Forager v Farmer, Elaborated

Seven years ago, after a year of reading up on forager lives, I first started to explore a forager vs. farmer axis:

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. (more)

Recently I decided to revisit the idea, to see if I could find a clearer story that accounts better for many related patterns. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Our primate ancestors lived in a complex Machiavellian social world, with many nested levels of allies each coordinating to oppose outside rival groups of allies, often via violence. Humans, however, managed to collapse most of those levels into one: what Boehm has called a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Human bands were mostly on good terms with neighboring bands, who they met infrequently. Inside each band, the whole group used weapons and language to coordinate to enforce shared social norms, to create a peaceful egalitarian safe space.

Individuals who saw a norm violation could tell others, and then the whole band could discuss what to do about it. Once a consensus formed, the band could use weapons to enforce their collective decision. As needed, punishments could escalate from scolding to shunning to exile to death. Common norms included requirements to share food and protection, and bans on violence, giving orders, bragging, and creating subgroup factions.

This worked often, but not always. People retained general Machiavellian social abilities, and usually used them covertly, just out of view of group norm enforcement. But sometimes the power of the collective waned, and then many would switch to acting more overtly Machiavellian. For example, an individual or a pair of allies might become so powerful that they could openly defy the group’s disapproval. Or such a pair might violate norms semi-privately, and use a threat of strong retaliation to dissuade others from openly decrying their violations. Or a nearby rival group might threaten to attack. Or a famine or flood might threaten mass mortality.

In the absence of such threats, the talky collective was the main arena that mattered. Everyone worked hard to look good by the far-view idealistic and empathy-based norms usually favored in collective views. They behaved well when observed, learned to talk persuasively to the group, and made sure to have friends to watch and talk for them. They expressed their emotions, and acted like they cared about others.

When they felt on good terms with the group, people could relax and feel safe. They then become more playful, and acted like animals generally do when playful. Within a bounded safe space, behavior becomes more varied, stylized, artistic, humorous, teasing, self-indulgent, and emotionally expressive. For example, there is more, and more varied, music and dance. New possibilities are explored.

A feeling of safety includes feeling safe to form more distinct subgroups, without others seeing such subgroups as threatening factions. And that includes feeling safe to form groups that tend to argue together for similar positions within talky collective discussions, and to disagree with the larger group. After all, it is hard for a talky collective to function well unless members are allowed to openly disagree with one another.

But when the group was stressed and threatened by dominators, outsiders, or famine, the collective view mattered less, and people reverted to more general Machiavellian social strategies. Then it mattered more who had what physical resources and strength, and what personal allies. People leaned toward projecting toughness instead of empathy. And they demanded stronger signals of loyalty, such as conformity, and were more willing to suspect people of disloyalty. Subgroups and non-conformity became more suspect, including subgroups that consistently argued together for unpopular positions.

And here is the key idea: individuals vary in the thresholds they use to switch between focusing on dealing with issues via an all-encompassing norm-enforcing talky collective, and or via general Machiavellian social skills, mediated by personal resources and allies. Everyone tends to switch together to a collective focus as the environment becomes richer and safer. (This is one of the many ways that behaviors and values consistently change with wealth.) But some switch sooner: those better at working the collective, such as being better at talking and empathy, and those who gain more from collective choices, such as physically weaker folks who can’t hunt or gather as well. And also people just generally less prone to feeling afraid as a result of ambiguous cues.

People who feel less safe are more afraid of changing whatever has worked in the past, and so hold on more tightly to typical past behaviors and practices. They are more worried about the group damaging the talky collective, via tolerating free riders, allowing more distinct subgroups, and by demanding too much from members who might just up and leave. Also, those who feel less able to influence communal discussions prefer groups norms to be enforced more simply and mechanically, without as many exceptions that will be more influenced by those who are good at talking.

I argue that this key “left vs. right” inclination to focus more vs less on a talky collective is the main parameter that consistently determines who people tend to ally with in large scale political coalitions. Other parameters can matter a lot in different times and places, but this is the one that consistently matters. This parameter doesn’t matter much for how individuals relate to each other personally, and at smaller social scales like clubs or firms, coalitions form more via our general Machiavellian abilities, based on parameters than matter directly in those contexts. But everyone has an intuitive sense for how much we all expect and want big issues to be handled by a talky collective of “everyone” with any power. The first and primary political question is how much to try to resolve issues via a big talky collective, or to let smaller groups decide for themselves.

This account that I’ve just outline does reasonably well at accounting for many known left-right patterns. For example, the right is more conscientious, while the left is more open to experience. The left prefers more varied niche types of sports, movies, and music, while the right prefers fewer standardized types. Artists, musicians, and comedians tend to be on the left. Right sports focus more on physical strength and combat, stronger men have stronger political opinions, and when low status they favor more redistribution. People on the right are less reflective, prefer simpler arguments, are more sensitive to disgust, and startle more easily.

Education elites are more left than business elites. In romance and spirituality, the left tends to favor authentic feelings while the right cares more about standards of behavior. The left is more spiritual while right is more religious. Left jobs focused more on talking and on a high tail of great outcomes, while right jobs focus more on avoiding a low tail of bad outcomes.

The left is more okay with people forming distinct subgroups, even as it thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally, even across very wide scopes, and including wide scopes in more divisive debates. The right wants to make redistribution more conditional, more wants to punish free riders, and wants norm violators to be more consistently punished. The left tends to presume large scale cooperation is feasible, while right tends to presume competition more. The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.

Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world get richer. Left versus right isn’t very useful for predicting individual behavior outside of politics, even as it is the main parameter that robustly determines large scale political inclinations. People tend to think differently about politics on what they see as the largest scales; for example, there are whole separate fields of political science and political philosophy, which don’t overlap much with fields dealing with smaller scale politics, such as in clubs and firms.

I shouldn’t need to say it but I will anyway: it is obvious that a safe playful talky collective is sometimes but not always the best way to deal with things. Its value varies with context. So sometimes those who are more reluctant to invoke it are right to be wary, while at other times those who are eager to apply it are right to push for it. It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.

I’ve noted before that if one frames left attitudes as better when the world is safe, while right attitudes as better when world is harsh, the longer is the timescale on which you evaluate outcomes, the harsher is the world.

Added 9Sept: This post didn’t say much directly about farmers. In the much larger farmer social groups, simple one layer talky collectives were much less feasible. Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and neighboring groups were more threatening. The farmer world more supported property in spouses and material goods and had more social hierarchies, farmer law less relied on a general discussion of each accused, and more reliable food meant there was less call for redistribution. Farmers worked more and had less time for play.  Together, these tended to reduce the scope of safe playful talky collectives, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

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