Down on the Farm

From Foraging to Agriculture: The Levant at the End of the Ice Age

by Donald O. Henry
University of Pennsylvania Press, 277 pp., $38.95

At its founding, in 1807, the Geological Society of London vowed in its charter to eschew the older speculative tradition of grandiose “theories of the earth” and to concentrate instead on the collection of stratigraphic facts in order to build a geological time scale, literally stone by stone. This strategy proved brilliantly successful: by mid-century, a worldwide sequence had been established as an alphabet and foundation for our planet’s history. Nonetheless, this extreme position on the dialectic between fact and theory in science provoked a legitimate reaction from thoughtful scholars who recognized the ultimate sterility of a methodology without context and without aim beyond the noble, but unattainable, goal of piling pristine fact upon fact in the hope that generality would somehow mysteriously emerge at the end.

One of Charles Darwin’s most famous statements, made in 1861 at the height of his productivity, is a comment upon this overly empirical tradition in geology (though this context has rarely been appreciated by citationists). He wrote in a letter to Henry Fawcett:

About 30 years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

Darwin’s view on the need for theory both to suggest and to coordinate observations has been widely acknowledged by scientists as both desirable and inevitable (despite the semiofficial persistence of a public myth about absolutely objective impartiality). This interplay of theory and empirical documentation has both positive and negative implications for the elusive notion of scientific “progress.” Theory can prod, suggest, integrate, and direct in fruitful ways; I doubt that Darwin would ever have been able to formulate the theme of natural selection without the available context of Adam Smith’s nearly identical causal system for economics (Darwin, in any case, surely did not “see” natural selection in the finches and tortoises of the Galapagos). But theory can also stifle, mislead, and restrict; conceptual locks are usually more important than factual lacks as impediments to scientific breakthroughs.

I am an outsider, though a near neighbor, to the subject matter of Donald O. Henry’s From Foraging to Agriculture, a largely archaeological study of late and immediately post-ice-age cultures in the Levant—a particularly important time and place featuring an instance of the key event in human civilization: the origin of agriculture (defined as the cultivation of plants for food). I cannot judge the empirical validity of Henry’s arguments; but working as I do in the collateral field of paleontology and evolutionary theory, a domain that employs a similar conceptual apparatus (with intriguing differences), I became fascinated with the hold of theory and fashion upon the interpretations here offered. The view from the next town may give enough distance for…

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