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.