The Biggest Picture: Stone -> Agriculture -> Industrial Ages

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2015


The biggest picture of human history is the progression that humanity has gone through as mankind has mastered and utilized many new technologies. This mastering process is divided into "Ages", in part because how people live is changed so dramatically by which technologies they have mastered and are using in large quantities.

In this essay I'm going to discuss the differences between the Neolithic Village (my term for Stone Age), Agricultural and Industrial Age lifestyles. These differences lay the backdrop for much of the history that gets talked about in history books and videos. If you are familiar with these cultural/technological differences then the human motivations behind these events make more sense. When the human motivations swirling around a historic event are understandable the event itself makes more sense.

The Time Scales

The first thing to keep in mind about these various ages is the difference in time scales. The differences are enormous.

The Neolithic Age has been around since the beginning of modern mankind, and is still the living style practiced in some places today such as in the remote areas of the Amazon River basin and Indonesian archipelago. It has been around for tens of thousands of generations. This means that the human body and human thinking are well adapted to survival in this environment.

The Agricultural Age began in a handful of locations roughly five thousand years ago. This is 250 generations ago for those who have been living in the Agricultural Age the longest. (and more like 150 for the median human) This is long enough to do a lot of learning, and do some weeding out of seriously inefficient body and thinking traits, but not long enough for evolution to come up with interesting new adaptations to add to the mix -- there has been some sorting out, but little "sorting in".

The Industrial Age began in Western Europe roughly three hundred years ago. This is 15 generations. (5 generations for the median) This is long enough to do some serious learning, but not long enough to make much change to DNA. The instinctive thinking that served well in the Neolithic Village eras, and has been modified a bit for Agricultural Age living, is still very much with Industrial Age inhabitants, even where the fit is poor.

This change in thinking patterns, and lack of it, is why keeping time scales in mind is important.

The Neolithic Village Age

The Neolithic Village environment incorporates enormous variety. Prior to the wide spreading of agricultural practices, there were people living from the tropics to the arctic in Neolithic Village environments. The range of foods consumed was equally large and the range of unexpected catastrophes that had to be dealt with was also large.

Within all this variety there were some constants, and these constants shaped the instinctive thinking that humans still live with today, even those who live in Industrial Age environments. (Note: I write about this mix of instinctive and analytical thinking styles in all my Business and Insight series books. If you want more details, see them.)

Here are some of the constants:

o The village size is small -- typically one to three extended families. These people could be trusted. Others, those humans who were strangers from other villages, could not be. They would betray, and they could be betrayed without causing much concern within the village group. Think of stealing horses and wives to prove manhood. This is the root of the "Us versus Them" instinct that is still strong today.

o Foods and other essentials changed in quality and quantity constantly. What was available to eat, what was still pure and not tainted, and what could be transformed into edible, was something that required constant attention. These are not called hunter-gatherer societies for no reason. This is the root of the constant interest in food we still experience today.

o When something vital ran out -- food, shelter, water, tolerable weather -- the village moved. These villagers were semi-nomadic. This controlled feelings about property. You could only "own" what you could carry on your back from one location to the next, and even that was not owned by one person, it was shared with the rest of the village.

o The world was a dangerous place. Much more so than in other environments, lots of nasty surprises lurked inside and around the Neolithic Village. Some, such as vicious animals, were understandable. Some, such as disease, were mysterious. Some were small, such as mosquitoes, some were big, such as big storms and floods. All-in-all, the world was an uncertain and surprising place, with many of the surprises being damaging or lethal. This is the root of the Protect the Children instinct and others which thrive on fear.

o The world was a varied place. It was hot during the day and cold at night. It could be wet, dry, windy, calm, sun-baked or shady. The human body dealt with a lot of variety in conditions around it. It was also varied from place to place where people lived -- an example mentioned earlier being the differences between living near the tropics and near the arctic.


All of the above traits, and many more, are characteristics of Neolithic Village living. Again, these are important because mankind has spent thousands of generations living in these conditions, and they have had the most influence on shaping mankind's bodies and thinking.

How does this help prediction

Mankind uses a lot of instinctive thinking in both day-to-day living and in dealing things that come up just once in a while. Knowing what instinctive thinking is telling a person, and a community, can make their actions more predictable. The most dramatic example of this is Panic Thinking followed by a Blunder action. (my terms, and discussed in the Cyreenik Says section on my web site)


The Agricultural Age

The technologies and living styles of the Agricultural Age are mankind's first dramatic departure from the Neolithic Village lifestyle environment.

The change was not an easy one. It started in just a handful of places -- wide, flat, river valleys with fairly regular flooding -- and spread slowly. At first most people of the surrounding communities said, "No, thank you." and continued on with their Neolithic Village-style living. This 16 May 15 Science News article, Humans & society: Beads suggest hunter-gatherers resisted farming in Northern Europe: Culture clash may have delayed arrival of agriculture by Bruce Bower, talks about this.

But in the long run the Agricultural Age style living proved fruitful for creating and embracing lots of new styles of technologies and techniques. And the more of these new techniques that were discovered and embraced, the more they improved the living conditions of those involved, and as these improvements had more and more impact on human living agriculture spread widely.

Here are some major differences that Agricultural-style living brings to humanity:

o switching from semi-nomadic to sedentary living -- This one makes a surprisingly big difference because of its effect on property. If you are living in one place most of your life, you can accumulate lots more stuff. The first surprise is, if you can accumulate lots more stuff, it plays to learn how to make lots more kinds of things. The second surprise is if you have lots more kinds of things to play with arguing over who owns what becomes a much bigger part of the lifestyle. All-in-all, huge changes. One of the more dramatic changes is creating cities. Another was developing writing -- the first use of writing was to provide a better way to account for who owned all this "new fangled property stuff". Before writing, accounting depended on human memory and memory aids such as the "song lines" of aboriginal Australia. After the accounting "commodity use" (my term) was well established, then came all the wondrous "surprise uses" (my term) that we now associate with writing skills.

o larger groups pay off more than smaller groups -- When farming large fields year after year, having groups larger than extended families work together pays handsome dividends. It pays, but it runs directly counter to the family size "Us versus Them" instinct of the Neolithic Village environment. Like the switch to sedentary living, this means dramatic changes must take place in how people think -- they must transform their Us versus Them instinct into a different form. That form turns out to be hierarchy -- as in, there are ruling people and ruled people. The most common ancient example of this is having a king supported by a warrior and priest class who rule over lots of farmers and a few artisans and merchants. And again surprises: Once the hierarchy system was developed and implemented, much more than bigger farms could be constructed -- things such as cities and armies.

o labor starts to get specialized -- In the Neolithic Village environment most village members can do most of the village sustaining activities. People are generalists. In the Agricultural Age people start breaking up into specialties. (but just a handful compared to the Industrial Age) Among other things, this supports caste social organizations. And it supports more surprises because these specialists could learn to make and do so many things that weren't even thought of in the Neolithic Village environment.


Again, keep in mind that the transition from Neolithic Village to Agricultural Age technologies and social organizations is a difficult change. The result of this difficulty is many places in the world have "hill people" and "valley people" who don't mix easily. The valley people are making the transition to Agricultural Age lifestyles and thinking while the hill people are happy making good old Neolithic Village lifestyles and thinking work. This is a gulf where Us versus Them thinking can be strong -- these people don't like or respect each other.

How does this help prediction

When people are gathered into communities, but they haven't developed Industrial Age thinking skills or social styles, they will use Agricultural Age thinking and social styles if they can. The prime example being using hierarchy. As a prediction example this means these communities will use Warlord style governing in small-scale situations and Imperial style governing in larger scale situations. If the situation gets too chaotic for even Agricultural Age to work, then they will fall back on Neolithic Village instincts and go for supporting family over all other relations. This is mafia-style relations. An example of a mismatch is trying to have the former Ottoman Empire Middle East regions make nationhood work. The ten decades of chronic violence there indicates it is a governing style they aren't yet ready for.

When rulers are cracking down on dissent by exiling the dissenters in some fashion (jailing is a form of exile in this definition) this is Agricultural Age-style ruling in action. "There is one right way, and the ruler is defining that right way."

One interesting change to instinctive thinking that Agricultural Age brings about is the importance of writing to law making. The "So it is written, so it shall be!" instinct. This shows up as deep reverence for holy texts and the people who study them.


The Industrial Age

The Industrial Age is another dramatic shift. Two of the major changes are adding orders of magnitude more stuff to the environment, and orders of magnitude more variety to what people think about, how they work, and how they cooperate. These changes mean even more change to how humans live than the change between Neolithic and Agricultural Age. This means even more dramatic changes in thinking styles are called for.

Here are some of the bigger changes:

o enormous variety in kinds of work -- in the Neolithic Village there are dozens of kinds of jobs, and everyone in the village can do most of them. In the Agricultural Age there are hundreds of kinds of jobs and labor specialization has begun. In the Industrial Age there are hundreds of thousands of kinds of jobs -- labor specialization is in full force.

o enormous variety in kinds of cooperation -- with all the varieties of work and the varieties of things to be made and services to be offered, the new styles of cooperation between people and communities grows even larger than the styles of work. Figuring out new beneficial ways to cooperate takes up a lot of human attention in the Industrial Age environments. An example of this is establishing a successful business. Like getting into the Agricultural Age, this transition puts lots of stress on the Us versus Them instinct, and one of the biggest challenges a community faces in transitioning into an Industrial Age lifestyle is learning how to control the Us versus Them instinct so that it doesn't do serious damage. One example of this is the Loyal Opposition concept -- the idea that people can disagree vigorously about a plan, but can then cooperate vigorously once a choice has been made.

o enormous advances in understanding how the world works -- plants and animals are complex organisms, but most of that complexity is hidden from the humans growing and harvesting them. Human-built machines, on the other hand, must be well understood by the humans who invent, build, operate and repair them. This is why advances in science and technology are so important in the Industrial Age.

o enormous certainty in the living environment -- one of the pleasant ironies of living in the Industrial Age is the dramatic reduction in the variety of environmental conditions that must be adapted to. For example if you're living in a shelter with heating and indoor plumbing, you don't need to adapt to wide ranges of cold and heat, walk to find drinkable water, or walk to find a place to "shit, shower and shave" as we called it when I was in the army. In the same vein food and health care... most things in life, become much more certain.


These are the kinds of differences that characterize transitioning into the Industrial Age lifestyles. As with the Agricultural Age, the transition is not an easy one. As a result even after the first Industrial Age communities started to emerge, for many generations their neighboring Agricultural Age communities said, "Thank you, we'll keep living our lives our way." It was only as the ferocious productivity and improved products (such as weapons) became obvious that the neighbors took a second look. And these second looks usually caused a lot of civil unrest when the decision was made to attempt industrializing. Industrializing isn't easy.

How does this help prediction

When a community sets out on the road to industrialize, expect it to be on a rocky road for at least three generations. Industrializing is a complex activity, but the "rate limiter" (the slowest part of the process) is for community members to learn thinking styles that will be compatible with industrialized activities. This includes having a lot of the community members learning how to do analytical thinking, and, even more important, learning how to cooperate in Industrial Age ways. Expect this to take three generations, minimum.

Also keep in mind that industrializing projects often fail. The communities of the Post-Ottoman empire Middle East have tried many times since the beginning of the 20th century, and many have failed. Successful industrializing is not inevitable.

Also keep in mind the wide variety of outcomes that successful industrializing can produce. The social and cultural differences between all the developed nations are enormous. Think of the differences between the US and Russia as just one example.



These three are the Big Ages, the biggest picture transitions. The transition from one to the next is always a big task for a community. It is big and uncertain, sometimes there is success, sometimes failure and going back to the good old ways, but with some changes.

Technology and thinking both change a lot with each transition. And there are many surprises that come with each transition. As a result, the outcome of a transition will be individual for every person and community that undergoes one.

This uncertainty of outcome is what makes history so exciting, and current events so unpredictable.


--The End--