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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