Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Farming for Children: A Different Way of Thinking About the Fall

I’ve figured out the job thing, and the book is back in my editor’s hands, so it’s time to resurrect my alter ego, the Mormon Monk. And, in honor of my book, how about a monkish meditation on Eden?

Let’s review: Eden was a place without death or disease, and it was inhabited by a man who knew so much about the natural world (theologians reading Genesis 2:19 have said) that he understood the nature of each animal as he met it and gave each its appropriate name. But transgression of divine law caused God to exile Adam and Eve from this paradisiacal existence; instead of reaping nature’s bounty, Adam would have to till the land and farm.

I’ve summarized the Eden story because it bears a striking resemblance to the narrative laid out by Kenneth Kiple in his one-volume comprehensive history of food, A Movable Feast. While most of us think about the “primitive” hunter-gatherer peoples who lived before the invention of agriculture more than thirteen millennia ago with pity, according to Kiple the growing scientific consensus is “that ancient hunter-gatherers did quite well for themselves in matters of diet and nutrition, and considerably better than the sedentary agriculturalists who followed them” (3). Why did they do so well? Because they, like Adam in Genesis, had an almost encyclopedic comprehension of the environment surrounding them: “it has been estimated that our ancient ancestors knew the natural history of several thousand plants and several hundred animals” (4). Variegated diets and a nomadic lifestyle that prevented a population density which would give rise to disease meant that these hunter-gatherers were, unlike their agricultural descendants, almost never sick:

“For example, rickets (caused by vitamin D deficiency) and scurvy (occasioned by vitamin C deficiency) are diseases documented in literary and archival sources from Greek and Roman times onward but there is little evidence of such ailments in prehistoric populations. Or again, the incidence of anemia increased steadily from Neolithic times through the Bronze Age so that the lesions of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia (a pitting and expansion of cranial bones that are signals of iron deficiency anemia) found in the skeletal remains of Fertile Crescent farmers living from 6500 to 2000 BCE indicate that about half of them were anemic. By contrast only 2 percent of the skeletal remains of hunter-gatherers dating from 15,000-8000 BCE show evidence of anemia, which seems testimony to an iron-rich meat diet. In addition hunter-gatherers had far fewer dental caries, knobby joints, and abscesses. And finally, as a rule, hunter-gatherers were significantly taller than the village agrarians who followed them, indicating a much better intake of whole protein.” (4)

To recap: hunter-gatherers possessed a better knowledge of the natural world than most scientists today and enjoyed (by historical standards) very healthful lives. The rise of the first farming cultures might seem, in retrospect, like something of a curse—in edenic terms, a Fall—as these hunter-gatherers traded “in a life of ease (contemporary hunter-gatherers work only about a dozen or two hours weekly to get food together and to make, maintain, and repair weapons and implements) for one of back-breaking labor from sunup to sundown with a narrow-minded concentration on a single crop. And they had no way of knowing that they were exchanging good health for famine and nutritional diseases, not to mention swapping plenty of elbowroom for crowded living conditions—conditions that helped open the door for plague and pestilence” (13).

In other words, Kiple paints a picture of human civilization that follows the narrative of Genesis: men live at ease with nature, then receive sickness and death as they turn to farming. As a member of a faith not wedded to traditional, literal interpretations of the Bible (The Church’s eighth Article of Faith declares, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly,” and my personal doubts about translation leave me inclined to doubt that the earth is only 6,000 years old or that people have only been living on it for roughly that long), my natural inclination is to try and harmonize these two accounts that seem so similar, rather than to discard one or the other as less true than the other.

For instance, could Adam have been the first farmer rather than the first anthropomorphic being? And, since we are a farming people who are physiologically, culturally, and intellectually distinct from our hunter-gatherer ancestors because of our reliance on agriculture, would it even be inaccurate to say that he was the first human being (as we now understand the term)? Could it be that God created a man of the soil rather than that he created a man out of the soil?

I understand that the natural tendency would be to reject such a hypothesis out of hand, as a position out of step with prophetic teachings. And, in fact, this conjecture might be completely false (that’s why I’m calling it a hypothesis). I’m not interested in challenging prophetic authority so much as trying to reconcile two (apparently) mutually contradictory truths. But, crucially, this suggestion that Adam and Eve were the first farmers also seems to confirm or coincide with the central Mormon understanding of the Fall. Lehi teaches, regarding Adam and Eve, that if they had remained in the garden of Eden (or, in my terms, if they had remained hunter-gatherers) that “they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:23-25).

This doctrine—that the Fall was a good thing because it brought children into the world—is a uniquely Mormon doctrine dependant on the monistic Mormon belief that physical bodiesare not inherently evil. And this doctrine is compatible with my suggestion that the Fall and the invention of agriculture may be the same thing. For all of the nutritional deficiencies introduced with agriculture, farming clearly brought about at least one indisputable benefit: the sedentary lifestyle and dependable source of calories made it possible for women to have more children and to raise those children into adulthood. Farming (here associated the Fall) brought about sickness and raised mortality rates, but it also introduced vast numbers of children into the world. As a faith that celebrates the incorporation (embodiment) of spirits, this was a tremendous boon. Could it be that Adam and Eve (in this context, read hunter-gatherers) could have some children, enough to sustain a population but not enough to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28)? That Lehi was speaking hyperbolically?

I can’t answer these questions. I don’t know how old the earth was, and I don’t know how to reconcile scientific evidence for human evolution with revealed scripture. But I’ve learned to embrace my own ignorance—admitting that I DON’T understand the scriptures fully, that I DON’T understand science almost at all—as the first step to finding joy in my quest for a truth that encompasses everything I believe to be true.

As Joseph Smith so famously said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”