Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

A group of elephants attempts to describe a human being. Tragically, they are blind, but as each snuffles and nudges they call out what they perceive and together they are able to come up with a description.

With this trope, I give you Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, a brilliant book—with limitations. It’s well worth reading, and I’ll tell you why, but first allow me to unpack my pachydermal metaphor. By elephants, I mean intellectual heavyweights. By blind, I mean unschooled or undertrained in the emerging sciences of human nature.

Principal author Ian Morris, historian, archaeologist and anthropologist, appreciates the usefulness of evolutionary theory to explain human universals. His book, which grew out of the 2012 Tanner Lectures, aims at establishing a link between human values in various societies and the forms of energy capture those societies employ. In Morris’s catchy phrase, “each age gets the thought it needs.”

Tautology alert! But Morris has both intellectual depth and a deft sense of humor, so be assured that this is an instance of tongue-in-cheek oversimplification. His principal claim is this: that the three main historical ways societies have organized to capture energy—foraging, farming, and fossil fuel extraction—shape the ways people interpret their biologically evolved values.

A prime instance, he argues, is the contrast between the values of foragers, better known to us as hunter-gatherers, and those of farmers. Foragers, he argues, are highly egalitarian and accepting of violence. Farmers, by contrast and of necessity, reject egalitarian and violent values.

I don’t mean to caricature his views. Morris certainly recognizes that there’s a gender division of labor and status among the sexes in forager societies, just as there is among farmers, but he argues that the degree of difference is so great as to become categorical. What’s more, he presents charming instances of how foragers quash petty dictators. “Among Paliyan foragers in South India, Hadza in Tanzania, and Ngukurr in Australia, for instance, ambitious men are regularly brought down by mockery of their pretensions.” If only the Daily Show had such power!

There’s no denying that farming communities everywhere evolved into massively hierarchical societies, with monarchs or priestly oligarchs at the apex and slaves or serfs at the bottom. Fossil fuel societies, he suggests, have evolved into low-violence, politically egalitarian formations that nevertheless tolerate economic inequality.

Did the differing ways of making a living determine how our evolved sense of fairness played out? Morris says yes, and he argues for a selection effect at work: “Liberalism and democracy have spread around the world because the industrial revolution has spread around the world; and because liberal, individualist values are the ones that work best in Industria [his term for the industrial world].”

Fitting all of this into an evolutionary framework is challenging. We’ll look into that in a moment, but let’s pause to appreciate the virtues of this book. In a world where the social sciences tend to be dominated by the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber— a tradition that ignores evolution and looks on society as the organic, causal force in human affairs—and in a world where much of the humanities has come under the sway of postmodernist anti-empiricism, it is indeed a cause for celebration when the Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University chooses to peer at the world through an evolutionary lens. That Morris backs his case with data, much of it plotted on graphs, should elicit cheers. Even more laudable is his willingness to include critics’ essays in his book. More books should be like this.

Nevertheless, both Morris and to an even greater extent his detractors fail to fully apprehend what science tells us about human nature.

Richard Seaford, a professor of ancient Greek literature, avoids the subject, arguing instead that Morris has overlooked the diversity of past cultures. Jonathan Spence, a historian of China, makes a similar rejoinder. “If I have a criticism of Morris’s work,” he writes, “it springs from a certain blandness in his picture of the world.” Philosopher Christine Korsgaard chides Morris for inferring from his research that real values do not exist. Hers is an extremely interesting chapter, and to try to sum it up here will do injury to her argument that moral progress is real, and that its object is real values. She ends by wondering aloud whether Morris is a moral skeptic “who does not believe that anything has any real moral value at all.”

Novelist Margaret Atwood contributes some piquant observations. She spots the hardest thing of all to notice: an omission. Morris, she notes, has failed to include herder societies. In his wrap-up chapter, he acknowledges the fault.

The inclusion of critics brings about a happy result, for Morris claims the last word in a final chapter, puckishly titled “My Correct Views on Everything.” In it he clarifies many things, including how he applies evolutionary theory. “[A]t no point… did energy capture make anyone adopt hierarchy,” he writes.

Rather, in situations where steep hierarchies worked well to produce large populations and efficient organizations (which means through most of the twelve millennia since the end of the Ice Age), societies that moved in that direction reaped rewards.

Is this a proper use of evolutionary theory? The notion that evolution works for the benefit of species has been debunked, and the related idea that natural selection favors groups in competition with one another draws support only from biologists whose names begin with “W.”

That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s a pity that Morris did not include David Sloan Wilson or E.O. Wilson among his respondents. Either of these champions of multilevel selection would have been able to offer an enriching critique of his thesis.

I am no expert, but even to my eye some of Morris’s claims appear dubious. Human nature, he argues, lies between the ultra-hierarchical gorillas and the egalitarian bonobos, but this spectrum has only relative truth. The fixed evolutionary truth is that everyone, be they bonobo or human, is driven to optimize their genetic interests under the prevailing environmental conditions—including social conditions.

This means, for one thing, that even bonobos fall into dominance hierarchies. Both males and females in all primate species do their damnedest to dominate, manipulate, and cheat their way to evolutionary success. Those that don’t find themselves expelled from the gene pool.

Yet, most readers will not find themselves engaged in Hobbes’s war of all against all. What makes the difference? Is it just that energy-capture opportunities set off competitions among variously organized groups to exploit them, and the most efficient form of organization prevails, giving rise to certain values? Perhaps.

But a different evolutionary interpretation might fit. It might be that the drive to maximize individual advantages (on behalf of one’s genes) is where we should look for causal explanation. If circumstances reward violence, we can predict that raiding, kidnapping, and warfare will proliferate. If circumstances make room for one person to dominate, we can predict that a tyrant will emerge, and that even if people hate the tyrant they will express support. But since most people cannot hope to profit from violence or to become a monarch, they will struggle to create institutions that protect their rights and maximize their advantages. “Egalitarianism,” which secretly no one really wants (on this view), becomes a convenient tool for undermining the power of the tyrant. Perhaps, then, evolved values (“I want my children to succeed”) are constant, but what people say (“All men are created equal”) is a tactical expression of pseudovalues.

After all, does anyone really want to bow down to a monarch? Or do they just find it expedient, if living under one, to profess their loyalty to the crown? Does anyone want a kill-or-be-killed system of peacekeeping, or do they just find that vowing to defend their honor is the only hope for deterring aggression?

This sketch hardly amounts to an authoritative rebuttal. My point is not that Morris is necessarily wrong, but that evolutionary arguments about values, or any other aspect of human thought and behavior, are easy to launch and hard to anchor. At the least, anyone making one must consider alternative hypotheses.

So does fossil fuel capture determine our contemporary values? There’s no denying that democracy, egalitarianism, and peace have made great strides since the Industrial Revolution. Yet consider this: both  Norway and Russia have prospered from fossil fuel extraction, but one has given the world a model social democracy, while the other presents us with Vladimir Putin.

For too long, history, along with the humanities and social sciences generally, has been grounded in ideologies that were either unscientific or anti-scientific. Not everything need be science, of course. But without a scientific understanding of human nature, we risk calamitous errors—the greatest modern example being Marxism. Its predictions of a stateless worker’s utopia grotesquely misfired because Marx and Engels had no grasp of two fundamental facts about human nature: we are evolved to favor ourselves and our kin over others and to seek our optimal place in dominance hierarchies. Understanding evolution’s influence on human history is a worthy task, and the attempt makes this book amply worth reading. The last chapter, however, has yet to be written.