Against the Grain
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Richard Manning
North Point Press
232 pages, $24.
The concept of the noble savage has existed in the nomenclature of Western civilization for some time. In popular culture, the phrase may conjure up images of American Indians from movies like Dances with Wolves, or aborigines from The Gods Must Be Crazy. A roughly clad native runs around the bush with a bow and arrow, living a simple life that is best described as "close to nature." But where exactly does our conception of tribal peoples as inherently "noble" come from? And is it accurate?
Richard Manning, who has written extensively about culture, agriculture, and the environment, believes that "noble savage" isn't a particularly satisfying way to describe tribal peoples. "It's more complicated than that," he says. However, in his new book, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, he makes the case that tribes—particularly hunter-gatherer tribes—live in a way that is fundamentally sustainable, whereas the social system that developed with the advent of agriculture has spawned inequality and famine, and has had an immense environmental impact in a period of time (about 10,000 years) that pales in comparison to the history of human life on the planet (about 4 million years). While arguments against agriculture have gained steam in the past few decades, they have centered mostly on the debate over twentieth-century developments like the Green Revolution or genetically modified crops. Manning's scope is much broader than that, and extends to the very origin of agricultural societies. He argues that a major change took place among humans when we discovered agriculture—and began to move toward an ethos of dominance based on the practice of domestication.