Khan on Forage v Farm

Razib Khan on foragers vs. farmers:

Cultures which are the most developed and least developed have the most equitable relations between the genders, while those in the middle are generally more conventionally male-dominated. … Plough farming societies tend to be more patriarchal [than hoe societies], all things equal. … Immigrants to the United States impart to their descendants the same values. … The majority of the world’s population are no longer primary producers, but most are recent descendants of primary producers.

Ultimately this goes back to the foragers & farmers debate. I have argued for years that the “traditional” and “conservative” values which emerged after the rise of agriculture, and crystallized during the Axial Age, are actually cultural adaptations to existence in the Malthusian mass societies which arose as the farmers pushed up against the production frontier. … Social controls needed to be more powerful so as to keep the masses of humanity in some sort of meta-stable equilibrium. The rise of institutional religions, conscript armies, and national identities, all bubbled up as adaptations to a world where a few controlled the many, and the many persisted on the barest margin of subsistence. …

The above is a rather materialist economic reading of power relations. One could create a narrative of moral evolution over time, and the expansion of the arc of humanity with the spread of universal religions. I think the two variables are related, and in any case the description of what happened remains the same. But now we’re in a third age. We’re not trapped by Malthusian parameters, because gains in economic productivity haven’t been swamped by population growth. Rather, on the contrary a demographic transition has occurred across much of the world, producing mass affluence.

With mass affluence has come liberalism, post-materialism, and all sorts of ideas and movements predicated on self-actualization. The converse is that the traditional values and social controls necessary for the proper maintenance of human civilization during the millennia of the ploughman have come under attack, and those who defend them style themselves conservatives and reactionaries. Ironically the flowering of the individualist ethos has resulted in a reversion to the relative lack of mass conformity, which replicates the diversity across small-scale societies, … e.g., the rise of “urban tribes”.

We should not proliferate categories beyond what is needed. But the story of hoe vs. plough agriculturalists shows that a simple hunter-gatherer vs. farmer narrative does not suffice. In some ways the hoe agriculturalist remains more like the hunter-gatherer, and in some ways more like his or her fellow agriculturalist. The most polygynous societies for example are arguably those of hoe based agriculturalists, as well as nomads. In contrast, hunter-gatherers and ploughman tend to be more monogamous, at least in a genetic sense. We need to evaluate human nature and society at its true joints. That may require more complexity than is pithy, but so be it.

Sound familiar?  Razib seems to present himself as if he’s disagreeing with me, but we largely agree. Yes of course there were many important distinctions within farmers, including herders vs. hoe-folk vs. plough-people, just as there were many types of foragers. There also were many transitional forms during the foraging to farming transition. But acknowledging detail shouldn’t keep us from summarizing key overall patterns.

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  • Buck Farmer

    Robin…I’ve long largely accepted the divide you’ve been advocating here…

    …but now I wonder if we’re not more properly in a third age. Please accept the economic caricature below charitably:

    1. In a hunter/gatherer tribe, every member’s efforts matter for the tribe’s survival.

    2. In a farming village, everyone’s efforts except a small elite are crucial to the survival of the village. The elite provides coordination services and can to a degree live off rents (very literally in a feudal society).

    3. Increasingly in the modern economy, production is driven by the efforts of a few very talented, very lucky, or very highly trained individuals and the allocation of vast amounts of capital. This is the inverse of the farming case. A small elite produces a surplus that can support a much larger underclass.

    In (1) an individual can directly see his purpose/meaning in life, in (2) institutional controls (religion, family, government) provide this purpose/meaning, and in (3) for the vast bulk of people there is no economic (evolutionary survival advantage) to providing this purpose/meaning…

    …except to prevent social instability as our evolved minds adapt to the novelty of a modern Eden.

  • michael vassar

    I don’t think you and Razib agree. It seems very silly to call hoe based agriculture a “transitional form” if it lasted for 5,000-8,000 years in any given location and plough based agriculture lasted from 2,500-6,000 years in any given location. Likewise, nomads existed for longer than either and competed with both, and in fact, to a substantial degree continually over-ran and were assimilated by both. The axial transition, mentioned in his story, itself looks like a very big deal, so we might want to talk about two types of plough based agriculture with a short transitional period between them. An important point in Razib’s essay is that the hoe-based agriculturalists look MORE, not LESS like the foragers you describe, in terms of sexual mores.

    We all agree that there was another transition in the last 400 years in the Netherlands which partially spread to the rest of the world. I would argue that there was another transition, in some respects analogous to the axial age and in some respects aimed at restoring a blend of hoe-farming and forager values, which basically began in Bismark’s Germany and ended in the 1960s counter-culture, such that our culture is basically not the heir to the Dutch, though Thatcher and Reagan rejuvenated economic vitality via an infusion of those old ways and the recent immigrant part of the US retains much of its character.

    I think Canada would be an ideal place for a much needed last outburst of the Dutch civilization.

    • I didn’t call it a transitional form. That was a different sentence.

  • An important point in Razib’s essay is that the hoe-based agriculturalists look MORE, not LESS like the foragers you describe, in terms of sexual mores.

    right. i think the division robin highlights is important. but is there any more “juice” to further divisions? i think there is. this is because in some ways hoe-farmers are more like foragers than plough-farmers. and importantly, in sexual mores i would put the spectrum like so:

    hoe-farmers – foragers – plough-farmers

    the importance of social control, at least notionally, which distinguishes the plough-farmers, probably has something to do with the intensity of agriculture in plough-farming societies. hoe-farmers were at their malthusian limit too, but it seems that endemic conflict such as you have in highland papua culled enough males that there was a de facto surfeit of resources for those who survived.

    but in other ways the farmers cluster. for example, both hoe-farmers and plough-farmers are more pro-natalist than hunter & gatherers. the reason for this is obvious in that HG mobility limited the number of small children which could associate with the band. though it may have been different in sedentary HG groups.

  • I certainly grant there is plenty of “juice” for further divisions, and also that hoe vs plough vs herd are key divisions among farmers.

  • Aron

    The primary question here Robin is whether you are willing to drop your ADD approach to subjects and actually reach for ground on this one. I doubt it. While you opine on the benefits of specialization you don’t live it.

  • dieter

    Are you saying that farming attitudes are useful to be successful in modern, industrialized market economies? My own personal observation in the past was that the mores of subsistence farmers are detrimental. (Keeping to yourself, producing as much as possible by yourself, persisting on the same path your entire life).
    Granted, the attitudes of foragers might be even more detrimental, but it seems to me that mercantile and bourgeois types cannot be subsumed under the farming category.

    How do the Jews fit into your model? They were prevented from farming in many places. They flourish in industrial societies, yet are at the same time liberal. But are Jews foragers?

    I believe that the mercantile or bourgeois type engages in larger, fluid, utilitarian social networks and in interactions with strangers, which would set them apart from both farmers (hierarchical order) and foragers (small egalitarian groups).

    Are you postulating that farming attitudes make societies rich on the individual level (lots of farming worker bees generate lots of wealth), or that farmers generate the scaffolding and conditions under which, thanks to comparative advantage, all kinds of groups can prosper.

    tangential observation:

    Early classical liberals seemed to have imagined an entirely mercantile society. That still seems to be the libertarian ideal (including my own ideal and bias), if not the way in which libertarians seem to perceive real existing society.

    Libertarians perceive workplace regulations, minimum wage, etc., as unjustified interventions from outsiders intervening in the mutual, self-actualizing and voluntary relationship between employers and workers. Libertarians don’t see hierarchy and authority.

    Catholic social teaching has God as a higher authority above the employer, telling him to treat his workers well:

    Encyclica Rerum Novarum:
    “Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.”

    The more effective secular variant of course has the state as the higher authority or the union as parallel authority to do the workers bidding. And workers, contrary to libertarian psychology, very much support this deference to authority.

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