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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