On this week’s flights I read Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve by Ian Morris. I thoroughly enjoyed Morris’s big book, Why the West Rules (For Now), a grand sweep of economic and social history in the vein of (Guns Germs and Steel, Collapse) Jared Diamond. This new book is a series of essays based on his 2012 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, with comments/criticisms and a response. So it’s much shorter and less detailed than the previous one, although a very good and enjoyable read nonetheless.
Morris comes across here as a sort of Karl Marx meets Jared Diamond. In a nutshell, his argument is that humanity has grown better at using the prevailing energy technology to acquire more kilocalories of energy for use, up to a ceiling. At that ceiling, a new energy basis for society evolves, importantly affecting population density and the size of human social groups, and replaces the previous social/technical paradigm. Domestication of grains and animals enabled farming to replace foraging. The extraction of fossil fuels and their harnessing as steam power led to industrial societies in place of agrarian ones.
Each of these three paradigms involves a different kind of social relations: egalitarian in foraging societies because co-operation is necessary for hunting and gathering, and nobody has a lot of property; hierarchical ones in agrarian societies because some people accumulate property to be defended, and a biological division of labour between the sexes emerges too; and industrial ones more egalitarian with respect to politics and gender but tolerant of wealth inequality. There has been little if any biological evolution among humans – and through the millennia the same basic characteristics (or even values) such as the capacity for love, a sense of fairness etc, exist – but there has been cultural evolution. Specifically, values evolve, being shaped by interaction with the physical, social and intellectual environment. Is it acceptable to treat women as chattels or to have slaves? Do animals have the right to humane treatment? Does marital fidelity matter? These kinds of values have changed significantly.
Although it seems highly plausible that the material and technical basis of a society plays an important part in shaping its higher level values, and that population density and the size of social groups will be important, there is something that feels a bit deterministic about Morris’s argument. It may be that at this short length the arguments become caricatures, with less scope for nuance, because the four critiques of the argument aren’t all that convincing either.
The book has lots of facts, always appealing to me. For instance, did you know the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron had intercepted and freed 150,000 Africans being shipped across the Atlantic to the US between banning slave trading in 1807 and the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1865?
It ends rather gloomily, pointing out that the big transitions he identfies – from foraging to farming to fossil fuels – occurred when successful societies hit the “hard ceiling of what was possible given their stage of energy capture and found themselves taking part in a natural experiment….. More often than not, people failed to revolutionize their energy capture and suffered Malthusian collapses.”
Perhaps, he muses with unseemly cheer, that’s about to happen to us unless we can solve the climate change issues. So that’s our choice: a catastrophic collapse of civilization, or a new techno-enviro-social paradigm.