Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers

Scott Alexander in 2013:

Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment. … “Take actions that would be beneficial to survival in case of a zombie apocalypse” seems to get us rightist positions on a lot of issues. We can generalize from zombie apocalypses to any desperate conditions in which you’re not sure that you’re going to make it and need to succeed at any cost.

What about the opposite? Let’s imagine a future utopia of infinite technology. Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. … Even death itself has disappeared. What policies are useful for this happy state? …

If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. … Leftism wins over time because technology advances over time which means societies become more secure and abundant over time. …

Both Greece and Rome were relatively leftist, with freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas. After the Fall of Rome, when Europe was set back technologically into a Dark Age, rightism returned with a vengeance. …

“So you mean rightism is optimized for tiny unstable bands facing a hostile wilderness, and leftism is optimized for secure, technologically advanced societies like the ones we are actually in?” And this conclusion, too, I will mostly endorse. (more)

Much of this is pretty compatible with the forager-farmer perspective I outlined in 2010. To review, as foragers our attitudes and inclinations were well adapted to our environment, but the farming environment was so different that to become effective farmers we had to drastically change such things in a short time. So we cranked up the pressure on social conformity, religion, etc. in order to enforce strong new social norms favoring new farming behaviors. But because these were built on fear, and went somewhat against our deeper natures, rich safe elites have often drifted back toward forager styles, and the whole world has drifted that way together since we’ve all gotten rich and safe with industry. This view makes sense of many long term trends over the last few decades, such as trends toward more leisure, travel, product variety, egalitarianism, democracy, peace, and slavery aversion.

However, in addition to the forager-farmer or survive-thrive distinction, there is another related distinction that I think I, and Scott above, haven’t been thinking clearly enough about. And that is the distinction between supporting specific ways of foragers and farmers, and generalizing their attitudes toward simpler more general principles. Let me explain.

Specific farming norms were typically effective ways to avoid specific bad things in the farming world. It isn’t so much that farmers had a general norm that said “we must do whatever is necessary to survive.” Instead, they lived in a harsh world and their specific norms helped them to survive in that world. To the extent that the world has changed, some of those behaviors may no longer actually be effective and helping people to survive.

As people became rich, the social norms from their farming societies often didn’t feel so compelling compared to feelings that often arose telling people what they wanted, and what was right. But these rich reversion feelings were vague, uncertain, and more similar around the world. They weren’t reverting to some specific set of forager norms learned from some specific forager society. So the new attitudes that arose in the newly rich in each different places were more similar to each other than were the farming attitudes in those different places. These new attitudes were also less specific, and hence more abstract and general.

While some groups have tried to return to specific forager ways of life, the new foragers have overall been tentative and selective regarding which forager ways to adopt. For example, they’ve been more eager to adopt forager attitudes toward leisure than toward work, since rejecting industry working styles threatens to kill the golden goose that lets them indulge these forager attitudes. To deal with their hesitancy and selectivity, the new foragers have often talked about letting each person do what feels authentic and right to them. Which they actually do to a limited extent, and which fits nicely with the new forager emphasis on product and behavioral variety.

If we try to generalize as far as possible from specific forager and farmer attitudes, we might find the general forager saying that what is important is how you feel inside, which you should hold fast to. The world is mostly a rich and pliable place, and so you and society should focus on trying to arrange that world so that we can each feel good inside. In contrast, we might find the general farmer saying that the world is a harsh place and hard to change, and so we should focus more on figuring out how to change ourselves to best deal with that world, to survive in the face of harsh obstacles and competition.

Both of these general positions are substantially different from the typical left and right positions we see in our world. This is because most people do not actually generalize very far. People on the right tend to just support the specific farming society social norms that they have inherited, while people on the left generalize a bit more, but still do not actually want everyone to just do what feels good to them – most of them very much want the right sorts of things to feel good to you. So they in practice support a particular package of attitudes that have moved partially from typical farming to typical foraging ways.

If we focus on the two general positions, then, as Scott says, the key issue is: how harsh is your world? If your world is harsh, it makes more sense to take on the general farming position of changing ourselves to survive in that harsh world. But if the world is mild and safe, it makes more sense to focus on changing the world to make us feel better.

Now it is true that the world has been getting rich in the last few centuries, and so if we focus mainly on our lifetime and perhaps the lifetimes of our children, our world does not look so harsh. In this sense the general forager position makes more sense now, and this is plausibly why the world has moved in that direction over the last few centuries.

However, I must point out that how harsh the world looks depends greatly on the timescales that you care about. The longer the time duration over which you look, the more strongly that selection pressures shape future outcomes. Selection doesn’t go away just because we are rich, and continuing increases in individual wealth are far from guarenteed. If you see being selected against as not “surviving”, then on longer time scales the world is just more intrinsically harsh, all else equal. Thus all else equal people who care more about the more distant future, and who are choosing between the two general positions on the basis of how hash is the world, should more prefer the general farmer position to the general forager position.

In actuality, however, futurists do not tend to see themselves as taking a more right/farmer perspective. Left-leaning futurists who understand this issue tend to double-down and say this all shows how important it is that we create a strong world government capable of controlling or preventing this long term selection that makes the world seem harsh on long time scales. This attitude is seen most dramatically in people like Eliezer YudkowskyScott Alexander and Nick Bostrom, who actually put their hopes on creating a super intelligence machine who might take over the world and then prevent unwanted selection.

Me, I’d say its not so much that trying to take control of future selection is a bad idea in principle, and more that we are very far from being able to coordinate well enough to create a world government that does well at that task, and we are even further from being able to make a super intelligence machine to do it well. (And this difficulty of coordinating or making super AI is a sense in which I think the current world is “harsher” than some think.)

So I accept that selection will long continue, and thus see the general farmer position as making more sense than the general forager position on long time scales. And so I’ve based my book on that assumption and perspective. If you care about your descendants not being selected out over the long run, then you must focus less on how to change the world to make you feel better, and more on how to change you and your descendants to survive in the long run. The universe doesn’t ask us what we want, but we might want to ask what the universe will reward. Or to put it another way, with selection the long run always becomes a zombie apocalypse.

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  • J

    I keep getting the feeling like we’re seeing a shift in Left/Right in the US: having torn down all our institutions for excluding people or being factually wrong (religion), we’re left without a sense of belonging. So the left is rediscovering teams: you can be a LGBT *ally* if you’re straight, but don’t pretend you’re one of us. And don’t say taboo words, or fly the wrong flag (I’m amazed at how many of my left-leaning friends are support banning the confederate flag completely), or write the wrong book. Give jobs to the right people and exclude the wrong people.

    I keep expecting the right to dodge to the side and let the left take their place, then side up with the libertarians and take the “hey, let’s let people do their thing” position, while the left becomes the “proper thought, proper speech, proper action” camp.

    But I have no idea if that has any bearing on the foragers/farmers model.

  • Lyle Cantor

    Do you find moral value in an ecology of superintelligent agents that value only self-replication? Or are you merely pointing out that a valuable future is unlikely? I think Scott agrees with you on the future’s defaults, and the likelihood of the default farmer outcome. However, as the ecology of agents pursuing inhuman goals is a future that seems to lack the things we value, he proposes attempting to create a singleton – as all other actions lead to zombies. I don’t think any of the people you mention (with the exception of Yudkowsky) would give great odds for this singleton being created.

    • I may agree about the sign of the derivatives of how value changes with many parameters, but disagree about the magnitude of those derivatives. That is, I can see great value in a vast future of competitive agents.

      • Lyle Cantor

        Would you personally prefer the friendly singleton, or do you buy the repugnant conclusion to the extent that you would push a button now that killed all humans but created in exchange trillions of superintelligent agents that value only reproduction?

        I get the impression that what you value is an abundance of agents that “want” things and get things, but don’t seem to care what it is that want, how much they get, in what manner they acquire it, and what their internal experiences are while they do.

        If Bostrom’s proposals succeed and we get what he considers a utopia would you consider this a tragedy? Is the conflagration of the commons more awesome than some singleton future promoting forager values?

      • I don’t want to lay out a utility function for you over the largest possible space of options. That seems a bottomless task and I have other things to do.

      • Lyle Cantor

        Do you have time for a yes or no to pushing the button?

      • “superintelligent agents that value only reproduction” is not at all a clear description to me.

  • interstice

    Historically, there has been a trend for large entities to suppress harsh competition among smaller ones. e.g. multi-cellular life is composed of many small cells which normally would be competing, but cooperate; large human governments suppress violence among citizens, who normally feud. Currently our world is controlled by a few of these nations, which are larger by far than previous organizational structures. Shouldn’t we expect this trend to continue, leading to a world government or singleton?

  • Did the Greeks & Romans have weaker gender norms than comparable cultures? I recall hearing that in ancient Athens women were relegated to a section of the house, akin to purdah. The Spartan public square on the other hand was full of women, because all Spartan men were dedicated to the military. Although now I recall it was from Robin that I read there’s more gender differentiation in richer societies.

  • CarlShulman

    Robin Hanson: “Several sources lately incline me to think of world (or solar) government as very likely in the long run.”


    • A lot of selection can occur before that long run appears.

  • Vadim Kosoy

    I don’t understand your normative position. The attitude of “left leaning futurists” is promoting interventions which have a chance of changing the futute trajectory of civilization is a favorable way, affecting everyone in a similar manner. On the other hand your “adapt and survive” approach seems to be playing a zero sum game against other people (since apparently the question is not whether humanity survives but whose descendants will survive). In this case, I don’t understand your motivation for evangelizing.

    • Why can’t humanity’s survival be in question?

      • Vadim Kosoy

        I didn’t say humanity’s survival cannot be in question. It was just my (possibly wrong) impression that your thinking focuses on how to come ahead individually by being the first to adapt rather than how to increase the chance of survival of mankind. If you have thoughts on the latter subject, I am interested in reading them.

        Coordinating with others is understandable, the question is do you work towards global coordination or towards building a narrow colation against everyone else?

        I realize it can’t be both. I just thought that the former possibility is (approximately) your view and the latter possibility is the view of the “left leaning futurists.” I already made up my mind (although I am always open to changing it). I am interested in understanding *your* mind 🙂

    • Peter David Jones

      Yeah, I was confused by that. Survival means nothing without reproductive success, and expounding farmer/conservative values in a modern urban environment is likely to get you lablleled a repugnant person, a la Brendan Eich. In any case, farmer values arent survival values per se, they are an adaptation to circumstances where the environment hostile by default, as are other humans…appropriate aadaptation is the geneal purpose strategy. So why doyought thinkr farmer values continue to be needed? Do you think relative .peace and a human dominated environment will end?

  • m williams

    “If your world is harsh, it makes more sense to take on the general farming position of changing ourselves to survive in that harsh world. But if the world is mild and safe, it makes more sense to focus on changing the world to make us feel better.”

    I don’t see this historically in the U.S. For instance, in the 50s and 60s, African-Americans, whose world was pretty harsh I think we’d have to say, were (and are) much more left-leaning than right-leaning and focused effort (at least in the 60s and since) on changing the world (Civil Rights Movement, marching, sit-ins, voting rights, etc.) rather than changing selves to survive in the Jim Crow south … Though I think there is a mixture of both things occurring (focus on changing world, without remembering the need to sometimes also modify one’s own behaviours to exist successfully in the world as it is), as among most cultures.

    • The intention is not to explain all variance with one factor! Regarding the relation between wealth and forager attitudes within a nation today, the expected correlations from the causal effects in the two different directions are opposite, and overall correlation is pretty small.

    • Peter David Jones

      Scott’s theory offers an explanation of both working class conservatism and upper class leftism The cross terms, upper class conservatism and lower class leftism are actually much easier to explain. Its in the interest of the winners to back the status quo, and oppose redistribution, vice versa for the poor. The mysterious things in politics are where groups favour what is not obviously in their interest.

      (This is slightly confounded by the fact that in the US, the red tribe are seen as centrally lower class, and the blue tribe as elite. In most if the world, it is the other way round…the UK sees David Cameron as a typical conservative, and Margaret Thatcher as atypical)

  • “If your world is harsh, it makes more sense to take on the general farming position of changing ourselves to survive in that harsh world. But if the world is mild and safe, it makes more sense to focus on changing the world to make us feel better.”

    In current US left/right politics, who has the harsher world and who the milder? And how does that alignment square with political ideologies?

    • charlies

      The Left, clearly.

      1. Immigration. Oh we’re doing great, let them all in!

      2. Fertility/Sexual politics. We’ve got plenty of babies…stop frowning on gay families its retrograde!

      3. Terrorism. So they blow up a building every ten years! Let’s stop spending so much blood/treasure on those crazies, they’re no real threat.

      4. Economy/redistribution. The money is growing on trees these days, only a miser would oppose sharing the wealth through higher taxes/executive comp regulation/minimum wage.

      Okay, I thought I spotted a trend until . .

      5. Environment. If we don’t immediately adopt austere practices towards fossil fuel consumption, our species will inevitably and rapidly go extinct!!! And no meat either!

      People are complicated, I guess.

  • Anonymoussss

    What do you think about the Anti-Vaxers?

    Looks like they are being selected to die because of low intelligence to see the importance of vaccines.
    Now, people can let them do what they want and protect their freedom and die or obligue them to live by forceful vaccination and let their more dumb genes stay in the pool.

    Both choices have a good and bad side, where one keep people alive but generates violence and raise the probability of extinction of humankind in the long-term and the other restate the freedom of people but increase the death of people that don’t (or can’t) understand the basics modern medicine.

    • truth_machine

      Almost everything about that is wrong in re how evolution actually works.

  • If you care about your descendants not being selected out over the long run…

    This seems a quite ridiculous thing to care about. I think you are addressing yourself to a small population that harbors this care or else confuse your personal concerns with those of the masses.

  • zarzuelazen

    That could explain the popularity of post-apocalyptic books and films, where a small band of hardy survivors battles the generic ‘zombies’ etc.
    Part of the attraction of this sort of fiction is that it promotes farmer virtues..it depicts a group that develops very close-knit bonds, where authority and loyalty are emphasized.
    There is usually a strong leader in the group, as well as one or two defectors that challenge the leaders authority. Inevitably, the defectors are depicted as coming to a bad end…you just know they’re going to get killed (bitten by the zombie).
    There’s a clearly marked in-group and out-group. The narrative is that we can’t have odd-balls wandering away on their own path doing odd-things: loyalty, authority to the in-group win the day etc.

    • Peter David Jones

      Another feature of those narratives is that people can adapt fairly swiftly from being nice liberals to hardass zombies slayers. The fictional evidence is that you don’t need to strenuously preserve farmer values.

    • IMASBA

      A large part of traditional farmer values only “work” because the primary inefficiencies that they induce are compensated for by their secondary effect as ideological glue in large, homogenuous groups. In a post-apocalyptic world foragers would actually do better than farmers because the farmers can’t bind together into large homogenuous groups (they’ll suffer for refusing into their group away able-bodied men who happen to be gay or atheists, just to give an example, the stronger bonding between the remainung group members as a result of such an extremist ideology does not compensate enough when the group is small) and groups that are mobile, can accomodate heterogeneity and come up with creative solutions will have an edge, at least until conditions are such that the farmers can bind together again and field large armies again (the foragers may show more ingenuity but they do not have the industrial base to translate that into substantially better technology).

  • Lord

    Was it decline in forager returns that drove agriculture and promoted farmer values or was it that agriculture led to increased power and wealth initially and promoted flourishing until competition for this power and wealth promoted farmer values? Were farmer values the result of the struggle for survival or did they lead to it? Are forager values the result of flourishing or did they lead to it?

    • It is easier to see what two different era equilibria were be than to figure out the exact path by which people moved from one to the other. And it isn’t clear why the exact path matters that much.

      • IMASBA

        I think the path does matter: at least some of the farmer values were invented solely because people could invent them in a farmer society. The necessary differences in power/status/wealth simply did not exist in forager groups, but they did in the farmer era and that allowed some particularly ruthless, powerhungry men (and the women who are attracte to that power) to act on their fantasies. I think part of the reason agriculture spread so fast was because the first farmers figured out they could field armies and in doing so they forced foragers around them to switch to agriculture too to field their own armies in defense. This would foster militaristic/authoritarian values and bestow status and rents on warriors and (chicken)hawks (agreeing with your theory when it comes to the militarist component of rightism) similar to how shopkeepers pay protection money to crime syndicates while those crime syndicates are themselves the primary cause of the need for protection.

        At least some farmer values did not make their societies more robust at all, not even by serving as ideological glue, they simply existed because some groups in society profited from them, at the expense of less powerful groups, and it’s incorrect to equate the robust-making farmer practices with rightism in the modern Western world.

        Anyway I’m not sure Greek society can be said to have had a liberal attitude towards women’s rights and like Rome it depended on slaves.

      • Lord

        We were foragers for a lot longer than farmers, so if survival is at stake, it would be wiser to bet on foragers. We care about many things, as much the world our descendants will grow up in as their survival, even more so if their survival is dependent on that world, survival in the long term as much as the short, and we should fear short term success leading to dead ends. We can’t even say farmer values work for survival in the very long term, and they may need to evolve along with the world we find ourselves. We also care about progress too, but without some view as to causation, no advice can be offered. For that matter, we may need an entirely new set of values that build on our past ones so dualism may not be the way to look at this.

  • Conor O’Higgins

    A thought on your last paragraph:

    There are two orientations: one towards self-actualization, and one towards survival. You then introduce the following yardstick by which to compare them: “If you care about your descendants not being selected out over the long run…” This is a survival-focused criterion. Obviously the survival-oriented position is going to win out. It’s begging the question.

    • I accepted Scott’s idea that the key difference is how harsh is your environment. And point out it is harsher over the longer run.

      • What about your previous advice: it’s dreamtime, enjoy it while it lasts. [Be a leftist now and damn the distant future.]

        Are you saying rightism is justified because it is well-adapted to the distant future? So what? Do we need to prepare for it today? [As David Peter Jones pointed out, these orientations can change quickly.]

      • You make a lot of claims about what I say or mean, and they are often wrong. Including this one.

      • Well, if you haven’t the time to say what is wrong, I would think one of your acolytes would set me straight, at least on one occasion.

        You become bellicose and authoritarian when you can’t respond. Reliably. Here, I think I understand you exactly, but seeing your ideas expressed succinctly frightens you. I’d be pleased to discover otherwise.

        My first paragraph was flip, with no serious content. Don’t use it to ignore the second, which is that it is illogical to claim rightism is adaptive today because it will be adaptive in the future.

      • zzzz

        If you think you know what he means to say, ask him why he disagrees with it, instead of piling on some bullshit after your initial bullshit.

      • OK, Robin, what did you think I said was wrong?

      • I deny I said “it’s dreamtime, enjoy it while it lasts. [Be a leftist now and damn the distant future.]”

      • Apologies: I can’t substantiate what I thought I recalled about enjoying it while it lasts.

        But a “lot” of wrong claims?

    • “If you care about your descendants not being selected out over the long run…”

      My reaction is, who on earth cares about such a thing? Not any rightist I know of (except, I guess, Robin himself).

      [Since the conditional meaning of “if” is question-begging, I read “if” as meaning “since.”]

  • charlies

    This may also cast light on the otherwise paradoxical value system of the white upper middle class that David Brooks/Charles Murray study.

    The weird Brooks/Murray finding is that this group espouses forager ideals for others, but imposes a sort of Victorianism on themselves. This is because their environment is objectively safe and luxurious, but they inhabit a hyper-competitive niche in it that is actually somewhat hostile: the upwardly mobile professional meritocracy.

    E.g. it is utterly important that little 16 year old Olivia lead a spartan existence that sacrifices all leisure to her 3.8 GPA, AP exams, and tennis team, or else she won’t get into Columbia.

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