Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Blogcomment record: The Wealth of Nations, 1

Steven Brust is reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. My comments on Chapter 1:

there is very little division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies

I absolutely disagree. Compared to, say, a baboon troop, there is enormous and striking division of labor in even the most “primitive” human society.

If you look in the Hunter-Gatherer Wiki thinking of chimpanzees or baboons as your baseline for “no division of labor”, what you’ll see is that in most cultures most jobs are the speciality of one sex or the other.

Because humans specialize, they are much better at both gathering and hunting than chimpanzees or baboons would be. Another way of looking at it is that a single human, trying to find food in the wilderness, is not going to be much better at it than a chimpanzee, and will probably die.

H-G groups start teaching girls and boys somewhat different sets of specialized skills at an early age, so by the time they’re adults they are, compared to other apes, specialized, highly-skilled, and co-dependent.

I think there’s a level of confusion here because agriculture is less skill-and intelligence-dependent than foraging. In modern terms, most agricultural work is unskilled labor; most foraging work is semi-skilled to skilled labor. There is no monotonic “progress” in specialization as you move from foraging societies to farming and then toward civilization (=cities), modern and post-modern.


Yes, there are more specialists in an agricultural society. But *most* of the people are less specialized — less dextrous, in Smith’s terms — than their foraging forbears. That’s IMHO where the proletariat comes from — it’s only with agriculture that you get the possibility of large groups of unskilled and disposable adults.

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