Going with the Grain: Agriculture for Social and Genetic Engineering
In Zhou China, grain cultivates you.
In a paper published by the Royal Society in August of this year, researchers claimed to have found links between rice cultivation and genes linked to particular physical and psychological characteristics. Researchers compared the amount of land given over to rice paddies in different regions of China with the prevalence of known polygenic traits. Higher levels of rice production showed a negative correlation with height and age at birth of first child, but a positive correlation with alcohol tolerance, depression and willingness to delay gratification.
The idea that rice cultivation affects population-level prevalence of specific characteristics is not a new one. Previous research found links between rice farming and a variety of other traits: work ethic, cooperation, agreeableness and relational stability. While earlier papers tended to focus on the cultural capital and habits built up around rice farming – the comparative labour-intensity and the need to develop cooperative irrigation systems – this latest paper suggests that the phenomenon may not be a purely social one. Populations may selectively breed themselves for traits associated with success in their chosen livelihoods.
While the precise mechanisms involved are still being investigated, the use of agriculture to modify aggregate behaviour has been known, described and deployed for millennia. The proponents of the ancient Chinese feudal system tended to describe the process of using food production systems to establish political control in moral and ritual terms, but in practice power was exerted by tying every individual to a particular plot of land. The Western Zhou (1050–771 BC) dynasty was a society with two classes: land-owning nobility and serfs. The relationships between these two classes were structured via the well-field system of agriculture, under which all land was owned by local nobility but farmed by their tenants. Tenants formed units of eight households, with each unit being responsible for a cluster of nine fields laid out in the form of the character for “well” – 井 (jing) - hence the name. Each household would farm one of the outside fields for their own subsistence, and they would work together to cultivate the central field as a tax paid to the landowner.
Over time, as the central power weakened and the urban bourgeoisie grew, the well-field system began to collapse. In theory, fields and their corresponding labour obligations were impossible to sell or cede; in practice a thriving black market grew up as tenants abandoned the grim life of a sharecropper for the fleshpots of the growing cities. The new “owners” of the plots had no legal obligations to the previous occupant’s feudal overlords, and simply ceased cultivating the ninth field. As a result, tax revenues collapsed. Reform was due, and in the fourth century BC in the state of Qin it happened. Under the impulsion of his Chancellor, Shang Yang, Duke Xiao of Qin abolished the well-field system, freeing the peasants from their feudal ties and legalising private property. From that point on, the ninth field would be replaced with a personal income tax, which not only brought in far greater revenue but required an army of officials to administer, thus providing employment opportunities that would drag the educated and newly independent urban bourgeoisie back under the umbrella of state control. A little over a century later, Qin would conquer its rival states and unite China.
However, while Qin liberated the serfs from their most irksome feudal obligation, the goal was not a humanitarian one. Rather the aim was to flatten the social hierarchy and create a more atomised society, reducing the power of the petty nobility and forcing rich and poor alike to depend on the state for their subsistence rather than upon local solidarity networks. In this context, agriculture remained a useful tool for rendering citizens easier to control. Indeed, in Shang Yang’s eponymous textbook on social engineering, he argues explicitly that meat should be taxed highly and economic incentives deployed in such a way as to render the majority of the population entirely dependent upon arable farming for their survival: “The sage knows the essentials of orderly rule of the state; hence, he causes the people to direct their mind toward farming. If the mind turns toward farming, the people are simple and can be rectified; if they are ignorant, they can be easily employed; if they are reliable, they can be used in defence and fighting (...) If they avoid farming, the people will treat their dwellings lightly; if they treat dwellings lightly, they surely will not engage in defence or fighting for the sake of their superiors.” For Shang Yang individual citizens had to be weakened and tied to the land in order to strengthen the state as an emergent entity, on the basis that an army of weak-but-compliant individuals will - over time - be more effective in the field than one composed of strong self-directed fighters.
The idea was a commonplace one, though perceptions concerning the costs-and-benefits varied. Zhuangzi, for example, was happy to acknowledge that weakening individuals strengthens society, but remained convinced that the individual costs were too high: “I have heard that anciently birds and beasts were numerous, and men were few, so that they lived in nests in order to avoid the animals. In the daytime they gathered acorns and chestnuts, and in the night they roosted on the trees; and on account of this they are called the people of the Nest-builder. Anciently the people did not know the use of clothes. In summer they collected great stores of faggots, and in winter kept themselves warm by means of them; and on account of this they are called the people who knew how to take care of their lives. In the age of Shennong, the people lay down in simple innocence, and rose up in quiet security. They knew their mothers, but did not know their fathers. They dwelt along with the elks and deer. They ploughed and ate; they wove and made clothes; they had no idea of injuring one another: this was the grand time of Perfect virtue. Huangdi, however, was not able to perpetuate this virtuous state. He fought with Chiyou in the wild of Zhuolu till the blood flowed over a hundred li. When Yao and Shun arose, they instituted their crowd of ministers. Tang banished his lord. King Wu killed Zhou. Since that time the strong have oppressed the weak, and the many tyrannised over the few.” Indeed, the cereal harvest was so crucial for state cohesion that the term for the altars at which sacrifices were offered to the spirits of earth and grain became synonymous with the state itself, and it was their capture - rather than the capture of a ruler - that marked a change in regime.
For all the libertarian objections to agricultural corporatism, the technique was so effective that leaders could not reasonably refrain from using it. It was employed and readapted time and time again over the course of history. Three Kingdoms General Cao Cao managed to rise through the chaos of the Han collapse by offering soldiers, landless peasants and refugees parcels of farmland along important supply routes, thus bolstering his support while also establishing permanent logistics bases under his personal control – effectively exchanging grain for loyalty.
Even under such conditions, however, a carb-heavy diet was not for everyone. To pick two obvious examples, both Shang Yang and Cao Cao would have eaten meat relatively often as a consequence of their official attendance at state sacrifices, a privileged position earned over the course of long and dangerous political careers. As Han dynasty official Zhufu Yan put it: “A real man either lives by eating from state sacrificial cauldrons or dies by being boiled alive in one.” Access to meat cut from sacrificial victims carried with it the ever-present likelihood of becoming one.
This does not mean that protein was merely an appanage of status, however. It was entirely possible for a person to survive independently by hunting or fishing, as long as he was willing to abandon the stability that government agricultural systems provided. It is no coincidence that in many of the anecdotes about Zhuangzi we meet him preparing to shoot or catch his dinner - the reader is being reminded that autonomy is possible only if one is willing to accept the vicissitudes of a paleo lifestyle. The result was that those at the very top (politicians) and the very bottom (outcasts and drop-outs) would likely eat a higher proportion of meat than those in the middle. The Daoist classic the Huainanzi reinforces this distinction, describing the differences between the diets of those leading high-risk, high-reward lifestyles and those enjoyed by the mass of the population: “Those that feed on flesh are brave and daring but are cruel (...) Those that feed on grain are knowledgeable and clever but short-lived.”
The idea that truly exceptional individuals would provide the masses with the advice and resources necessary to enjoy a stolid, carb-stuffed existence but not necessarily share the same lifestyle themselves is a minor commonplace in Daoist literature. The Zhuangzi describes a sage who was capable of procuring an abundant harvest for others precisely because he did not share in it himself: “He did not eat any of the five grains, but inhaled the wind and drank the dew; he mounted on the clouds, drove along the flying dragons, rambling and enjoying himself beyond the four seas; by the concentration of his spirit-like powers he could save men from disease and pestilence, and secure every year a plentiful harvest.” While it may seem counter-intuitive, this can be tied back to the idea - also present in the Shang Jun Shu - that it is impossible to exert control over a system to which one is beholden. Maybe it was only possible to negotiate on equal terms with the spirits of earth and grain when not eating at their expense? The idea is not necessarily an entirely metaphorical or metaphysical one: the idea that cereals cultivated humanity to serve their interests rather than vice versa is not new. As Professor Anna Tsing put it, “Cereals domesticated humans (…) In each case, states promoted agriculture through their symbols and armies. Sometimes they criminalised other forms of subsistence; only outlaws would refuse the gift of state fertility.” Incentivised by means of carbohydrate calories, we reorganised our societies, modified our biology and annihilated competing species to serve the inexorable global conquest of a dozen or so specific species of grass.
With grain, society and survival being so tightly linked, it is unsurprising that the possibility of freeing oneself from both human and physiological constraints by avoiding carbs later developed into a key tenet of Daoist mysticism, via a long tradition of treatises on the advantages of avoiding of grain (辟谷 or bigu). The most famous of these is undoubtedly Liu Xiang’s Han dynasty account of a wild woman captured during the reign of Emperor Cheng: “Hunters in the Zhongnan Mountains saw a person who wore no clothes, his body covered with black hair. Upon seeing this person, the hunters wanted to pursue and capture him, but the person leapt over gullies and valleys as if in flight, and so could not be overtaken. The hunters then stealthily observed where the person dwelled, surrounded and captured him, whereupon they determined that the person was a woman. Upon questioning, she said, ‘I was originally a woman of the Qin palace. When I heard that invaders from the east had arrived, that the King of Qin would go out and surrender, and that the palace buildings would be burned, I fled in fright into the mountains. Famished, I was on the verge of dying by starvation when an old man taught me to eat the resin and nuts of pines. At first, they were bitter, but gradually I grew accustomed to them. They enabled me to feel neither hunger nor thirst; in winter I was not cold, in summer I was not hot.’ Calculation showed that the woman, having been a member of the Qin King Ziying's harem, must be more than two hundred years old in the present time of Emperor Cheng. The hunters took the woman back in. They offered her grain to eat. When she first smelled the stink of the grain, she vomited, and only after several days could she tolerate it. After little more than two years of this, her body hair fell out; she turned old and died. Had she not been caught by men, she would have become a transcendent.” (The reference to pine nuts and resin is a common feature of such tales - Buddhist monks aiming to achieve self-mummification also relied upon pine-heavy diets.)
Individuals willing to go the extra mile to retain a paleo diet were historically rare, however, and the vast majority found a way to fit into the grain-based total state in some capacity. As a result, the ancient enthusiasm for agriculture as a means of social control has left a permanent legacy. Whether the traits associated with rice farming are genetic or social, they can be seen to persist long after the demise of the societies that created them, transmitted by social and - eventually - genetic mechanisms. China now consumes over a quarter of the world’s meat, and the proportion is rising. Nevertheless, the struggle between leaders and citizens on the matter of diet is far from over. The current government has set itself the target of halving meat consumption by 2030 (ostensibly for the purpose of reducing global warming, rather than to engineer a more serviceable populace). While the policy will likely be a source of grumbling among the newly affluent middle classes, the precise level of practical resistance offered could well be a consequence – in part at least - of the introduction of similar policies over 2000 years ago.