Divide: Forager v Farmer

In August I listed questions “I rarely see adequately answered” about great divides. Here are my first cut answers on the great divide I’ve been discussing: forager vs. farmer styles:

  1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others? Foraging to farming was the most disruptive transition humans so far. Ten thousand years has been enough time for big cultural adaptations to farming, but not enough for full genetic adaptation. Two centuries has been far too little time to adapt to industry.
  2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict? We have varying degrees of cultural and genetic adaptation to farming styles. And since farming cultural pressures, e.g., fear, are weaker for rich folk, our recently differing wealth also contributes to this divide.
  3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning? Farming and foraging lifestyles are different enough that it can take millennia for cultural adaptation, and much longer for full genetic adaptation.
  4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict? In the long run, our descendants may become well adapted to their environment. But for now, we act on old instincts.
  5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense? Each side feels right to those raised that way, and remaining in a similar environment. But forager ways feel more naturally right when one is rich and safe.  The farmer side is somewhat better adapted to the modern world, but both are substantially off, and for the rich adaptation pressures feel weaker.
  6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad? Our preferences are in part created by how we are raised. Most of us are unaware of assumptions implicit in such preferences.
  7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict? Peaceful compromise should replace conflict, but that requires folks to reflect on the source of their intuitions. As we get safer and richer it does make sense to move to more natural-feeling forager ways. But since real risks remain, and a competitive future may demand more adaptation, farmer ways should be preserved; we may need them later.

I encourage others to answer such questions regarding their favorite great divide.

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  • Why is the farmer side better adapted to the modern world? Is it just higher fertility? Because from a personal satisfaction standpoint, foragers seem to benefit from modern changes like high absolute wealth and social safety nets (no need to save), low enforcement of social norms, and the existence of birth control and anti-STD meds.

    All of these changes make farmer-style abstemiousness and future time orientation less needed, and in a culture where elites have forager norms, status competition would seem to favor forager-types.

  • There is a counterargument that makes sense to me: Rule-heavy farmer values enhance social cohesion; forager values, with low commitment, high mobility, low norm enforcement, etc. reduce it on net. We know that some level of social cohesion is necessary for countries to civilize. We’ve seen farmer values create and grow civilizations, so we know that an all-farmer equilibrium has enough social cohesion to sustain civilization. There has, on the other hand, been no instance of a successful all-forager or forager-heavy civilization.

    So maintenance of civilization is likely to require some level of social cohesion higher than an all-forager equilibrium but lower than an all-farmer equilibrium. (Or maybe equal to – social capital accumulates slowly over time so we haven’t felt the full impact of the forager shift yet.) So we need a certain lower bound of farming values to sustain complex societies. But we don’t know where that lower bound is.

    My first point still stands though – adopting forager values seems strictly better for personal status-seeking in the modern environment. So yes cultures are sticky but we have a good sized force pushing away from farmer culture. This force seems un-linked to the macro social-cohesion issue, so unless there is a countervailing force there’s a good chance that we’ll end up squarely in the both-defect box of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    Can complex societies, which once required farmer values to build, be sustainable in an all-forager equilibrium due to higher technology and wealth? Given that we have little ability to steer the direction of social norms, that seems like a pretty important question to answer.

  • Salem

    Great post Peter. I think the answer to your question is no. To the extent that Robin’s views on a Forager/Farmer divide are correct, it’s pretty clear that Forager ways are purely parasitic in the context of an advanced society.

  • michael vassar

    I think that the nomad/merchants get left out of this story because of their fusion with farmer culture in the most recent several centuries. Nomad/merchants can be horse-based or sea-based. They aren’t egalitarian, but have pro-social mobility norms based on smooth status gradients rather than strictly separated tiers of hierarchy. They have a shorter time orientation than farmers, but engage more with abstract considerations when thinking about the future and thus extend near-mode thinking farther into the far mode.

    We don’t have all forager civilizations, but we do have all nomad/merchant civilizations. Islam is the most successful example, but others existed at least as early as the Sythians.

    Finally, there are probably memebot genetic variants, that is, groups adapted for more rapid changes in lifestyle via more ready acceptance of outside memes and greater influence of memes on behavior.

  • Perhaps the distinction persists because it is rooted in our psychology. The forager is more id-oriented, and the farmer more superego-ish.

    We revert to satisfying the id when we can get away with it.

  • Tim

    The farmer-forager distinction has an interesting parallel to the agriculturalist-pastoralist distinction that historians of the proto Indian-European world have previously drawn: “we must recall the cultural differences between the Indo-Iranian and the European branches of the Indo-European family. Of the two, the Europeans seem to have been much more agricultural, given the evidence of vocabulary, while the Indo-Iranians were more pastoral in their orientation. For all the Indo-Europeans, though, cattle were of crucial importance, furnishing a tremendous amount of the food supply and serving as the basic unit of wealth in the economy.”-The Indo-European Myth of Creation, Bruce Lincoln, History of religions 1975.

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