime against ourselves and nature.

In this case knowledge is pain.

The grim toad work does not entertain such nonsense. The brain is pressed into service and quietly complies. Work is man’s lot, the frontal lobe advises, it is our post-lapsarian fate, resistance is futile; life, as has been long established, is a vale of tears. Self-medicated with such reflections, one climbs on the bus and descends into the city in long-faced resignation.

The evidence is incontrovertible, we are complicit in the grimness of giving our lives over to hard graft. No matter how many tools man develops, he or she or both together are incapable of designing an exit from the purgatory of work.

At this point, I hope the reader will not object if I refer briefly to the Bible.

The Book of Genesis, particularly the account of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and, crucially, the grind which followed thereafter, the one which obliged our first parents and their descendants, that is to say us, to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, can be read as a metaphorical lament for the vanished world of the hunter-gatherer, our remote ancestor who mysteriously switched from a leisurely, pleasant and natural existence to the misery of agriculture. That was the real original sin, the one which has marked us since, the one we are all paying for and from which death is the only escape.

At least three questions may occur to the reader at this point. Why on earth did people switch? Secondly, was agriculture really that grim? And finally, if it was that bad why didn’t they switch back? Some might also wonder whether the hunter-gatherer life really that wonderful. I will try to be brief.

Seven thousand years ago agriculture had not arrived in Ireland, which was then pure hunter-gatherer territory. The numbers were small, so much so that the presence of those inhabitants, as far as I know, cannot be detected in modern genes. The hunter-gatherers can be applauded on a number of counts, not least for living in harmony with the rest of nature and failing to emulate modern man’s commitment to the destruction of the planet.

Back then, life along the Shannon, with plentiful supplies of fish, berries, elk, roots, fowl, deer, nuts, grubs and other goodies must have been quite pleasant. Even today on the marginal lands where some hunter-gatherers continue to live, life has been described by anthropologists as “leisurely”. Apparently it is common to sit in the shade beneath a tree listening to, or telling, some saga of adventure and only stirring oneself when conditions for hunting are optimal, in short an excellent work-life balance.

The thing about hunter-gatherer children – one every four years by some accounts ‑ is that if the parents were clever enough to prevent them from being eaten, and I think their big brains would have helped in that matter, they would have survived into adulthood. It was different for farming families. Agriculture, which was labour-intensive, gave rise to congested settlements. In this environment disease flourished: the infectious ones that evolved specifically to attack humans, such as smallpox, influenza, cholera, measles, chickenpox, all emerged since the advent of agriculture.

It is hardly surprising. Living cheek by jowl with many other people and also with chickens, pigs, sheep and goats and surrounded by human and animal waste led to high mortality rates. Apparently it was only after two thousand years of agriculture that it was decided to move filth from the floors of homes to designated areas. Human remains may also have played a part in spreading disease. Excavation of early agricultural huts has revealed a pattern of children’s bones in considerable volumes beneath the floors. Farming homes, it seems, also served also as charnel houses. Here indeed was the fall of man. 

No one is quite sure how agriculture got started in the first place, possibly a series of unfortunate accidents or perhaps the work of some obsessive Mark Zuckerberg type.

Grain was the game-changer. Its great advantage was that, unlike other foods, it could be stored for considerable periods. If you had a supply of grain you were top dog. Agriculture thus facilitated the emergence of class and the seizing of social power. It allowed for an elite of kings, shamans, generals, judges and the rest who, instead of organising their day around the procurement of dinner, were able to concentrate on bossing people around, getting farmers to pay taxes (grain) and requiring them to build monuments, fortresses and the like for an elite who had managed to steal a march on ordinary folk.

Grain also allowed for larger farming families, which were needed for the labour-intensive work. This larger population was also handy for soldiering. Of course these larger numbers had to be fed, and grain was the way they could be kept alive. While some individuals no doubt escaped off into the wilderness, agriculture turned out to be a trap for communities. The larger populations agriculture facilitated could only be supported by agriculture. There was no road back.

But what is perhaps an even greater mystery than that surrounding the beginning and consolidation of agriculture is that as our species developed more sophisticated and labour-saving tools only an elite benefited in lifestyle. The vast majority have remained bondsmen or wage slaves to this day, serving the god of growth.

Some decades ago certain charming but naive thinkers declared that humanity would have to be educated for leisure. The new technology, don’t you know, was going to illuminate the path back to Eden. Well, after some decades of the wondrous new technology, it is clear to all that this was innocent codswallop. The elites have effortlessly corralled the new wealth and power, and the expanded masses, hard-wired for toil and servitude, still climb on the bus with bowed heads.

These reflections were prompted by Steven Mithen’s review of James C Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States in the London Review of Books, November 30th, 2017.