Forage vs Farm Future

The two biggest events of last million years, by far, are the transition from foraging to farming and then from farming to industry. Since industry began, humans have changed in many ways, some of which are puzzling, since there hasn’t been time for much genetic selection, and only limited time for cultural selection. Especially puzzling are big changes in our basic attitudes, and big variations in such attitudes between people and nations.

The ten thousand years since the farming transition, however, offers more time for genetic and cultural adaptation. Yet ten thousand years is also short enough that we should expect much less than full adaptation. Some people and places should retain vestiges of forager ways, and variations in these vestiges should be important.

So it seems natural to try to explain key variations and changes in attitudes today as vestiges of the transition from foragers to farmers colliding with the vast increase in individual wealth that is the main effect of industry. On Monday I described how foragers vs. farmers seems to do a decent job of capturing the rich-poor axis in the World Values Survey, which is related to today’s liberal/modern vs. conservative/traditional political axis. I suggested that the social pressures which encouraged farming behaviors were naturally stronger for the poor, predicting that people retreat to forager ways with increasing industry wealth. The rest of the week I explored two theories of why such social pressures reduce with wealth.

Today I want to consider what this theory implies about our future. First, it implies that if we continue to get richer, we should continue to see attitude changes in roughly the same directions. We should expect continued movement toward accepting school and workplace domination and ranking, and whatever other attitudes greatly enable industry to create wealth. And regarding how we spend our increased wealth, we should expect a continued shift from farmer to forager style attitudes for a while. For example, we should expect less war and physical cruelty to humans and animals, and more forager-like sexual promiscuity and respect for the environment. This should make us feel more happy, relaxed, and natural. In the extreme, we might even end up (for a time) as foragers in bands wandering virtual robot-supported forests, absent predators, famines, or pandemics.

Yet in the long run, if our interactions remain competitive, we shouldn’t expect forager behavior to be anything like the most adaptive for our descendants’ future worlds. Neither should farming of course, but one might still wonder which offers the best basis for generating adaptation to those future worlds. And on that criteria, the farming style seem more promising. Its not so much that farming ways adapted to a larger social world, more like the large social worlds we expect for our descendants. Its more that farming adapted at all – farming found ways to push foragers, whose ways had been changing very slowly by farming standards, rather quickly into doing quite unnatural things. So farming meta-innovations, like religion, honor, politeness, etc., might well be usefully repurposed to get our descendants to adapt to even stranger future environments.

For example, ems, or whole brain emulations, are my best guess for the next big transition on the order of the farming and industry transitions. Farmer-style stoicism, self-sacrifice, and self-control, detached as needed from farmer specifics like love of land or sexual monogamy, might well be more effective at creating acceptance of em-efficient lifestyles. Religious ems might, for example, better accept being deleted when new more efficient versions of themselves are introduced. “Onward Christian robots” might be the new sensibility. And em’s low incomes might help farmer-style fear-based norm-enforcement to gain traction.

Perhaps you hope that an industry-refashioned forager style might adapt just as well to these new requirements.  But wishing won’t make it so.

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  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    “Religious ems might, for example, better except being deleted”

    Typo

  • Vladimir M.

    One of the main problems I see with the hypothesis of liberal/modern attitudes being a return to forager norms is the issue of informal individual and small group violence. Relative to farmers, I would expect forager men to be much more fierce and proud, apt to react to provocations and attempts to impose authority violently, and to approve of others’ violent reactions in such situations. Farmers, on the other hand, should be much more docile and afraid to react violently.

    Now, the modern/liberal attitudes involve an extremely negative view of informal individual violence, seeing every instance of it as a serious pathology and danger — to the point where things like scuffles between schoolboys, once a normal part of growing up, are now considered an incident to call cops over, and a major point of contention between liberals and conservatives is that the former want a much narrower legal definition of legitimate violent self-defense. This understanding of violence as something that should be a monopoly of the formal powers-that-be seems to me like a very “farmer” sort of thinking.

    The attitudes towards war, in my opinion, also don’t fit neatly into the story, but the issue of individual violence seems even more glaring.

    • Konkvistador

      One of the main problems I see with the hypothesis of liberal/modern attitudes being a return to forager norms is the issue of informal individual and small group violence.

      Perhaps lower levels of violence where selected for a order of magnitude than the other traits Robin Hanson sees as Farmer values.

      Perhaps ~10 000 years was enough time to make us less violent in interpersonal relationships but not enough to wean us off things like sexual promiscuity.

      I wish there where studies about how effective societies have been in historical time at preventing violent farmers at reproducing and then compare it to something like wealth.

    • josh

      Now, the modern/liberal attitudes involve an extremely negative view of informal individual violence, seeing every instance of it as a serious pathology and danger

      My students have “forager” or as I like to call it, “barbaric” attitudes toward individual violence, yet they also firmly believe they are on the political left to the extent they are aware such a thing exists. They also view police officers as a force of evil. I think what Robin has stumbled upon is what many others has notices before him. The modern tearing down of evolved social structures marks a return to barbarism. Though, he politely calls the uncivilized “foragers”.

  • Doug

    Even discounting EMs/AI and assuming tech progresses relatively slowly over the next centuries it still seems likely that farmers will eventually win out. It seems that foragers combined with first world wealth and access to birth control have much lower birth rates than farmers. Just compare religious middle Americans against cosmopolitan, sophisticated New Yorkers/Los Angelinos/San Franciscans/etc.

    If EMs don’t Darwininanly outcompete industrial foragers Mormons eventually will.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Vladimir, you’ve been seriously misinformed about forager violence – it is quite low.

    Doug, I was assuming ems win, but asking what kinds of ems win. Em culture can have a mix of forager or farmer origins.

    • Vladimir M.

      So do you actually think that farmers are likely to be more generous than foragers in excusing acts of individual violence as self-defense, justified response to provocation, or pardonable boys-will-be-boys petty infractions?

      Even if foragers are less violent overall, I still don’t see how forager tendencies could lead to an attitude that sees formal hierarchical authorities as somehow specially privileged, as is the case here. This attitude is the key issue, not the amount of violence.

    • josh

      Whom do you consider a forager? Hunter-gatherer violence is quite high, is it not?

    • http://www.teapartynews.net George

      Necro-post!

      Steven Pinker has quite persuasively argued that violence was much worse in the past. See TED video here.

      Pinker: Today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species existence.

      Josh from a few posts above is right, a return to forager values will be a return of barbarism and increased violence.

  • Virtually Anonymous

    Since industry began, humans have changed in many ways, some of which are puzzling, since there hasn’t been time for much genetic selection, and only limited time for cultural selection.

    The reduction in the reproductive success of those who could not adapt to the new paradigms must surely count as selection.

    Vladimir, you’ve been seriously misinformed about forager violence – it is quite low.

    Compared with what? Violence among Aboriginal Australians, South American Indians and Papuans would seem to be much higher than that among Europeans, except during the wars that were regularly instituted by the Elites (which must count as coerced violence). East Asians are less violence prone again.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    we should expect . . . more forager-like sexual promiscuity

    Birth control seems to be breeding a lot of these particular forager tendencies out of the population, except among the less intelligent.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Not every part of the world has had agriculture for the same number of generations. We should expect that the parts who have had it longer will be more farmer-like rather than forager-like. Greg Clark thinks that England’s long history of stable agriculture made them more patient & non-violent.

  • jjjp

    If dogs can be bred selectively over a few hundred years, why can’t human competition lead to much milder, but still serious selection effects over many thousands of years?

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    Robin,

    You have been seriously misinformed about forager violence. It is quite high. A very high percentage (up to 40%) of adult males in forager tribes die in intertribal violence/war– much, much higher than the percentage who died in war in the West in the 20th century. In other words, civilization does in fact civilize — Rousseauian romanticism about the noble savage (which I see being perpetuated here) notwithstanding.

    Also, you haven’t addressed any of my points, which present a more cogent theory than does yours. The emergence of greater brain complexity in response to changing social conditions explains what you think is unexplanable.

  • Salem

    We should expect continued movement toward accepting school and workplace domination and ranking

    Really?

    Forager societies are generally more informal and egalitarian than farmer societies. They don’t have hereditary aristocracies or a division between landowner and labourer and so on. “Workplace domination and ranking” is absolutely an artifact of farmer societies – the “workplace” of a forager society is more based on co-operation. The reason being that forager bands can split up if they like and are self-sufficient, whereas farmers are tied to the fertile land and need continued access to resources (tools, seed for next years crop, etc). It is not possible to enforce something like serfdom in a forager society, because the serfs will just leave.

    If your thesis is true that we will return to forager ways, surely we would expect to see move away from “school and workplace domination and ranking” and towards egalitarianism.

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  • http://www.gavinsullivan.com Gavin Sullivan

    For example, we should expect less war and physical cruelty to humans and animals, and more forager-like sexual promiscuity and respect for the environment.

    We can expect near-term breakthroughs that conquer sexually-transmitted diseases and make fail-proof, undetectable birth control almost free and beyond the reach of government regulation. In addition, we’ll have a vastly cheaper, less stigmatized and more innovative marital aids industry.

    In other words Robin, you understate the attitudinal changes that lie around the corner.

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  • Rebecca Burlingame

    Methinks a couple of chaos episodes have changed the definitions of forager and farmer a bit (Not the chaos on this blog but in the larger sense of the term). Just the same, I like to imagine a future where the similarly minded rich and poor set out to forge a world safe for tourism (even though that term makes me gag) while the farmers can tend to the communities in which they never go farther than the ball game.

  • Matt

    Thinking about this hypothesis again, Iif we propose that wealth causes a relaxation towards a forager vector, then a contingent testable prediction would be that societies which experience increases in wealth and health, historically, should move in an immediately forager like direction, whether foragers or farmers.

    An instance of a farmer society which experienced such an increase would be frontier American society (which experienced measurable increases in wealth and health) while an instance of a forager society would be one of the extraordinarily wealthy (by forager standards) Northwest American Maritime native tribes. Were these societies more “forager like” relative to, respectively, European farmers and other foragers? Or did they move in other directions?

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    I doubt if religious ems would be more accepting of being deleted. Religious people are less accepting of death than stereotypes might indicate. They might be more worried about eternal damnation. When we apply that to ems, we might have a scenario resembling the end of Not to Mention Camels by R. A. Lafferty:

    Then he was heard in the very deep distance, far under the queasy feet of all of them. They didn’t need amplification to hear it. And they didn’t doubt that all of them would be hearing it forever.It couldn’t, of course, be an actual soul screaming forever in hell. It had to be some sort of imitation.But it was quite a good imitation.

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