The Living Fields: Our Agricultural Heritage. (Book Reviews: Anthropology and History)
Arce, Alberto, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
HARLAN, JACK R. The living fields: our agricultural heritage. xvi, 271 pp., illus., maps, tables, bibliogr. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1998. [pounds sterling]35.00 (cloth), [pounds sterling]11.95 (paper)
This book provides a nice introduction for students interested in the history and evolution of agriculture. Some of the theoretical debates the book addresses are slightly old-fashioned and belong to a style of argument and comparison that closely resembles diffusionism debates, but Harlan's idea that agriculture is the result of a long process of co-evolution between plants and humans is extremely relevant. This leads him to suggest that the origins of agriculture are diffuse in both time and space, and into the issue of human species having become very dependent on so few plant species. Harlan then raises the useful question: did people domesticate plants or did plants domesticate people? While the first view is very much accepted today, the second view is a relevant observation about the possible implications for human survival from constantly diminishing agricultural biodiversity.
The argument of the book makes very general statements about agriculture, civilization, and social processes, which might provide fond for the critics. However, it would be a shame if this were to detract from a central point made by Harlan, which is to underline the importance of agriculture for the survival of civilization in the contemporary period. In support of this argument, history is used to show how unstable agricultural systems have time after time resulted in endangering the survival of human populations. These examples are used to warn us about the human implications that erosion of biodiversity can have on human society. …