This is a review of “Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve” by Ian Morris. The scope of this book is about as big as it gets as Morris is seeking to explain the evolution of values across all of human history. As the introduction states: “Its scope and erudition are astonishing” (p. xii); I couldn’t agree more (and I had to look up what erudition meant). Overall, I found the book very interesting and a quick read. In addition to his theory, Morris includes critiques by three authors, providing an interesting debate about his core ideas. Interested in a grand theory about values, social organization, and cultural evolution (and have an few hours to spare)? If so, I would recommend this book.
What the book is about
The basic thesis Morris puts forth is that as energy capture becomes progressively more efficient, different forms of social organization emerge, creating particular human values. The model is quite simple: energy capture causes social organization which causes values. As he states: “When we look at the entire planet across the last twenty thousand years, …we see three broadly successive systems of human values. Each is associated with a particular way of capturing energy from the world around us” (p.4). The three forms of “energy capture” he identifies are: foraging (i.e. hunter/gatherer), farming (i.e. the domestication of plants and animals), and fossil-fuel (i.e. discovery of heat created through burning coal and the use of heat for motion). As a consequence of different forms of energy capture, there are different values: foraging values (value equality over hierarchy, tolerant of violence), farming values (value hierarchy over equality, less tolerant of violence), and fossil-fuel values (value equality over hierarchy, intolerant of violence). These are ideal-types in the sense that they are conceptual devices that are never empirically observed exactly as described, but help organize empirical phenomena (i.e. qualitatively distinct classes). Morris argues that the time periods for foraging, farming, and fossil-fuels are 20,000 BC to 8,000 BC, 8,000 BC to AD 1000, and AD 1000-present, respectively.
Energy, social organization, and values
The mediating variable in the model put forth by Morris is social organization, and much of the book is dedicated to showing how particular forms of social organization are influenced by energy capture and how this leads to particular values. Under foraging energy capture, there is two key features: high mobility and small groups. Since the food that is gathered through foraging produces little energy, individuals have little else they can do by scrounge for food and hunt. High mobility leads to little to no accumulation of wealth, which leads to no property to pass on to kin. Small groups do not generate a division of labor, impairing role development and, as a consequence, there are no hierarchies. In both cases then, egalitarianism is valued because there are no inequalities to be reinforced through property accumulation. However, because there are no hierarchies, violence is common as a means for maintaining the status quo. Citing fascinating archeological research on the study of fatal trauma in skeletons, Morris shows that violence was shockingly high in foraging societies (about 1 in 10 die violently). As Morris points out, due to the nature of energy capture institutions such as the family are inefficient and not useful: “The shallowness of gender hierarchies and the weakness of martial ties, like the shallowness and weakness of economic and political hierarchies, seems to be a direct consequence of the nature of foraging as a method of energy extraction” (p. 40).
Under farming energy capture, domestication of plants and animals produced substantially more energy than foraging. As a consequence, humans were able to settle (i.e. move around less) and increase social density. Morris points to three major changes in the social organization under farming that lead to a different perspective on hierarchy and violence. First, there was a sexual division of labor where males worked in the fields and females spent more time in the home. Morris argues that the heightened requirements of physical strength for farming provided a competitive advantage to male labor: “as population grew, making land scarcer relative to labor, people worked it more intensively, squeezing more output from each acre through…heavy labor…The further that a society went in this direction, the more men’s upper body strength became a plus in farmwork” (p. 59). The increasing physical demands incentivized dividing labor between males and females. Further, heightened fertility among females meant that they spent more time indoors. The presence of a division of labor helped facilitate the valuation of hierarchy as an acceptable form of organization. Second, the accumulation of property, increasing labor specialization, and an increasingly complex division of labor (due to between-family competition) instilled values that supported hierarchy (through increasing wealth inequality).
This sets up the argument for why farmers were more accepting of violence than foragers. First, Morris argues that, due to market failure, forced labor emerged as an accepted form of production: “low output per premodern farmhand meant that the marginal product of labor was often too small to make wages attractive to people who had any alternative means of supporting themselves” (p. 63-64). This lead to forced labor as a means of mobilizing work beyond just kin: “Using violence to depress the costs of labor to the point that its marginal product became positive for employers made slavery and serfdom the obvious answers…Farming societies seem to have shifted toward forced labor because they had to” (p. 64). Second, the state, or organized monopolization of force, emerges as a collective action problem for increasing social density (because people are increasing energy capture). This instilled the belief that the use of force by divine rulers was legitimate.
Finally, Morris discusses the development of fossil-fuel energy capture and the consequences for social organization and values. The invention of steam power (through the discovery of burning coal for heat and using heat for motion) led to increasing productivity of humans. As a consequence, wages increased and prices dropped, which incentivized individuals to move away from farming toward more specialized labor (in urban settings). Interestingly, Morris points out that the increase of wage labor made forced labor less attractive (a value shift as a consequence of social organization change): “higher wages made forced labor less necessary, …[and] forced labor increasingly struck business interests as an obstacle to growth” (p. 102). Further, the division of labor for males and females was dismantled for two reasons. First, productivity was less related to physical strength, reducing the competitive advantage seen during the farming period. Second, the fundamental shift from “low wage-high mortality-high fertility” to “high wage-low mortality-low fertility” increased time available to females. As Morris states: “before the coming of fossil fuels, the average woman had to spend most of her adult life bearing and rearing children, but once that necessity was removed, parents increasingly preferred investing more heavily in feeding and educating smaller families to breeding as much as possible” (p. 103). While Morris never clearly links changes in social organization to the intolerance of violence in fossil-fuel society, he does emphasize that “the fossil-fuel twentieth century was ten times safer than the world of foragers, and two or three times safer than that of farmers” and that while “violence has not gone away, …the world has never been so safe” (p. 118-119). Thus, the intolerance of violence seems to be the consequence of greater equality and the development of human rights.
It is functionalism, but good functionalism
To recap, the basic model Morris puts forth is: energy capture determines size and density of society which creates a functional social organization which creates functional values. I have included the term “functional” here to emphasize that the argument Morris makes is “functional” in that the existence of some value is explained by the fact that is exists. As Morris states: “the competitive process of cultural evolution shoves us towards whatever values work best at a particular stage of energy capture” (p. 14). Normally, functional analysis is fallacious reasoning because it affirms the consequent (i.e. if A then B, B therefore A) by stating that a particular social organization or set of values exist, therefore they must be functional. For example, Kingsley Davis (1939) argued that one of the reasons prostitution exists is to help strengthen the family by providing a market for residual desires not satisfied by the spouse. The problem with the logic here is that, since something exists, it must be functional, therefore you simply have to identify the function (rather than an alternative reasoning which my point to weak institutions, for example). However, the approach Morris takes is different in two ways. First, he identifies a mechanism that produces functional values. That is, a particular form of energy capture produces the “ideas it needs” (eerily structural functionalist language) because energy capture influences social organization, which then creates values that will support it. Second, he provides an astonishing amount of empirical support for each link in the model. By starting from the ultimate cause (form of energy capture), he avoids much of the problems confronted by functional analysis.
As I said above, if you are interested in a grand theory about values, social organization, and cultural evolution (and have an few hours to spare), I would recommend this book.
The office water cooler heard a lot of concern regarding the police in America lately. A typical evening newscast would lead you to believe that police abuse of authority is a national crisis sparking public interest in accountability and legitimacy over the last two years. What is often overlooked, however, is that the majority of Americans express a great deal of respect for the police. Gallup polling has consistently shown rates at 60% or above since 1992. That is nearly a quarter of a century in which a sizable majority respects the legitimacy of authority exerted by police. Moreover, the US fairs well with other wealthy countries which consistently show that prosperity and effective policing go hand in hand. Yet, these same studies indicate that lack of confidence in the police is concentrated among disadvantaged groups, and not just in the United States. What this boils down to is the simple fact that concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic.
The media and federal government would lead you to believe otherwise. As we enter the brave new world of recorded interactions between the citizenry and police, policymakers and communities have identified body-worn cameras as a device capable of repairing the legitimacy of police in American communities. President Obama recently announced the “Body Worn Camera Partnership Program” which provides funding to departments to purchase body worn cameras. The President emphasized that such actions are necessary to alleviate the “simmering distrust” of the police as agents of social control in many communities.
But is on-officer video technology needed everywhere? The widespread support for body cams follows partly from the perception that body cameras are a necessary feature of legitimate authority. This suggests that departments which do not adopt cameras will be questioned. “If you don’t have cameras, what are you trying to hide?” Such logic rests on the assumption that body cameras will resolve issues of legitimacy and that all departments are struggling with the same problems. But this is simply not the case, as the crisis of legitimacy is a localized one: not all police departments suffer from such concerns. Departments adopt the cameras to solve existing organizational goals, in this case, transparency. But, not all departments are facing this as an organizational challenge. Most departments in most cities have high regard by citizens. However, as large departments adopt cameras to address existing organizational challenges, other departments will mimic those larger agencies to gain legitimacy, whether they need to or not. This is a basic problem of normative isomorphism, where organizations mimic other organizations to gain legitimacy.
So what? The problem is that cameras are not cheap, and these resources may be better spent elsewhere within the department or the in the city at large. As the famous economist Milton Freedman has been (incorrectly) credited with saying: there is “no free lunch,” meaning that any evaluation of a program should consider, not just the cost of the program, but the costs of not spending the money on other programs. In addition to the cost of body cameras themselves, there are the far larger costs of video storage (if you pay a monthly fee for cloud or local backup of your own media you know what I mean), time for supervisors to audit and review files (how many of you actually clean out old media you don’t need in your computer?), back-end retrieval and video tagging software, and redaction. Equipping every officer with a camera that is on at all citizen contacts is ideal if you own stock in Taser or electronic storage, but may not be best for smaller departments with limited resources. Those costs may be better spent by the department or even on other public services (e.g. schools, roads, health).
Technological innovations, however well-meant, have non-pecuniary costs as well. Requiring police to turn on video cameras whenever they interact with citizens will increase the likelihood of capturing rare use-of-force events, but the tradeoff is that they can mechanize natural human interactions that are the cornerstone of building trusting relationships and cultural sensitivity. In the wake of White House’s recent announcement to limit police use of military equipment, it is important to acknowledge that cameras attached to police officer’s heads and used in citizen’s private homes can have a similar dehumanizing effect on citizens and officers, and the way their social transactions unfold. Is it not conceivable that on-officer video will be adopted to solve problems that disproportionately impact minority communities, but their deployment may in the long run result in the greatest costs to those communities they’re intended to benefit?
At the heart of the issue of on-officer video technology is the contradictory impact that it can have on actual police accountability on the one hand, and public perceptions of police accountability on the other hand. Legitimacy is eroded when people don’t trust the police and when they believe police don’t treat them fairly and respectfully. Ironically, a technology that is designed to create greater accountability for individual officers may reduce the legitimacy of policing as an institution in the eyes of the American public.