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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  • James Cambias

    “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.”

    This does not match current events. It is not the right which is trying to silence dissenting voices, erase distinctions among groups, and narrow debate to a single “acceptable” answer.

    • charlies

      Probably those strategies are common to whichever group has the most power, whether on the right or the left.

      The left has won the culture war, so now they are consolidating their victory by punishing dissenting views. The right cannot culturally punish people in manhattan, so now they are all for diversity of opinion.

  • arch1

    The concern about global climate change possibly imposing harsh penalties on our descendants, driving a push for tough measures in the present to minimize the damage, is coming mainly from the left. On the face of it this seems at odds w/ aspects of the story you present.

    • RobinHanson

      Most people seem to think that the main solution is to create and strengthen a global talking collective, and their reactions are driven to a big extent by whether they are eager for or averse to such a collective.

      • arch1

        I see. So maybe you want to tweak the story a bit, as it currently says “In the *absence* of such threats, the talky collective was the main arena that mattered.” [emphasis mine]

        Other snippets to which the global warming debate seems to be a counterexample:
        “The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.”
        “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.”

        Actually, those last two snippets seem better aligned w/ behavior in the global warming debate if we assume that the right is more concerned with *near-term* threats, and the left with *long-term* threats (i.e. the opposite of the the view expressed in the earlier thread you reference).

      • Dave Lindbergh

        The former of your two snippets seem to fit Robin’s hypothesis very well.

        The left hopes for big gains from stopping (hypothetical damage from) global warming.

        The right worries about the (certain) costs of doing so.

        And the left is eager for global talking collectives (both generally and as needed to coordinate action against global warming), while the right is averse to the same.

      • arch1

        That helps, thanks Dave.

  • Felix9

    I’m a lurker at this site and an amateur in my facility with the topics discussed, but I wonder if you are familiar with James C. Scott at all? It seems to me that you write about very similar topics from very different directions. His most recent book–Against the Grain–is his more relevant work yet RE: farmer/forager.

    • RobinHanson

      I read that book a few months ago.

      • Felix9

        Did you find it mostly wrong? Somewhat compatible? Irrelevant? His goals are certainly different than yours, but I appreciate the lack of concern you both show for disciplinary turf.

  • Lord

    This is a reasonable single axis, but what would be the second major axis? This would be where most of the movement occurs between the two and coalitions shift. It probably isn’t the economic/social division libertarians usually promote.

    • RobinHanson

      Wealth seems the obvious choice to me. It is one of the two main axes of the World Values Survey.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Farmer – Forager is largely the expression of wealth. The two dimensions under your proposal would be essentially related rather than independent. Seems a bad choice.

    • Peter David Jones

      Elite versus populist? I noticed that RH’s examples of left wing taste would describe progressives in the US, where the left part of the L-R axis aligns with the E part of the E-P axis , but in many countries the left is a populist, worker’s movement.

    • Stephen Diamond

      William James’s Tenderminded – Toughminded dimension has had some serious validation. (It just now occurs to me that this dimension is perhaps the same as the Idealist – Cynic dimension, one of some Hansonian moment.)

  • Dave Lindbergh

    I’m skeptical. As Lord said, there must be more than a single left-right axis involved.

    It doesn’t explain the oft-remarked phenomenon of the extremes of left and right “wrapping around” to meet in a very similar place.

    I think there’s a lot of truth in the Forager vs. Farmer model, but this sounds like a tangent in the wrong direction.

    There are lots of people (like myself) who have leftist feelings culturally (quirky sports, movies, music, low fear of change), while being rightish politically (decentralized decisions, pro-competition, pro-spontaneous order). And vice-versa. How does this explain either?

    I think Jon Haidt may be closer to the truth.

    But perhaps adding another axis (or multiple) would resolve some of these problems.

    • RobinHanson

      Not sure how you got the impression I am claiming that one dimension can explain everything.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Probably it was

        “I argue that this key “left vs. right” inclination … is the main parameter”

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  • Stephen Diamond

    Does this amount to a repudiation of your earlier thesis that “equality talk is about taking”? [Here, equality is taken as a genuine far-mode ideal.]

    As a leftist, I’m flattered by this analysis, but I don’t find it too credible. Not only is leftist intolerance of dissent evident in the campus “political correctness” climate, but every leftist regime that has taken state power has suppressed dissent vigorously. This goes back to the leftists leaders of the French Revolution.

    I think to be credible you need to show that your explanation is better than the common one (or is it that common?): leftists are economic egalitarians and rightists inegalitarians. The one thing every leftist regime has delivered on is raising the living standards of the worst off and decreasing the overall level of economic equality. (To my limited knowledge.)

    • RobinHanson

      My description included talky collectives doing more sharing. The left is a bit less threatened on average by verbal dissent, but it is a matter of degree.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Collectivism is the only path to egalitarianism today, but historically egalitarians haven’t always been collectivists. Peasant revolts were individualistic: redistribute the land and abolish debt. Such revolts were of a left character (before the term was applied to politics), as is shown by the program of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, active in Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and universally regarded as a leftist party. Unlike the parties based on the workers (and ideologically on Marx), they demanded (and received by way of compromise) land redistribution – in contrast to the Marxist program of collectivization.

        The relevance is that the thrust of leftism taken across epochs is egalitarian (I’m claiming), not _necessarily_ talky, not necessarily collectivist.

      • RobinHanson

        A peasant revolt is clearly a talky collective event, even if they don’t decide to create a socialist state afterwards. They talk to coordinate having a revolt, then they do a revolt together.

    • RogerSweeny

      The one thing every leftist regime has delivered on is raising the
      living standards of the worst off and decreasing the overall level of
      economic equality. (To my limited knowledge.)

      I do not think that is true of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Though the government’s website assures me that the country “is a genuine workers’ state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression.” And they wouldn’t lie, would they?

      • Stephen Diamond

        After the Communists took power, the North did rather well. The North’s impoverishment is a more recent development. But even today, the worst off in the North may be better off than their equivalent in the South, where half the elderly (for example) are homeless.

      • Daniel Burfoot

        This comment is astonishingly and appallingly ignorant. The worst off in North Korea are literally starving to death. I have lived in Seoul and I can assure you that there are far fewer homeless people than in a typical large American city. In fact, the Wiki page on homelessness by country lists the ROK as having the lowest homeless ratio of any country in the world, at 0.01%, for a total of <5,000 people in a country of 50 million. Furthermore, the life expectancy in the DPRK is less than 70 years, while in ROK it exceeds 80. Destroying 10 years of life per person in a country of 25 million is comparable to killing 4 million people outright.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I have lived in Seoul and I can assure you that there are far fewer homeless people than in a typical large American city.

        Excuse me if I don’t except your “assurance” when it contradicts what has been widely reported in the press. The one-half figure came from an article in the Times. Here’s an example more or less at random from CNN:

        “On a Saturday morning in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, a line forms near a city underpass. It’s filled with homeless elderly people, who wait for Pastor Choi Seong-Won to set up his weekly mobile soup kitchen.”

        This is a fairly recent development due to weakness in the S. Korean economy. Perhaps (giving your honesty the benefit of the doubt) you lived in Seoul before this catastrophe beset the elderly and poor of South Korea.

        As to “starvation” in the North, it is just buffoonish to claim to know what the experts admit ignorance or at least uncertainty.

      • RogerSweeny

        “From the Australian press” says that half the elderly are poor, not that half the elderly are homeless.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I haven’t located the article which said half are homeless, often living in cardboard boxes.

      • RogerSweeny

        The North did rather well? Then they must have mightily fallen. Or I suppose this picture is some anti-Juche fake:

      • Stephen Diamond

        Well, the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was the North’s main ally an trading partner.

      • RogerSweeny

        Yeah, and the people went from barely making it to starving. While under the Military First policy the people with guns had their bellies full. The Kim dynasty can’t afford to lose their support.

      • Stephen Diamond
      • RogerSweeny

        from the article:

        “In the late 1990s, North Korea suffered a major famine that, according to the most recent research, led to between 500,000 and 600,000 deaths. … This year, North Korea enjoyed an exceptionally good harvest, which for
        the first time in more than two decades will be sufficient to feed the
        country’s entire population.
        ” (emphasis added)

      • Stephen Diamond

        Their dependence on external sources for food doesn’t imply they were starving. Moreover, the date of the article is 2014 (re “first time”).

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  • Quite Likely

    Seems quite reasonable that this farmer-forager personality axis helps explain why someone ends up on the political left or right in modern society, but hoping that it will have any insight into which of those is a better idea seems a bit of a stretch.

    • RobinHanson

      I didn’t intend to say that one is better in this post.

  • Peter Thomson

    First up, this is not good anthropology. Yes, foragers are usually very egalitarian (cf Boehm). Yes, day to day they live in bands. But inter-band meetings, leaving one band to join another and so on are frequent (data point – languages need a minimum of 1000 speakers in reasonably frequent contact to be stable – that’s a lot of bands. EG, in Australia, a typical aboriginal language was spoken over anything from 100 to 1000 kms, depending on density).

    Second, the shift to more hierarchy is gradual, but associated with cooperative production – eg in salmon-fishing among the Kwakiutl, eel-farming along the Murray and, most famously, farming. The reasons are elegantly explored by John Levi Martin in Social Structures – hierarchy is the only form that scales. So the driver is not personal or psychological, it’s socio-economic: more cooperation, more food, more people, more hierarchy – and then you’re trapped, because less hierarchy means less production, less people (and vice versa).

    • RobinHanson

      I know of and agree with all you say – why do you think it conflicts with what I’ve said?

      • Peter Thomson

        Not sure if you’re using the foragers/farmers distinction seriously or just as labels. If the former – just where exactly in modern life is anything much decided by informal chat forming a consensus? If the latter, well left/right are not personal inclinations or psychological traits, but positions in a social matrix. See, eg, the very different ways these map in the US as compared to pretty much any other western country, or the recent research that showed even infrequent exposure to Fox News shifted political views rightward.

  • zby

    OK – but it looks like the whole story is about politics in forager groups – where is the farmer/forager angle?

    • RobinHanson

      The farming social scene has a different average from the forager one, more in the scared and so conservative direction.

  • Peter St Onge

    You’re familiar with Paul Rubin’s model of internal vs external domination, yes? Left focusing on internal threats (emphasize equality, coalition with have-nots, diverse opinions as source of new have-nots), right focusing on external threats (emphasize fitness, integrate have-nots, seek internal consensus).

    Whether his or your model, some of these outcomes are also random events. US academia, for example, was not always so left-dominated; presumably our nature isn’t what changed. Also, anecdotally, Taiwanese academia is not more left-wing than business.

    • RobinHanson

      I don’t recall Rubin’s model, but it seems quite consistent with the story I give above.

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  • cwcwcwcwcw

    Very interesting. I think–like you said–the key is that while people have a range of personality that affects how they act politically, the average group political personality sways with conditions.

    I also think that you have to somehow accommodate the different behaviors of men and women, and the different behaviors of dominance motivated/enable men and non-dominant men. A huge amount of what we call history is the result of the actions of a continual supply of a very few–probably psychopathic–men. At a certain point it seems like the shackles of forager community broke allowing the male monsters to wreak the havoc we are so used to over the past few thousand years. My question is, is this concept correct, or did male psychopaths rule hunter/gatherer communities too?

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