It is possible to view the human experience, and the evolution of Homo sapiens, and the development over time of human society and culture, from a number of different perspectives, all of which are, of course, wrong. That is what scholars of Homo sapiens do. They produce misleading, biased, or otherwise poor descriptions or explanations pertaining to humans and their history, one after the other, and try to make others believe them. That is really just human story telling (and story telling is clearly an important part of the human experience). This endeavor becomes scholarly when the various story tellers test their stories against each other, and against facts or observations made outside the context of the creation of the story, and thus, over time, produce an increasingly refined, still wrong, but less wrong, version.
The first chapter of The Importance of Small Decisions (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) by by Michael J. O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley, and William A. Brock, which discusses the evolution of scholarly thought about the origin of agriculture, provides an example of this process of evolution of understanding in the context of the growth of knowledge.
This book is an analysis of the relationship between human choices, human culture, human society, and the context in which those forces generate outcomes that may or may not have been expected. The analysis starts with one of the most important questions asked, and usually ignored, about human history. How is it that humans came up with agriculture so many times, over a short period (of a few thousand years?), more or less all at once, in regions that has zero chance of any kind of interaction? The most significant transformation in human history happened independently at that time, but not before, without any apparent single or simple cause. But there were causes. They had to do with the environment, demographics, and circumstance. They happened to humans much like similar species-species (plant-animal or animal-animal) relationships evolved in hundreds of thousands of cases across life on this life-rich planet. Individual human decisions were involved, culture was causative and transformed, and society changed and constrained, potentiated and proscribed. It was all very complicated. But when it came down to individual human decisions, they mattered in ways that you would never expect or predict because such things are utterly unpredictable.
The Importance of Small Decisions (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) is not a book that is going to change the way I think about things very much, because it is already very much in line with how I think about the relationship between human evolution, history, and modern day society. I will be less frustrated with my day to day attempts to come to common understanding of the human condition with my fellow humans if everyone else reads The Importance of Small Decisions (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life). So go do that, please. The book is not about human prehistory or history, but rather, about human psychology, thinking, and, as implied by the name, decision making.
This is not pop psychology. This is serious anthropology. It is not evolutionary psychology. It is a study of culture and how it works. Astonishingly, this is one of the few books about humans that makes no, or almost no, egregious error in referring to the human past, which most books about modern psychology do.
(I quickly add that the blurb for the book does make one of those egregious errors, pimitivizing the prehistoric in the usual manner, but I won’t pass that on here.)
Michael O’Brien is a professor of history who wrote I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life). R. Alexander Bentley is an anthropologist who co-authored the same book. William Brock is an economist. This volume is in a series that includes the aforementioned as well as The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From Ancestors to Algorithms and The Laws of Simplicity, all from MIT Press.