Contra Jane Jacobs on a biblical history of cities

In The Economy Of Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that cities have always been the locus of human economy. She refutes the idea that humans did agricultural work on distributed farms, and then built up cities when they got wealthier.

She attributes this incorrect idea of the historic agrarian -> city transition at least in part to Adam Smith, and blames his assumptions on the Bible:

At the time Smith was writing, educated men in Europe still believed that both the world and men had been created almost simultaneously, about 5,000 B.C., and that man was born into a garden. So Smith never asked how agriculture arose. Agriculture and animal husbandry were givens; they were the original ways in which men earned their bread by the sweat of their brows.

For Smith, in the 1770s, the question had to be, How did commerce and industry arise upon agriculture?—no matter what the evidence might suggest to the contrary. And so Smith had to propose a very special chain of economic causes and effects unlike any observable since, but presumably in operation at the beginning of the world. In short, he was not able to indulge his imagination while sticking to known processes; he had to invent chains of imaginary causes and effects.*

Adam Smith thus converted biblical history into economic doctrine.

The Economy of Cities, towards the end of chapter 1

I don't know if Smith really was deriving his assumptions from the Bible, but I disagree with Jacobs that those suppositions naturally derive from the Bible. I think the Bible actually supports her argument!

What was Cain's punishment

In the first recorded murder, Cain kills his brother.

Yahweh said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.

Now you are cursed because of the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

From now on, when you till the ground, it won’t yield its strength to you. You will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth.”

Cain said to Yahweh, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.

Genesis 4:10-13a

What did it mean to be a fugitive? I would argue that one reason this would hit Cain so hard is because humanity was probably all living in the same place, whereever Adam and Eve had settled after being thrown out of the garden.

So Cain gets sent away from civilization, and what's the first thing he does? He builds a city. (Genesis 4:16)

Where did Noah's kids live

In Genesis 7-8 the Bible describes the world population being reset by a flood that kills everyone but four men and their wives. In chapter 9 they get out of the boat, in chapter 10 we get a genealogy, and then chapter 11 describes humanity thusly:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech. As they traveled from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there. They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.”

Mankind didn't just default to living in cities like Jane Jacobs theorized, everyone on earth lived in a single city! One city with apparently the economic surplus to fund a gigantic vanity project large enough to offend God.

So then God confuses their language, scatters them, and we enter the world of cities spread across the globe that Jane Jacobs describes in her book.

It's a good book

I quite enjoyed The Economy Of Cities. Her theory of economies growing out of cities makes intuitive sense to me, and it seems perfectly in line with the biblical description of humanity's first millennium or so.