Specialization Not as Recent as You May Think

Michael Pollan recently wrote a provocative and thoughtful essay called “Why Bother?” in The Times Magazine about whether it’s worth it to make individual behavior changes to fight climate change. There were a lot of pieces of the essay that Freakonomics readers would find of interest, and perhaps would quarrel with.

Here is a particularly compelling section about Wendell Berry‘s view of specialization:

For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization.

Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

But is specialization really the culprit — or, more pointedly, is specialization as modern a concept as is commonly thought? Consider this passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Berachot 58a), which predates Smith’s tale of the pin factory by some 1,500 years:

Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.

And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it, and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.

(Hat tip: Leon Morris)

Ted Noakes

The fault with the argument is that somehow specialization, in and of itself, is to blame. I agree with those who view specialization simply as a tool of survival. After all that's where it originated!

when you have Indian tribes (North American I am talking about, and I call them Indians because that is what they call themselves) who have hunters, warriors, shamen etcetera that is specialization. And if fact, at the root of it is the same philosophy and thinking that we have with specialization in today's world!

Ray G

Regardless of what his supposed emphasis was for the entire article, his view on specialization is absurd and clearly indicative of an untenable world view that the author himself cannot abide by.

And more to my original point, we as a society are indeed more in tune with our consequences than ever before.

The primitives, and even our own immediate ancestors practiced harsh, unsustainable techniques. They farmed land dry, they hunted to extinction, they gave no thought to what happened to a product after it was discarded. And so on.

Today these things seem archaic in context.

So yes, we are more in touch today than ever before as evidenced by the ongoing world around us. (Even judging by the fact that a handful of strangers with unknown backgrounds are having this discussion in this fashion is an indicator of just how mindful today's society is of "consequences.")


I'm afraid that the Talmud had it wrong, and it's a critical point that is at the heart of perhaps our most basic social myth.

Adam wouldn't have done those things. Adam wouldn't have been a farmer, for the very reason that farming, and agricultural societies, require the division of labor. Without other people to spin and knit, make bread and hunt, Adam couldn't have existed as a farmer. He would have been more of a hunter-gatherer.

The grand assumption, so powerful today in our industrial-style social setup, is obvious even in this ancient passage: the natural state of a human (Adam) is to desire a sedentary lifestyle based upon agriculture and commodities. This passage from the Talmud shows that the author thought of Adam as struggling to run a farm all by his lonesome, as if it were a biological requirement that he had to fulfill. Ben Zoma sees his own condition as being blessed because he believes it to be the fuller expression of what Adam desired - to have his needs met by others.

This is a key foundational myth for our culture - that humans naturally want to form greater and greater complexity in their societies, that we have a biological desire for culture, for art, for division of labor. Adam would have wanted what we have today, we and Ben Zoma tell ourselves, but he was held back by nature. We're taught this from an early age: perhaps the only single high-school phrase that I recall with more clarity than "the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell" is "agriculture allowed civilization to flourish". Read that again - it "allowed" us to become organized. This definitely shows that our fundamental bias, so deep as to be unstated, it that civilization is the destiny of humans, and that to fulfill our destiny we've always had to overcome nature.

This is a very serious assumption, too serious to go unchallenged as it always does. My argument, which is based upon more fact that is the previously stated myth, is this: it was civilization that allowed agriculture to flourish, as much or more so than the reverse. My point is that early agriculture was a miserable life, and early humans would not have undertaken it if they lived in a resource-rich place with no outside threats. They undertook agriculture in order to sustain some degree of social order that already existed OUT OF NECESSITY, most likely due to increased external threats - threats from from other humans, from lower resource availability, etc. Basically, my argument is that organization preceded agriculture, and that the organization was made out of necessity - those early humans that first organized into groups with semi-permanent divisions of labor did so out of necessity, in order to counter some external threat to their lives. Growing food came about as a means to support these organizations.

I believe that it's a very important distinction. Ben Zoma's take on the matter is a very concise description of our basic myth: we assume that reaching towards ever-more-complex societies is the natural human state. I propose that we at least give some thought to something different: humans form societies, and by extension their deeper social mores, based upon the availability of resources and threats. Those first humans didn't envision Ben Zoma's breadmakers or weavers, or our skyscrapers and internet, as being the ultimate fruits of their stick-scraping labors - they scraped their sticks in the dirt in order to stave off the starvation that would occur when their band outstripped their locations' natural carrying capacity. That's what we're doing today - scraping our various sticks in order to maintain a social structure that has far, far, far outstripped our location's capacity to sustain us with only the fruits of solar energy.



Specialization is significantly older than 1500 years, it's been with us since the dawn of civilization, because that's what civilization is.

Without specialization, everyone has to work in agriculture, to make food so they can survive. However, once we discovered that salt could preserve food, everyone didn't have to do that anymore. Just a few people could produce a lot of food, and then the rest of us could do other stuff. And thus was born the artisans, the poets, the large cities, proper tax-systems, politics, etc. etc.

Getting rid of specialization is getting rid of civilization, and we all can survive as long as we can produce our own food. A few years of drought, and you're a goner. Some people might prefer that, but I know I'd rather live the way we do know.


Interestingly enough, I was having a conversation with my HVAC guy this afternoon while he was finishing a job that I could have done myself. Of course, as is the case with many of my discussions of late, the topic turned to the state of the economy. He mentioned how his neighbor owns a lawn maintenance business, so my HVAC guy and his buddy swap services when needed. At dinner I was discussing with my SO about how this sort of bartering, something of an artifact nowadays led to much closer communities with people more directly connected to their neighbors and friends. It dawned on me that the development of currency, long before cheap energy, propelled the push toward specialization.

Nikhil P

The section on specialization and the question of its antiquity, while relevant, was by no means the chief component of the article you linked to. The basic premise of the article - that while we should look for "giant" initiatives to combat climate change, individual efforts are also necessary/vital- is largely unaffected by the question. And I don't think that many people would agree with Ray that "We, as a society, are more in touch with our overall consequences than ever before ". Many of us are, but ignorance persists through large sections of society.



Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection - and responsibility - linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

I am right in thinking that has more in common with the marxist theory of alienation than specialization?


Specialization is the only thing that can reasonably solve the problems Berry speaks of.

Getting rid of specialization because of it's negative effects is like getting rid of research because it brought us the atomic bomb.

Markets produce what people ask for. Now that people are asking for eco-friendly products (thanks to voices like Berry's), specialization is producing them.


I say we all fight global warming by being cool like the Fonz.

David Oliver

Given the density and complexity of information necessary to the practice of say Pediatric Hematology I don't see how medical professionals will be getting less specialized any time soon; and I certainly can't imagine why we'd want them to. Think about it, assuming that you had the money to do so wouldn't you take your child, if she was suffering from acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), to the pediatric hematologist specializing in ALL instead of Dr. Joe Oncologist? The situation is somewhat analagous to buying a suit. Do you get measured and have one made? Or do you buy off the rack? Is "pretty good" good enough for a suit? How about for your child's odds of survival? Ultimately this is why "universal" health care will always fail of its promise - there'll never be enough money or enough doctors to give everyone excellent health care and none of our politicians have the guts to tell the truth - that "pretty good" will mean some will die who might otherwise have been saved.

Anyway, back to the topic. The only downside I see to specialization is the echo chamber trap. Too often hyper-specialists go to seminars only with kindred hyperspecialists so they tend to simply reinforce and amplify the existing dogma. They also have the unhelpful tendency towards guild creation which they maintain through nearly impenetrable jargon and by playing musical peer reviewers for their journals to keep any heresy from being inadvertently published.

Fortunately even science has its "You got peanut butter on my chocolate! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!" moments. The couple I have witnessed and several that I have read about makes me worry though that those collisions occur far too infrequently.


Robert www.neolibertarian.com

The assumption is that in 'the old days' people were more in touch with, and therefore cared more about the environment. I don't see any evidence for this at all. You can make a good argument that caring about the environment at all is a luxury good made possible by the economic benefits of specialization. The Breakthrough guys make this argument, which refutes the romanticized, nostalgic view of 'the old days' in the process.

Berry's understanding of capitalism is also completely wrong: he has not delegated anything, rather companies have been formed to serve him. Pay more for sustainable food (whatever that is) and it will appear. Pay more for sustainable power and it will appear.


Props to Mr.Dubner for posting this article on this blog, its definitely worth a read-through.

The article makes a lot of good points on the environmental movement, especially where it fails. Too much of the movement just seems overwhelming and like #11 comments, unpractical and irrelevant to the majority of people who are just struggling for survival. Right now the environmental label still exists and that's the biggest problem because it creates a division when large group participation is what is really critical. It would be better to have more people making small changes than having a small group of labeled "environmentalists" being very strict and diligent in greening their life in all aspects. We should work on getting a larger group of citizens making small changes in their daily routine and not feeling worried if every now and then they slip up and take a plastic bag or don't recycle every can. Losing the label and gaining greater participation would be a huge step in the right direction. The "how?" question is still open.


Bertilak de Hautdesert

Perhaps you aren't well socialized with the new baby boomers, the swelling ranks of youth, but there is most certainly a hipster ethic that is often luddhite, and promotes resuse, fewer possessions, bicycle riding and vegetarianism. It is also predominately white or white-acting liberals exclusively. Everyone else suffers from requited material envy, as many find ways to buy more things, and unrequited envy as other look upon the first group.

The social script calls for the derision of the few that are not running in that race, just as you say it does, since earning material goods is no easy task. There is a lot of competition, which requires a lot of continuous psychic priming. How easy then, is it to declare sour grapes? And how much do you want to tell yourself not to do that if you are in the thick of competition? The truth is everything is priced on the value system of the requited and unrequited, and very little is priced for the people that Pollan invokes, so it is not as simple to say sour grapes as it seems.

I believe the origin of this script comes from the era when some so-called civilized races had been adapting to a low resource/high population ratio. The cultures became asset-centric and even people became viewed as assets (either performing assets or non-performing assets). Then new land were discovered and these assets-management civilizations redefined asset-management as asset-acquisition-management, and off we went creating the world's largest marketplace. Meanwhile communities that developed in high resource/ low population ratio societies were viewed as non-performing assets and were marginalized. These marginalized civilizations had a tendency to view everything in terms of relationships, were more socialistic, and that relationship perspective was even extended to resources. That meant when they formed relationships with asset-minded folks, they usually found themselves "tricked" by the lies and omissions of those that viewed them in terms of assets. It's unfortunate that those relationsips could not be respected in an asset-relationship equilibrium, but they weren't.

What will happen is that poor and marginalized people will suffer first as prices rise due to continuous supply disruption. The wealthy will see this as the poor not trying hard enough and enact harmful tough-love programs. Eventually the market will contract enough that wealthy people will be willing to consider the possibility of global warming and they will try to profit from it. I'm not sure that profitting from it will help end it, but if rich people can become richer from reducing our carbon footprint and ending global warming, or at least "feel" richer with the same wealth then we may be saved from extinction.


Ray G

We, as a society, are more in touch with our overall consequences than ever before simply because we are indeed resting our heels on the shoulders of our ancestors.
Even by the extent to which we have access to our ancestor's practices and words, we are now operating from a very broad base of experience not seen at any other time in history.

As a whole, primitive man was not in tune with nature except for a well honed knowledge of how to use it at its basic level (hunting, fishing, etc).

They farmed land until it would not produce good fruit anymore, they burned huge tracts of land to flush out game, they poisoned their bodies with substances they thought to be medicinal, et cetera.

The problems we face today are magnified far out of realistic proportion and often times simply manufactured.

Primitive man, even people in underdeveloped areas today, couldn't care less for their environment.
They're more worried about their next meal.
If it behooved some tribesman to burn a tract of land to flush hard to find game, then so be it, he and his family had to eat. (And they were in touch enough with the earth to understand how resilient it is.)
If the price of a certain commodity rises substantially above another - and the local farmer is free to choose his crop - he'll burn down the countryside to make room for that crop, and he'll plant it until the soil is sucked dry of nutrients.

The sky isn't falling, it's just the nuts that keep hitting us in the head with ideas such as Berry's.


William Whyte

I don't think specialization is the culprit so much as a barrier to communication. Most educated people have a capacity to understand new systems as long as they are simple enough in the beginning and rewarding enough in the end.


From Michael Pollan's article:

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems...actually beget other solutions...


The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum...

Ironically, these are actually the same lessons I learn whenever I engage in specialization & the market economy. I'm happy to consider these lessons inside my garden. If only Mr. Pollan noticed these lessons when they occur outside his garden.


Any student of ancient Rome knows that specialization was the norm in craft and trade and that the average Roman relied on various large agribusinesses for food. Streets were named for the craft practiced in them.

Smith's and Ricardo's work described in rigorous terms existing human behavior not on theory about what should or might be - in contrast, for example, to Marx.

Berry makes an interesting observation but I assume it was intended to be more provocative than wholly true.


I think it is also a side effect of how kids grow up. The 'specialization' of children is often to learn and have fun and let adults take care of any problems. When you grow up like that, you aren't used to recognizing the consequences of what you do or don't do, because adults take care of them. And you probably don't appreciate all the work that goes into that very deeply. Instead what children learn to appreciate is often getting the most for themselves, in college and work after that.


I don't think this is a case of picking one side or another. I very much agree with the sentiment of Mr. Berry, but don't think that specialization in and of itself is a bad thing. I just think that very much like capitalism in general, there is a sort of hyper-specialization that removes humans in modern society from the totality of our very existence. Absolute focus on one mere specialized profession/sector/etc. is damaging to the soul and creates an ignorance as to the externalities of all sectors to which we are not specialized. The key: balance.


You can give Emile Durkheim's "Division of Labor in Society" a read. He discusses how specialization has increased over time, and consequently created more solidarity in the world due to the dependence on others that it fosters.

Long and somewhat monotonous, but full of knowledge and insight.