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Ian Morris on Foragers, Farmers, Industry, & Ems
The book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris will be published March 22. As I don’t see any other reviews on the web, it seems I get to be the first. This is from the publisher’s blurb:
Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. … Fundamental long-term changes in values, Morris argues, are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need—from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. … The ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out—at some point fairly soon—not to be useful any more.
I’m delighted that, like me, Morris divides human history into three great eras of foraging, farming, and industry. Furthermore, Morris suggests that a new era may start by 2082, perhaps based on brain emulations of the entire human population. He notes that these different past eras have been associated with dramatically different values, and suggests that the next era will also have very different values. So far remarkably similar to what I’ve been saying here for years!
Morris resists the idea that some eras have correct values while others have incorrect values. Instead he sees each era’s values as adapted to the environment of that era, i.e., to its technical methods of production and survival. Morris also sees the modes of energy production as central and even defining of those environments. Which is why he calls our industry era the “fossil fuel” era.
Morris does little to argue for the centrality of energy production tech in era environments. He doesn’t identify possible alternative centrality concepts with which to compare his view, nor does he offer evidence that might distinguish his energy-centrality from other views. Instead, Morris seems content to just assume energy centrality. While this stance didn’t at all persuade me of energy centrality, nothing anything else in his book seems to actually depend on this claim. So I’m happy to just set it aside, and focus on other issues.
Morris’s most interesting claim is that values during each era were adapted in great detail to the environments of those eras. And Morris fills up most of his book with details on both the environments and values of past eras. Enough details to make it clear that different eras did in fact have distinctively different environments and values. There are in fact typical forager environments, typical forager values, and so on for farming and industry. Yes there are exceptions, but that doesn’t invalidate the basic patterns.
However, Morris actually doesn’t try very hard to give specific explanations matching the specific features of each typical environment to specific features of each typical value set. It seems that his belief in strong adaptation of values to environments isn’t much based on such specific matches. Instead, Morris mainly just seems to be very impressed by how consistently different were the environments and values of each era. It is as if he reasons “why would all the farming values be like each other, and yet so different from foraging values, if not for being adaptations to the new distinct farming environment?”
Now I do pretty much accept this story regarding the foraging and farming eras. But this is because those eras lasted so very long, and we can see so much selection among units that could plausibly produce this adaptation. Foragers and farmers were both literally dirt poor, and so it didn’t take that much of a relative advantage to kill off one group and replace it with another. Foragers lasted for many thousands of generations, long enough to create enormous variance in the success of specific lineages and specific local cultures. And while the farming era lasted only a few hundred generations, we can see in history wave after wave after wave of cultures being displaced by other cultures, via war and famine and much else.
But while it is hard to deny great selection of cultures, including their values, during the foraging and farming eras, the case for selection seems to me to be far weaker for our industry era. Industry has seen less than a dozen generations of humans, and most of them are today rich enough to suffer little selection from insufficient material wealth. Yes, we have seen terrible wars, but they have been small and rare enough to impose only very mild selection pressures.
Now we do more plausibly see a lot of selection in industry era work and organization practices. Enough firms are born and die fast enough to accumulate a lot of selection pressure. In addition, to a modest degree firms can copy the practices at more successful firms, and so adapt without dying. And all this can plausibly explain a great many particular changes in the physical and social technologies used by such firms.
However, the “values” that Morris has in mind as being adapted to each era are grand things like favoring democracy, open markets, gender equality, and rule of law, and disfavoring violence, slavery, and wealth-inequality. The World Values Survey has tracked changes in such values and found that they are not much attributable to more successful nations displacing other nations, or even more successful people replacing others within a nation.
Instead the literature on cultural value change suggests that it is the same people who are changing their values over time, and that this change is caused to a substantial extent by increasing wealth. This does not look like selection at all, but looks instead like the revealing of a common internal conditionality in human values. Because our values are conditional on our wealth, they naturally move toward the industry-era value set as we get rich. My guess here is that we are reverting to forager era values, at least outside of work, as we less feel the strength of farmer-era pressures like fear, religion, and conformity.
In his book, Morris does mention that some people have challenged his claim that industry values are adapted by pointing to our low and falling industry era fertility rates, which seem very hard to understand as adaptive behavior. In response, Morris points out that we haven’t seen the long term effects of that low fertility yet, and notes that the low fertility rich might still win in the future by becoming highly copied brain emulations. But even if that ends up happening, it seems hard to see low industry fertility as an adaptation designed to produce that outcome.
But even if I disagree with Morris about the causes of industry era value changes, I can still agree that the values of the next era are likely to be quite different from industry era values, and that those values would be well adapted to that next era. While I’m not sure what reasons Morris would offer for that claim, my reasons are specific to my analysis of the details of a new era based on brain emulations.
In my analysis, wages fall to subsistence levels, margins of survival are slim, and competition is strong. That should plausibly reverse industry era changes due to increasing wealth per person, and create a lot of selection. In addition, greatly increased brain emulation speeds allow many generations of changes to happen in short clock times, allowing for more variation and selection of individuals and practices.
In sum, Morris gets an awful lot right about history, and about the future. I just wish he had attended a bit more to the details of how values get selected, and which values are in fact adaptive in which environments.
Added 9a: I gave no direct quotes because the book copy I have forbids that.