Ian Morris on Foragers, Farmers, Industry, & Ems

The book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris will be published March 22. As I don’t see any other reviews on the web, it seems I get to be the first. This is from the publisher’s blurb:

Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. … Fundamental long-term changes in values, Morris argues, are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need—from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. … The ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out—at some point fairly soon—not to be useful any more.

I’m delighted that, like me, Morris divides human history into three great eras of foraging, farming, and industry. Furthermore, Morris suggests that a new era may start by 2082, perhaps based on brain emulations of the entire human population. He notes that these different past eras have been associated with dramatically different values, and suggests that the next era will also have very different values. So far remarkably similar to what I’ve been saying here for years!

Morris resists the idea that some eras have correct values while others have incorrect values. Instead he sees each era’s values as adapted to the environment of that era, i.e., to its technical methods of production and survival. Morris also sees the modes of energy production as central and even defining of those environments. Which is why he calls our industry era the “fossil fuel” era.

Morris does little to argue for the centrality of energy production tech in era environments. He doesn’t identify possible alternative centrality concepts with which to compare his view, nor does he offer evidence that might distinguish his energy-centrality from other views. Instead, Morris seems content to just assume energy centrality. While this stance didn’t at all persuade me of energy centrality, nothing anything else in his book seems to actually depend on this claim. So I’m happy to just set it aside, and focus on other issues.

Morris’s most interesting claim is that values during each era were adapted in great detail to the environments of those eras. And Morris fills up most of his book with details on both the environments and values of past eras. Enough details to make it clear that different eras did in fact have distinctively different environments and values. There are in fact typical forager environments, typical forager values, and so on for farming and industry. Yes there are exceptions, but that doesn’t invalidate the basic patterns.

However, Morris actually doesn’t try very hard to give specific explanations matching the specific features of each typical environment to specific features of each typical value set. It seems that his belief in strong adaptation of values to environments isn’t much based on such specific matches. Instead, Morris mainly just seems to be very impressed by how consistently different were the environments and values of each era. It is as if he reasons “why would all the farming values be like each other, and yet so different from foraging values, if not for being adaptations to the new distinct farming environment?”

Now I do pretty much accept this story regarding the foraging and farming eras. But this is because those eras lasted so very long, and we can see so much selection among units that could plausibly produce this adaptation. Foragers and farmers were both literally dirt poor, and so it didn’t take that much of a relative advantage to kill off one group and replace it with another. Foragers lasted for many thousands of generations, long enough to create enormous variance in the success of specific lineages and specific local cultures. And while the farming era lasted only a few hundred generations, we can see in history wave after wave after wave of cultures being displaced by other cultures, via war and famine and much else.

But while it is hard to deny great selection of cultures, including their values, during the foraging and farming eras, the case for selection seems to me to be far weaker for our industry era. Industry has seen less than a dozen generations of humans, and most of them are today rich enough to suffer little selection from insufficient material wealth. Yes, we have seen terrible wars, but they have been small and rare enough to impose only very mild selection pressures.

Now we do more plausibly see a lot of selection in industry era work and organization practices. Enough firms are born and die fast enough to accumulate a lot of selection pressure. In addition, to a modest degree firms can copy the practices at more successful firms, and so adapt without dying. And all this can plausibly explain a great many particular changes in the physical and social technologies used by such firms.

However, the “values” that Morris has in mind as being adapted to each era are grand things like favoring democracy, open markets, gender equality, and rule of law, and disfavoring violence, slavery, and wealth-inequality. The World Values Survey has tracked changes in such values and found that they are not much attributable to more successful nations displacing other nations, or even more successful people replacing others within a nation.

Instead the literature on cultural value change suggests that it is the same people who are changing their values over time, and that this change is caused to a substantial extent by increasing wealth. This does not look like selection at all, but looks instead like the revealing of a common internal conditionality in human values. Because our values are conditional on our wealth, they naturally move toward the industry-era value set as we get rich. My guess here is that we are reverting to forager era values, at least outside of work, as we less feel the strength of farmer-era pressures like fear, religion, and conformity.

In his book, Morris does mention that some people have challenged his claim that industry values are adapted by pointing to our low and falling industry era fertility rates, which seem very hard to understand as adaptive behavior. In response, Morris points out that we haven’t seen the long term effects of that low fertility yet, and notes that the low fertility rich might still win in the future by becoming highly copied brain emulations. But even if that ends up happening, it seems hard to see low industry fertility as an adaptation designed to produce that outcome.

But even if I disagree with Morris about the causes of industry era value changes, I can still agree that the values of the next era are likely to be quite different from industry era values, and that those values would be well adapted to that next era. While I’m not sure what reasons Morris would offer for that claim, my reasons are specific to my analysis of the details of a new era based on brain emulations.

In my analysis, wages fall to subsistence levels, margins of survival are slim, and competition is strong. That should plausibly reverse industry era changes due to increasing wealth per person, and create a lot of selection. In addition, greatly increased brain emulation speeds allow many generations of changes to happen in short clock times, allowing for more variation and selection of individuals and practices.

In sum, Morris gets an awful lot right about history, and about the future. I just wish he had attended a bit more to the details of how values get selected, and which values are in fact adaptive in which environments.

Added 9a: I gave no direct quotes because the book copy I have forbids that.

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  • Did Morris cite your contributions?

  • Daniel Carrier

    Even for farmers, I don’t think the evolutionary pressure of cultures reproducing and dying is comparable to the evolutionary pressure of that happening to people within the culture. The culture isn’t going to adapt to the environment. The individuals that make it up will.

  • adrianratnapala

    There is no reason to think cultural evolution works mostly through group selection, or what RH calls “selection among units”. Ideas tend to spread from successful individuals & groups. The rise and fall of firms also blurs the distinction, as does the rise and fall of non-industrial cliques. That is, quasi-darwinian cultural evolution might be a lot faster in the industrial world than RH thinks.

    • If “Ideas tend to spread from successful individuals & groups” then there has to be some substantial form of success that the ideas have, other than the fact that they are copied.

      • adrianratnapala

        I said “successful individuals” not “successful ideas”. People can observe that other people have lots of money, or high social status and or whatever. Those are the people in most likely to be emulated or otherwise learned from.

      • It just isn’t remotely plausible that most of these industry era value changes result from them causing people to get rich, and then other people copying the rich.

      • Especially when the rich tend to be the least likely to enact the values in question: generosity to strangers, especially. Many studies have shown that people in higher income brackets donate smaller and smaller percentages of their income.

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    It might have been glossed over in the blurb for the book, but I’m tempted to read it just to learn what cultures when and why might have thought violence is good. I mean, I’m incredulous a culture favored the opposite of ‘violence is bad’. Of all the changes in value, that’s the one I find least palatable. That could be my bias. However, it still seems unlikely, depending on how violence is define.

    I can easily imagine past cultures would have favored inter-tribal violence, i.e., violence against other tribes. Favoring intra-tribal violence would surprise me a lot, though.

    • I can see why you’d want to learn that, but the book doesn’t discuss it much.

    • IMASBA

      The vikings didn’t mind violence. But they still preferred inter-tribal violence, while intra-tribal violence was bound to rules and there were still ways for those who were less strong, physically, to attain high status (priests, storytellers). They weren’t keen on wealth inequality at all (which in many societies caused, and still causes, greater overall inequality then the intra-tribal violence of the vikings).

      I don’t think there were many civilizations that glorified both intra-group violence and wealth inequality, and usually tricks were employed to whitewash those things (angry gods who demanded things to be the way they were, framing victims of intra-group violence as morally deserving of that fate, lying about the true extent of wealth inequality).

    • Certainly, the culture of the NFL and MMA don’t hold violence to be bad. Nor does American culture in general, as long as it’s violence done in defense of “freedom” or rooting out “terrorists.” The Aztecs also come to mind as a society that celebrated violence in many ways.

  • arch1

    Robin, it’s clear why you believe that forager and farming values *could* have been determined primarily by cultural evolution, as opposed (for example) to a “common internal conditionality in human values.” But why do you believe that they necessarily *were*?

    • I don’t believe that ‘necessarily.’ I’m open to hearing arguments for other conditionality theories.

      • arch1

        I see, thanks.

  • Anonymous

    The blurb says, “But if our fossil-fuel world favors democratic, open societies, the
    ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished
    values are very likely to turn out—at some point fairly soon—not to be
    useful any more.”

    Does he explain why this would happen? Brain emulations are unrelated to energy capture.

    • arch1

      Based on Robin’s paragraph which begins “Morris does little to argue for the centrality of energy production tech in era environments,” it sounds like the answer is no.

      • Xva

        Though there are obviously reasons unrelated to energy capture.

        e.g. What’s your stance on the morality of self-duplication? I certainly haven’t the foggiest clue what mine ought to be. Vinge talked about a “prediction horizon” for a reason.

  • Tige Gibson

    The ancient Greeks valued democracy long before fossil fuels.

    • Peter David Jones

      My take on this is that industrialized societies require meritocracy, which brings democracy in its wake, as an educated population demands a say.

  • Bram

    Talking about books coming out: When is your book about whole brain emulations coming out? Do you have a definite date already? I cannot find one on this website and I am waiting anxiously to read it!

    • Trust me; when I can announce something, I will. 🙂

  • Cambias

    Haven’t read the book yet, but the phrase “Whig History” does flit through my mind . . .

  • What’s the explanation for abundance producing forager values? I would take the almost inevitable explanation to be that foragers have often existed in a kind of abundance, as some anthropologists claim. [Presumably there were also enough periods of scarcity to foster a hierarchical alternative.]

    But that doesn’t seem to be your explanation, since you keep saying that foragers were dirt poor.

    • Peter David Jones

      Forager values were probably bred in by a long period of foraging…abundance just allows them to be expressed.

      On the Haidtian view, its more that liberals/foragers lack certain values…but,again, abundance means you don’t have to discipline yourself with extra values,

      The fact that the extra conservative values have to be acculturated in perhaps relates to the conservative viewof human nature as flawed and in need of fixing.

    • From Bird-David’s “Beyond ‘The Original Affluent Society:'” “Just as we analyze, even predict, Westerners’ behaviour by presuming that they behave as if they did not have enough, so we can analyze, even predict, hunter-gatherers’ behaviour by presuming that they behave as if they had it made.”

  • Grant

    Evolution (cultural of otherwise) would seem more likely to select local over global maxima. So I am skeptical that ancient cultures were optimal. Wasteful violence and discrimination don’t even pass a sniff test.

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  • fredschumacher

    Humans are a generalist species that use movement as a problem solving tool. That is why they colonized the entire earth so quickly. So they prefer extensive utilization of resources over intensive, until they’re boxed into a corner, which is what happened in the areas where agriculture first developed. There was no “edge” to expand into. The change in culture was driven by population increase. More food had to be developed from the same amount of land area. Paleolithic humans took advantage of large seeded annual grasses growing naturally in pure stands. By the simple process of harvesting those grains, they selected for shatter resistance, an essential quality of a tame, cultivated crop. From native harvest to agriculture is a short leap. I’m a retired native grass seed producer, and in my field, native harvest of pure stands of wild grasses is still a prime way of producing a seed crop. The behavior change required by agriculture then produces a values change, not the other way around. Behavior is relatively simple to change. Values are highly resistant to change. Notice, also, the similarity to utilization of fossil fuels. In its early stages, efficiency is not a priority, as long as large supplies are readily to hand. As supplies dwindle and costs increase, intensive use, rather than extensive, becomes a priority.

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  • lyjn

    The Robin Hanson, author of the article writes:

    “Added 9a: I gave no direct quotes because the book copy I have forbids that”

    My Answer:

    1 – The Fair Use clause in copyright law allows you to use direct quotes in the context of your article, regardless of what the owner of the copyright (or the book) says or wishes. So you have no excuse.

    2 – If the book says “jump out of the window” .. or “you are forbidden to comment on the book online” , do you feel obligated to obey?

    • It was a prepublication copy, and that was a condition of sharing it with me.

      • lyjn

        Ah … if so, that’s ok.

        Abiding by a specific a contract is totally different than interpreting copyright law.

        You didn’t say that you had an an explicit agreement, you just mentioned what the books says …