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Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve Paperback – March 22, 2015
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"Excellent and thought-provoking. . . . More important, by putting forth a bold, clearly formulated hypothesis, Morris has done a great service to the budding field of scientific history."--Peter Turchin, Science
"A provocative explanation for the evolution and divergence of ethical values. . . . In the hands of this talented writer and thinker, [this] material becomes an engaging intellectual adventure."--Kirkus
"A very good and enjoyable read."--Diane Coyle, Enlightened Economist
"Stimulating."--Russell Warfield, Resurgence & Ecologist
From the Back Cover
"Ian Morris has thrown another curveball for social science. In this disarmingly readable book, which takes us from prehistory to the present, he offers a new theory of human culture, linking it firmly to economic fundamentals and how humans obtained their energy and resources from nature. This is bold, erudite, and provocative."--Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of How Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
"Ian Morris has emerged in recent years as one of the great big thinkers in history, archaeology, and anthropology, writing books that set people talking and thinking. I found delightful things in every chapter ofForagers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, interesting enough that I found myself sharing them with family over dinner. The breadth of reading and the command of the subject are just dazzling. His major argument--that value systems adapt themselves to ambient energy structures, in the same way that an organism adapts to its niche--is fascinating."--Daniel Lord Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain
"This is an important and stylistically excellent book written from a sophisticated materialist perspective. It is eminently readable, lively, and with clearly stated arguments explored in a systematic fashion. In a sense, it follows up on Jared Diamond's work on agricultural origins, and it parallels Steven Pinker's book on warfare in depicting a world that is culturally evolving in a certain direction. Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels should have a serious impact."--Chris Boehm, author of Moral Origins: The Evolution of Altruism, Virtue, and Shame
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In brief, Morris suggests that core human values are evolutionary adaptations, but that these values are somewhat flexible and culturally adaptive. He then divides human history into three realms or phase transitions defined primarily by our rate of energy capture -- foragers, farmers and fossil fuel societies. Then he goes into three specific values which differe dramatically between the phase transitions -- propensity to use violence, egalitarianism and gender equality.
In the first set of chapters he lays out his facts. To those familiar with evolutionary psychology it will seem pretty obvious.
Then a series of people, obviously not familiar with evolutionary psychology or cultural evolution theory tear into Morris' ideas. In general they miss the point by a mile. It is like hearing creationists argue with an evolutionary biologist.
Then, in chapter 10, the book gets good. Morris finally lays out exactly what his thesis is clearly and explicitly.
Here are my thoughts:
1). I am not sure why he focuses on these three values. Are these the only ones which differed dramatically? Are these the only ones he is interested in? Or are they the only ones that support his thesis?
2). On violence it seems he conflate in tribe/ state and between tribe/ state violence. I think these are separate phenomena which require separate analysis.
3). On egalitarianism, he similarly conflates material equality with hierarchical or political dominance. Again, I am not sure why.
4) Morris suggests that each age gets the values it needs. It seems to me that a better explanation is that humans value dominance for themselves and that based upon the social context they are forced to settle for equilibriums. Foragers would love to all be alphas. However, in a world of effective weapons and easy exit where nobody wants to be a beta, the equilibrium point for effective social groups is egalitarianism.
Similarly, each gender would love to be dominant of its counterpart. In Farming societies, men were able to attain the upper hand, and women were forced to submit to thrive. In forager societies this is less true, and modern societies with high energy capture and high standards of living and state security nets and appliances which free women from housework, this is simply no longer true.
The same applies to violence. We may be fine with violence when it serves our needs. Problem is that this creates a struggle and zero sum dynamic. The equilibrium point in forager societies is to maintain peace within the tribe but to fracture and splinter with uncontrollable violence between tribes. In farmers, without exit freedom, tied to the land with some specializing in violence, the natural equilibrium is hierarchy, with the elite caring for their human livestock. In modern liberal states, the optimal equilibrium is networks of voluntary trade and egalitarian rights which shrivel up in environments of violence.
I would agree with Morris that our values are contextually adaptive. I do think that we greatly rationalize and tailor them to conditions. Those in hierarchies rationalize their position, those in violence rationalize and tailor and so on.
The first part of the book presents Morris's central case: that a human value system reflect the constraints on the society that possesses that value system. Specifically, he focusses on "energy capture" -- how many kilocalories a day the average person in a society can command. Initially, when humans were hunter/gatherers, this was very low, creating small populations that needed large ranges to feed themselves. Such cultures tend to be egalitarian and quite violent. As people gradually domesticated plants and animals, the amount of energy that an individual could command jumped, and the evolution into agrarian societies produced a shift in values, to a more hierarchical and less violent structure. Finally, when people gained control over fossil fuels, the amount of energy each member of society could command surged again. The value structure changed rapidly, to a more egalitarian and even less violent model.
In the second part of the book, various commentators give their opinions of Morris's arguments. I was disappointed in this section: many of the arguments seemed to slide by Morris's own case, without much contact. For example, one commentator proposes a "real" value system towards which people strive, without explicitly rejecting Morris's argument that value systems arise from economic and cultural conditions. Things improve in the final section, in which Morris restates his case, rather more explicitly.
This is an odd format, and a short book (particularly given the scope of the subject) but I found it fascinating. On the strength of that, I am now going to read one of Morris's other books, to see if it is as good.
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Basic thesis: how a society captures energy affects its population size and density which in turn favor determinate kinds of social organization for...Read more