Thursday, August 6, 2009

Biggest invention/discovery by man

     I was recently intrigued by the following question - what is the invention/discovery that has made the most direct practical difference to man since he appeared on the earth ? I'm not considering theoretical/philosophical discoveries (like cosmology or quantum physics or theory of mind or invention of zero). I'm talking about things which brought about phenomenal changes in man's life in addition to helping him survive.

     The first thing that came to mind was the wheel. The ubiquity and utility of the wheel are beyond question. What else ? Aha.. the lever. Another simple machine which must have helped man to move boulders, push heavy loads and eventually build homes (and pyramids too). Wooden and stone tools also deserve an honourable mention. Without them our ancestors would have been killed by wild animals and other men. Another significant one is of course fire (not referring to the Fully Integrated Robotised Engine from Fiat :D)! Fire kept away predators and allowed man to control temperature of his near surroundings to some extent. An important side-effect of having fires at hand was cooking. With cooking, man could condition food to suit his stomach and that probably widened the range of things he could eat thus, increasing his chance of survival. But, what could man cook ? Dead animals ? and easily available plants maybe. Man did not grow crops until about 10 thousand years ago. Around 9-10K years ago, man made the greatest invention of all time IMO - agriculture!

     In school, we studied a bit of history of agriculture but, I never appreciated it. Rather, I always thought that there is hardly any point in studying what crops man grew thousands of years ago, and how he settled near river beds and dug channels for water. Only now I realize that, the advent of agriculture/farming is an event of super importance in the history of mankind. Here is I imagine how -

     Before agriculture was invented, man was totally dependent on nature for his food, whether it be plants or hunted animals. That is why man must have been nomadic, because his stay at a particular place would have been dictated by the availability of food. Once he had harnessed completely whatever was there around his dwellings, it was simply impossible to stay at that same location. Artificially growing crops i.e farming must have given man the reason to stay at one place for many generations. Thus agriculture brought stability into man's life. Without stability man would have never gone into building permanent structures like houses, temples and townships eventually. With stability, there germinated a scope for long lasting art, music and endemic cultures. With stability, there developed kingdoms and there arose the politics of power.
     Before agriculture, the growth in population of man was directly limited by the naturally available resources around. Man could consume only what the forests produced at their natural rate. Acceleration in growth was not possible without extending boundaries i.e going to far-off places for hunting and gathering. Man had to search around for every bit of food that he must have ate. Agriculture solved that problem once and for all. Man could let his population grow by using more and more land for husbandry. Those that get rid of any kind of dependence are always great breakthroughs. For our forest scouring ancestors, this one must have been groundbreaking to say the least!

     Agriculture needs hard work. man learnt to offload the heavy duty work to animals. Thus the importance of maintaining cattle rose up and gave rise to animal husbandry.

     With agriculture came surplus produce, and what does one do with surplus grains ? Trade them of course!

     What does man do when it does not rain ? Pray to the rain God! And thus became important theology and religions...

     The amount of land and cattle controlled by men began to indicate their social status, thus a social hierarchy must have been created.

     In short, the coming of agriculture led to formation of civilizations(along with all its problems) which is the foundation of the kind of life we live today.

     Thus, agriculture is probably the biggest invention made by man so far. Many other inventions/discoveries improved man's life to a large extent, but none of them have transformed it to a degree that agriculture did then.

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Anonymous said...

An excellent train of thought. I don't say I buy it completely, but I do say it was interesting. I'll come back and let you know if I find another invention/discovery that out-dos agriculture.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for an idea, you sparked at thought from a angle I hadn’t given thoguht to yet. Now lets see if I can do something with it.