Work | James Suzman

Summary of: Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots
By: James Suzman


Embark on an enlightening journey through the deep history of work, from its origins in the Stone Age to the robotics-dominated age we are entering today. In this summary of James Suzman’s ‘Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots’, discover how the energy our bodies expend has shaped the course of human progression, the impact of tools on our physical and neurological evolution, and how agriculture sparked new ideas of monetary value. Delve into the profound effects of animal domestication, urbanization, and the Industrial Revolution on the nature of work, and how they laid the foundation for modern day inequality.

Life and Chaos

Life on Earth affects entropy by capturing and expending energy, which often results in confounding behaviors. From single-celled bacteria transmuting energy to the complex work done by creatures on land, the nature of work has continued to transform. While capturing energy is necessary, expending it is equally important. Hard-to-explain behaviors may result from an overabundance of energy, which may lead to better understanding of animal behaviors and why we do what we do.

Evolution of Human Tool Use

Over two million years ago, our primate ancestors in Africa evolved to make tools, leading to the development of opposable thumbs and front-facing eyes in humans. The Acheulean hand axe is a mystery in terms of how Homo erectus wielded it without injuring themselves, but the building of hand axes helped young hominids learn how to use their hands. Tool use supported language and information processing, leading to the growth of our brains, which allowed us to process non-linguistic information. The discovery of fire and cooking further spurred brain growth, allowing for increased leisure time and the development of our linguistic capabilities. Fire also helped demarcate time between work and leisure, a journey we continue today.

Work Perception Evolution

Humans’ perception of work changed over time, causing a shift in their economies and societies. Early humans had more downtime, less worry about scarcity and little interest in accumulating surpluses unlike their descendants. As they settled in new climates and feared scarcity, they began working not just for immediate fulfillment but for future benefit. This shift led to more downtime, which they used to develop art practices, signaling the beginnings of hierarchical societies.

Early Farmers and the Difficulties of Agriculture

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming revolutionized human life by enabling population growth and changing how people interacted with the world. Early farmers had to work harder than hunter-gatherers in order to produce food. As populations grew, any surplus energy was consumed, resulting in difficulty for early farmers. Despite the difficulties, farming allowed people to settle in small villages and spend time crafting. However, the Malthusian trap made life more challenging for farmers and led to population collapses. Genetic bottleneck events also occurred during this time, limiting human genetic diversity. The choice for early farmers was either to expand or starve.

The Origins of Money

The transition from foraging to farming brought about a new understanding of time for early humans. Farmers needed to be aware of seasonal abundance and scarcity to survive and exchanged their labor for future rewards, which led to the idea of debt and eventually money. Contrary to the belief that money arose from bartering, it actually came from credit and debit arrangements between farmers and the land. The first evidence of money was found in Mesopotamian city-states, where labor had a clear relationship with monetary reward. Cattle herds were the first interest-earning assets in pastoralist societies, similar to machines we use today. Domesticated dogs were first used for work, but through the intimacy of shared labor, a deep bond of loyalty and love between dogs and humans developed.

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