Wheat to Gadgets – The New Human Bondage

Millennia ago, our human ancestors gave up their nomadic life to pursue agriculture. With large quantities of food, they could feed more mouths, resulting in more labour, which helped cultivate more food and so on. This self-sustaining cycle resulted in a population boom, making us a global species.

Now, many see agriculture as humanity seizing the reins of the natural cycles of crops. We look at it from the lens of human ingenuity—How we harnessed the power of nature and made it do our bidding. 

But there is a different perspective to this argument, one that left me thinking for many years. It comes up in Sapiens by Yuval Harari, an instrumental book in my life. He claims that crops seized control over humans, not the other way around.

It might sound controversial, even laughable at first. But the more you look into it, the more rational it appears. 

Let’s take the example of wheat, as Harari does in his book. Earlier, it was merely a wild plant that grew on the edge of the forest. It wasn’t particularly numerous. 

Photo by Tymur Khakimov on Pexels.com

Then came along this bipedal ape (humans), who took a liking for this plant. Its craving for this grass made it give up its forager nature, deciding to cultivate it instead.

In biological terms, the evolutionary success of a species is the number of DNA copies it makes in its life. Simply put, the number of individuals of a species exists, the more evolutionarily successful it is. The urge to procreate is the driving factor in all species.

Humans decided to spend all their time and energy cultivating this plant. Day after day, they toiled under the harsh sun, watering the crops, removing weeds, fertilising it and so on. They spent precious energy protecting it from grazers and pests. These were not tasks that humans were evolved to do, but wheat made them do it regardless.

Now, wheat has gone from a grass in the middle east to the global arena.  Vast swathes of lands are now solely dedicated to this grass. We call them agricultural fields. These fertile tracts are enriched with nutrients and water, to ensure wheat grows optimally. We pay enormous sums of tax payer money to maintain these wheat havens.

Biologically speaking, wheat is one of the most successful species in history. All thanks to how it manipulated humans. By providing an assured food source, it took over the planet, colonising spaces it would have never reached otherwise. In Harari’s words, “ We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”. Currently, it is impossible for the human collosus to survive without it.

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Reading about this perspective blew my mind away. Pondering over it, I marvelled at how this manipulation is occurring again—now with digital devices, particularly smartphones.

Until very recently, phones never existed. But now, they dominate almost all spheres of our life. Shopping, relationships, studying— you name them, they all can be managed through your phone. It is inextricably linked to our social and professional life. And like wheat, they make work for them in a constant, never ending cycle. 

When their batteries run low, we diligently plug them in to charge. When their screens crack, we unfailingly get them changed. We enclose them in cases custom made for each model. And when new updates are available, we never forget to renew them.

But there is more. We feel the need to constantly buy a new phone each time a more premium version comes out. Think about the iPhone. Even though each new version offers only marginal upgrades, customers across the globe religiously purchase them. 

By providing stimulation, phones have secured their place in the annals of humanity. A 21sts century life is impossible without a smartphone, and by extension, an internet connection. Once again, humans have been made dependent on an external entity.

As we move into the era of artificial intelligence, we must think of the implications. What does the future hold? How will it affect our lives?

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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