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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