Do hunter-gatherers have it right?
Diamond described agriculture as, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".
Farming was, he argued, a catastrophe from which we have never quite recovered. With agriculture came "the social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism, that curse our existence".
It's a revisionist interpretation of history that, at first glance, seems hard to square with reality. Walk into any supermarket today and the sheer abundance and variety on display takes your breath away. When it comes to food we're better off in almost every respect than the people of the middle ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen.
And it's not just food. Agriculture has freed us from the daily grind of subsistence, allowing art - and intellect - to flourish. Without agriculture there would have been no pyramids, no industrial revolution, no internet, and certainly no "One small step...". Life would still be nasty, brutish and short.
So what are Diamond, and now Standage, on about?
In the first place the view from the food court of your local supermarket is a somewhat idiosyncratic, western, perspective. For the average subsistence farmer - the vast majority of the world's population - life is still pretty nasty, brutish and short.
Secondly, while the evidence for the 'progressivist' point of view seems overwhelming, it's surprisingly hard to prove. Studies of the few remaining hunter gatherer societies show these people work less hard than their farming neighbours, and enjoy a much healthier and more varied diet.
When asked why he hadn't adopted agriculture, one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond replied, "why should I, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
The evidence from archaeology supports the idea that hunter gatherer societies were surprisingly healthy. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that average height at the end of the last ice age was around 5'9". With the adoption of agriculture the figure crashed, and by 3000 BC had reached a low of 5'3".
Similar comparative studies of tooth decay, and from the scars left on bones by diseases like tuberculosis, point to a similar conclusion.
So why did hunter gather societies adopt agriculture? In a sense of course the answer is obvious. As Jared Diamond concedes,
"Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly gazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?"
His point, now echoed by Tom Standage, is that farming is not without its down side.